UCLA Football 2006: Why Not Now?

Our resident columnist, Charles Chiccoa, takes a first crack at the upcoming football season -- trying to keep us all from jumping overboard -- or on board -- before even the first fall camp snap. If you want a balanced perspective, one maybe slightly tinged with optimism, read on...

Had lunch a few weeks ago with a knowledgeable, moderately cranky friend of mine, and it was just like talking to "Cynical Dan, the Bad Bruin Fan." Already he's prepared to be disappointed… and enjoying it. He sees the Bruins finishing no better than 5th in conference and thinks 8-4 would be phenomenal. Actually his modest expectations jibe pretty much with the preseason rags and the rest of the national media, which sees UCLA finishing in the middle of the conference, trailing SC (naturally), Cal, Oregon and ASU. In one of these rags, Jon Wilner, ex-Daily News, Bruin beat writer, actually picks them to finish behind Oregon St.! Jon sounds like some bitter ex-wife who gave UCLA the best years of his life. 

Preseason betting lines have the Bruins a huge underdog at South Bend, and a big 'dog at Cal, and at home to SC. When the first football polls come out, bet on the Bruins being right back in that low rent, "others receiving votes" box. Same as it ever was (or so it seems). Not that preseason crystal gazing means jack, but these things, as we've noted, do measure perception, which is important in its own right. In any case, 10-2 hasn't garnered much respect.    

Ever since the Blues/Cranks formulation took hold here, some BROs have been wishing for something subtler, more expressive … something even a cognitive "dissonant" could get to without feeling stereotyped or misunderstood: Cranky Blues, loyal Cranks, Blanks, that sort of thing. No one likes being labeled, rendered in broad strokes, even when the label seems to fit. So, in the spirit of expanding our little paradigm, let me suggest yet another third way, thanks to BROther Iniomy's reposting of BruinYurk's message immediately following last year's stampede at the Coliseum. Upon discovering it, I could honestly say, "Today I feel like a Yurk."

For those who missed it, here's a brief review of The World According to Yurk. First, a statement of principle: "Reality breeds pragmatism." [What could be more American?]. Then this: "Yurks are proactive in nature." They don't whine, they don't dream, they don't hope. Yurks take their time studying the facts. They are neither romantic nor cynical. They see football as "a balance sheet, assets and liabilities. Enhance the assets and methodically remove the liabilities," but with passion, and without pity. Finally, "Yurks will travel to El Paso at the same time they scour resumes for the right DC. It was Yurks [along with good fortune] that rebuilt SC after the Hackett disaster and it will be Yurks that continue Bruin football's rise." There was also something about "street fights" and "burning down your house," but that was just rhetoric (one hopes). Anyway, it sounds like a combination fighting Blue/Crank-with-heart sort of thing. What's not to like (though I'll never be Yurk enough to buy a ticket for El Paso). 

If preseason doesn't spark at least a flicker of optimism in your heart you may be a somewhat anxious, high-strung, even unhappy person. Falstaff you're not. I mean, they'll be time enough to bite your fist in frustration at halftime of the Utah game (if, that is, the Bruins haven't kicked their maddening habit of spotting the opposition several touchdowns). Right now, in the run-up to pre-season, before we've even seen the team in shells, is no time to be guaranteeing defeats and scaring the rest of us with inflated, blind scouting reports on the opposition. All I am saying is give reality a chance. Let time work its will, at least until the first high ankle sprain in practice.  

                                             ***

In the strict, practical sense, this year is no make-or-break proposition for Karl Dorrell. Considering the new contract, the administration is obviously relieved and delighted with last year's 10 wins, and you can be sure KD is several places removed from any "hot seat." As always, you get the distinct impression that, from the administration's point of view, he couldn't be a much better "representative of the university." But for those who opposed the hiring from the start, based on his "unreadiness," and those who have joined the Contras along the way, based on what they've seen over the last three years, those peculiar 10 wins haven't made a dent in their skepticism. The bomb throwers aren't about to lay down their arms and surrender. In fact. their frustration has been compounded by the 10 wins, four of which they dismiss as flukes. They reason that had those four gone the other way, KD might indeed be one step from the door (Does any of this sound familiar?). So now Cranks are plagued by visions of Terry Donahue (17 more years!) dancing in their heads. Do I exaggerate? Try plowing through any of those "War and Peace"-length threads involving a KD subject line and there it is… all the old arguments (on both sides) dressed up and made to dance once again. 

