So much of what might determine his success is the situation at UCLA – what he inherits. But also, the questions are – Can he change things? Was he a good choice?
When it comes to what he inherits, Guerrero will walk into an athletic department that needs a spring cleaning, to say the least. In recent years, under Pete Dalis, the football and basketball programs have fallen a bit in disrepair. Dalis himself will readily admit and has – that he didn't have the "energy" in the last several years necessary for the job. Without the "energy" to stay on top of the programs, to monitor the coaching staffs, their efforts and the overall direction of the programs, it has subsequently left both of the major programs in need of refurbishing. The results have been external as well as internal. Externally, in the last several years, it's difficult to come up with a 3-year period in UCLA's history when both the football and basketball teams were as unsuccessful and plagued with turmoil. The football team is 17-17 in the last three seasons with only one bowl appearance, a loss. In 1989 to 1991, the football team went 15-16-1. But in one of those years, it went to a bowl game and ended the season ranked 18th in the country. In the early 60s, between 1962 and 1964, UCLA was 10-20 in football over three years and the head coach, Bill Barnes, was fired in 1964. But at least UCLA fans could live through the success of the basketball teams those years, when John Wooden led his teams to a combined 78-11 and two national championships. If you go by winning percentage, finish in the Pac-10, and finish in the NCAA tournament, there have been a couple of comparable 3-year periods in basketball, such as the period under Hazzard in the mid-80s, and even Wooden in the late 50s when he was first establishing the program.
But to find a time when both the football and basketball programs had, combined, done as poorly as they have in the last three years, you probably have to go back to 1943-1945. The football team went 10-17 and the basketball team went 34-48.
So, it's been about 56 years since UCLA fans have had to tolerate the combined mediocrity in both the football and basketball programs of the last three years. And that's not even taking into consideration the internal issues with both programs. And you'd have to say that the last three years, if you combine the off-the-court problems of both programs, it ranks right up there with the most problematic three-year period in school history.
Even though this is slightly depressing to bring this up, and the pessimists talk about how nothing and no one can make real change at UCLA, there is also the optimistic viewpoint: UCLA has had its least successful three-year stint in 56 years, and it can only go up from here.
If you're Dan Guerrero, you have to be loving this history lesson. Coming in, after an athletic director who said he lacked the "energy" in the last several years, on the heels of arguably the worst three-year period in football and basketball combined in the school's history, he's got to be thinking that expectations are pretty low and if he accomplished just a modicum of success in the near-future he'll be hailed as a hero.
He'd be right.
First off, Guerrero will have a great chance to improve the overall work habits and atmosphere of the athletic department. The last several years in the UCLA athletic department have created a vacuum of mediocrity and stagnation. Guerrero, by just emphasizing hard work, will be able to make an impact on this front immediately. One person in the athletic deparment joked to me after Guerrero was hired, saying that he/she thought that, over the next several months, the athletic department will get the most work done it has in years. I asked why, and this person responded, "Since everyone will be working hard for the first time in years to prove to Guerrero they're hard workers."
So, really, any of the candidates who were among the final four or so probably would have been able to make an impact merely due to the difference any of them would bring to the athletic department in terms of "energy." In my book, Guerrero has an advantage right there.
Another of the general isues is: Could any new athletic director, just not Guerrero, get anything done at UCLA? There are many associated with UCLA that are pessimistic, citing that the school is so mired in bureaucracy that it's near-impossible to get anything substantial done. But in my opinion, the mindset of the last 20 years or so around the athletic department is mostly responsible for this. Who's to say that a new, energetic, visionary approach to the athletic director job couldn't change the status quo at UCLA, and even shake up things a bit at Murphy Hall? There's no way to tell just how much the philosophy and approach of the last 20 years created the inert, can't-do-it attitude within the athletic department, and how much, now that we're in a new era, it can be changed. But you'd have to think, with a new man at the helm, there's a definite chance.