Just as each succeeding game during the year becomes increasingly important, so also does each succeeding season reflect upon a coach's image, his standing with the fans and media -- in short, his reputation. And with KD you have to factor in the unavoidable specter of Pete the Impaler, squatting across town, grinning and dry-washing his hands in anticipation of another Bruin slaughter ("You know what's going on here"), which is to say that no matter how much the administration may support him, KD's not exactly in the catbird seat. Pete's made it abundantly clear how contemptible he thinks we all are. Face it, Pete's our daddy, and he revels in it, just as we would if we held the whip hand. Until the Bruins stand up and slap the crap out of him, beat him, or at the very least get his pulse pounding, nothing is going to change. Win and advance… win and advance.

"Turning the corner" depends on where you're at, where you've set the bar, and that peculiar 10-2 didn't quite do it for me either, not with those two embarrassing wipeouts. On that I'm a bit cranky. After one more encouraging start came one more disappointing finish. TD's one and only memorable quote was "the games they remember are the games in November." Too true. Progress? Sure, but it's been somewhat overdue. Granted, KD wasn't following Dick Vermeil, didn't inherit his extraordinary Buckeye killers. On the contrary, he had Bob Toledo's mess to clean up. And I'm in no way suggesting we throw back those great heart-stoppers of last October; they were great wins, well earned, each one of them memorable. But we all know there was a wafer-thin margin between 10-2 and even 6-6. And, yes, the wins could fall short of double figures this season, yet the season be judged more satisfying so long as there are no stinkers on the order of Arizona and SC (come to think of it, Northwestern wasn't all that sweet smelling).

It does feel as if the present coaching staff is the most genuinely competitive (dare we say professional) staff KD has put together, and all credit to him. When he landed the job, KD was a coaching no-name, and likely because he had so little weight he wound up with consolation coordinators, both of whom turned out to be disasters. For a head coach who operates as a "manager," instead of coordinating one side of the ball, himself, KD is more obviously at the mercy of his coordinators than, say, an Urban Meyer or a Charlie Weis.

Despite the 10 wins, questions, as usual, surround the new Bruin season. Can DeWayne Walker radically change the soft image, the soft reality, of the woebegone Bruin defense? Will the newly promoted Jim Svoboda (along with KD), continue to open up the Bruins rather predictable offense (and how much difference will the shotgun make?). Will there be any negative effects of such a huge staff turnover? (highly doubtful.) And of course the biggest question of all: Can the obviously talented Ben Olson shake off the accumulated, competitive rust of four years of inaction? (Wasn't it Norm Chow who was so dubious about quarterbacks coming off Mormon missions?)    

                              ***

You must have noticed how all the preseason scouting reports on the Bruins lead with the loss of Maurice Drew, Marcedes Lewis and Drew Olson, with little consideration for the quality of their replacements. No one ever talks about UCLA "reloading." When they do, you'll know by that word the elusive corner of perception has been well and truly turned. So right now each of us has to go with our gut, at least until after Utah. Practices may answer questions for the coaches and players, they may uncover possibilities, good and bad, few of us had anticipated… but everyone, coaches, players, you and me… we'll all have to wait for the season to unfold before things even begin to come clear. All of which shouldn't (and certainly won't) keep us here from guessing, discussing and trading cyber punches - all of it, naturally, within the usual limits of our elevated, non-agenda driven, grace.                       