And that leads us to the main issue – whether Dan Guerrero is the right man for the job and whether he was a good choice for the new athletic director.
Over the last couple of months I've been talking to many different people who are very familiar with the former candidates for the job. These people consisted of ex-athletes, athletic administrators, media, friends, enemies, and even some relatives. I collected quite a bit of information on all of them, some fact, some from first-hand experience, and some opinions based on experience. I've heard the good and bad about just about all of the candidates. But, a couple of weeks ago I started to realize that I actually hadn't heard anything negative about Guerrero. Everyone I spoke with raved about him. Many of the people who spoke about the other candidates would provide me the good and the bad of a candidate, but with Guerrero there was only good.
On paper, he's a great fit. He's a Bruin, so he has the passion for the school that you want. But he's also an outsider – someone who can come in with a fresh perspective. He's been in the UC system, so he knows all the ins and outs of dealing with the UC system. He's young enough that he'll have the time to get something substantial done, while old enough to have the life experience necessary for the job.
But here are some of the things I've heard about him not on paper:
-- He knows sports. He knows both basketball and football very well. He knows the landscape of both college sports, and knows what's going on in the sport. He's not naive, but very knowledgeable about the trends and the feelings in college football and basketball – the buzz around the college football and basketball communities. He's a guy that talks with many people in the college sports communities, from coaches and administrators to ex-players and scouts. He's been known to go out after a game with coaches and reporters, and they say he sits back and mostly listens and soaks it up. So many people I spoke with who were coaches, scouts, or even reporters said that Guerrero had used them at times to pick their brain. He's a guy that knows about the sports from the inside out. So, he comes to the table with some good, solid information himself, rather than relying on the information that comes to him directly – and filtered -- from the programs.
-- He's very sharp. A number of people who have had dealings with him were particularly impressed with how intelligent and intuitive he was.
-- He demands a high degree of effort. People at UC Irvine respected his work ethic – and the work ethic he demanded from those around him – the most about him. Some sources close to him said he was a tireless worker, and that when said in the press conference that he wants to "fire out" every night, it wasn't just hyperbole. Many people who know Guerrero repeated this: If anyone in the UCLA athletic department, including coaches, wants to keep their job, if they aren't already working their ass off, they'd better start.
-- He wants to win. The word is that he's one of those guys that will go all out to win.
-- He knows how to build successful programs. As he said in the press conference, there are "absolutes," and apparently he has a pretty firm and clear idea of the aspects of a program that are needed to make them successful. He has a strict plan for building programs, and it's been very successful at Irvine and Dominguez Hills.
-- He has the vision and imagination. Many close to him were the most impressed with the limitless scope of his vision. There were a couple of people who said that Guerrero came up with what they thought were overly ambitious projects – that he subsequently succeeded in completing.
-- A good source said that Guerrero was offered the job but didn't immediately accept it. Before he did, he wanted assurances from UCLA's administration that he'd have the power to get things done. With that, and from other things that I've heard, he took the job because he felt he'd have that power.
-- Many of the biggest and best boosters in the UCLA community, the ones that have the ambitious vision for UCLA and believe UCLA should be king of the world in college sports, back Guerrero.
When I started working up a "profile" on Guerrero, it was becoming obvious that he was probably the best choice for the job. That was the primary reason I didn't think he'd get the position. It's almost a revelation that UCLA actually did pick Guerrero. We'll have to chalk this one up to a circumstance where it does work out the way you had hoped.
One person close to the Guerrero situation, that knows him fairly well, said that while everyone talks about "new eras," that it really is a new era in UCLA sports. Given the era that UCLA sports is now emerging from, and given Guerrero's capabilities, this person said they thought that UCLA, within a few years, will be the dominant power on the west coast in both football and basketball.
When I asked this source, then, if what he was saying is that Guerrero could awaken the Sleeping Giant, he said, "The Sleeping Giant just got an early morning wake-up call."