With no more Steve Axmans or Larry Kerrs to bother our sleep, I wouldn't worry too much about any personnel disadvantages the Bruins might face (with the obvious exceptions of Notre Dame and SC, and even there I want to wait and see how the season shakes out). I know a lot of Bruins are talking up '07 as "the year," but what's wrong with now? Granted, Ben's got to become at least a facsimile of the savior he's been painted as… either that or Patrick Cowan better be one king-hell sleeper. But after witnessing the Drew Olson transformation, I refuse to count out any ambulatory quarterback with at least the prerequisite skills (though, admittedly, Drew had banked a wealth of experience). I think its Walker, however, who seems the surest bet at the moment. Combine the little we saw in the winter sessions with Walker's fairly impressive NFL pedigree, his emphasis on unit efficiency, and just his formidable, stand-up presence (what a change!) and I can't help believing he's what the Bruins have been looking for since Rocky Long packed up and went home. It also can't hurt him to be following that long, sad procession of failed DCs. For too long, UCLA's been fighting with one arm tied behind its back (either offensive or defensive). The Bruins haven't been a whole team since '97.

In addition to added depth, in the form of young players who've seen significant playing time, there also seems to be an unusually large number of intriguing, incoming freshmen. I count a surprising number who could see the field this year (They'll be time enough for player evaluations once everybody actually starts hitting each other and competing for jobs.)   

Winning on the road in a major conference is never easy, but the early schedule again sets up well. The Bruins should be favored in their first five games. Last season's first moment of truth - passed with flying colors - came in game #3, Oklahoma. This season's equivalent may be game #6, at Oregon. If the Bruins can get out of Eugene with a victory, and if they roll into South Bend with some confidence and attitude, and if they can make it competitive, UCLA should finally gain genuine respect. Lots of ifs… I understand… but not totally Looney Tunes. It's a shame this one isn't in the Rose Bowl, but then you can't play them all at home (certainly not in this conference).

The Pac-10 looks to be more wide open this year, and it's not as if the conference is rich in great senior quarterbacks or even coaching geniuses: no, not even Pete. I know this may seem crazy, and I concede the… uh… guy is obviously a demon recruiter, has brass balls, is an extremely good defensive coach… but he's also been damned fortunate, don't you know. He's fallen into the perfect spot, which is why it's always been a pipedream to think he'd ever willingly leave SC for another shot at NFL failure and a return to the irrelevant. He loves his newfound fame, loves winning all the time, loves being continually French kissed by the LA Times from September 'till January. What coach wouldn't? But I'm still curious to see how he operates without a Heisman quarterback, without Reggie, and two years removed from Chow. Not to minimize the Trojan D, but it was Chow's offense - and the execution of Chow's quarterbacks - that so electrified college football. Kiffin/Sarkisian isn't quite the same thing. Do we pay too much attention here to SC? Considering history and proximity, we'd be naïve not to.   
                             
                              *** 

How many times has Bruin football teased us with the prospect of a national profile… only to fall flat? Let me count them off (again): the OJ game; Leonard Tose steals Dick Vermeil; at Arizona in '80; at Washington in '82; at Oklahoma in '86; the unforgettable home field choke to Washington State; and of course - number one with a bullet through the heart - the devastation of Black December in Miami. Even the great Red Sanders, who put UCLA football on the map, who produced that lonely #1… even Red lost a couple of huge Rose Bowls to Michigan St., along with a monumental ballbreaker, in '52, to SC. Local sports wonks might even date the beginning of the modern era of college football from the first, post WW II Rose Bowl game: UCLA 14, Illinois 45 (before my time, but I know the undefeated Bruins went in favored… and wishing they could have got a shot at the legendary Davis/Blanchard/Red Blaik Army team). And you think this program hasn't been cursed? 

Aren't you getting tired of always backing a darkhorse? Along with the expression that will not die ("gutty little"), darkhorse is becoming my least favorite sports cliché. I've always admired those teams with swagger, that stand up, that win from in front (or near the front), then buries the opposition in the stretch. Give me Secretariat or Affirmed (I almost lost it when Barbaro broke down).You can have Silky Sullivan.

I've never believed history has to go on repeating itself. We've studied it here; we understand it; we've learned our lessons (good and hard). Anyway, Yurks are not fatalists. So here's to the beginning of a brave new world. And if it doesn't come around, we'll deal with it then. Cheers…


Bruin Report Online Top Stories