The grumpiest among them recite a mantra that goes something like this: "UCLA can't attract a big-named coach because it's not a big-time job. No one with a proven coaching history wants the job."
Really, taken at this simple of a concept, they're correct.
Right now, UCLA's coaching position isn't a plum job. Let's come right out and admit it.
But it's more complicated than just a cursory dismissal of the job. It's not like this is New Mexico State or Wyoming or Florida International. It's not a situation that can't be changed. It's a situation with a vast amount of potential (once again, the Sleeping Giant, if you will), more than probably 90% of the jobs in D-1 college football.
It's just a matter of finding a coach who can see past the initial drawbacks and recognize the unusual potential the UCLA program has.
Right now, it doesn't seem many candidates are recognizing that potential.
And it's understandable. They don't know UCLA and can't see past the surface limitations.
Let's say you're Chris Petersen, the head coach at Boise State. You have to think you could be the heir apparent to the Oregon job. Right now, in comparing the two jobs, the Oregon head coaching job is probably the better spot. The Nike money, the lax academic restrictions, the great facilities, etc. But while the Oregon job could be a better immediate opportunity, UCLA is probably the better long-term opportunity.
Let's look at why.
First, if you're a head coach and a potential head coaching candidate at UCLA, you see some obvious limitations.
Cheap Coaching Salaries -- There's a perception that UCLA's athletic department does things on the cheap, particularly in paying salaries. Karl Dorrell earned about $800,000 a year, which ranked him about 65th among D-1 college football coaches. Admittedly, Dorrell as a coach probably didn't deserve more than that, but the perception that UCLA under-pays its coaches was probably rightfully deserved over the last several decades. Terry Donahue, once he became the dean of Pac-10 football coaches, was under-paid. When UCLA went looking for coaches in the post-Donahue and post-Toledo era, it was very well known that getting someone for cheap was an issue.
Assistant Coaches' Salary – It's also been on the lower side in the last couple of decades. The problem, though, is that if you're in Los Angeles and you're paying an assistant coach the same as the assistant coach in Pullman, the cost of living in L.A. is probably twice that than it is in Pullman. The housing market alone is enough to make coaches wary of coaching at UCLA. Almost every UCLA assistant coach lives 30-50 miles outside of the L.A. area, in a region where they can afford a decent house.
Average Facilities – UCLA, compared to the rest of the Pac-10, falls somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of facilities. UCLA has tried to upgrade its facilities in the last decade, but it can't get enough donor money to really build state-of-the-art facilities.
Academic Restrictions – UCLA can't get in about 25% of the high school prospects that are good enough to play at UCLA's level because of its higher academic requirements. That has left some UCLA coaches, particularly the Dorrell and Toledo staffs, willing at times to settle in recruiting for the Mountain West level player with good grades.
Pete Carroll's Shadow – If you're a coach thinking about the UCLA job, you'd have to think that you don't want to coach in a city owned by your crosstown rival and its coach.
Okay, so are you sufficiently depressed now? Are you taking quick shots of bourbon-laced egg nog?
I laid out the issues with the UCLA coaching job so that we can now go beyond the initial perceptions of its limitations.
Recruiting -- First, remember, It's About Recruiting, Stupid. The #1 element to success in college sports, as any smart coach will tell you, is recruiting.
Despite UCLA's academic restrictions, it intrinsically has recruiting advantages over a vast majority of college football programs. It sits on perhaps the #1 recruiting hot bed in the nation, the L.A. area. Its campus is not in South Central, but in Bel-Air. When a recruit walks around the UCLA campus he usually is in awe. The scantily-clad, pretty co-eds don't hurt the cause either.
Yes, the academic requirements hold back UCLA recruiting. But it's holding back UCLA recruiting from being probably one of the top 2 or 3 best places to recruit to in the nation, to probably in the top 10 range. There are enough elite-level recruits in the L.A. area that can get by UCLA's admission standards, as well as those across the nation that want to play in Los Angeles. Can it compete with USC? Well, to be candid, USC is recruiting at such a high level that they're recruiting primarily nationally. There is easily enough space in the L.A. area for UCLA to get elite high majors. It just takes a coaching staff that's willing to work hard, not settle, and find the elite recruits that have the potential to qualify for UCLA admission, and then know how to work the situation with UCLA's academic committee to get them through.
For instance, a former employee in the UCLA football offices, who was responsible for a great deal of its recruiting, had ways to help recruits get past UCLA admissions. If, when he first received a transcript from a recruit he knew the academic committee wouldn't approve, he wouldn't submit it initially. He didn't want the committee to turn down the recruit once and be pre-disposed against him. He would then counsel the recruit and his family on what they needed to do to present a better academic package to the committee. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But, on the other hand, there were coaches who didn't want to go through that work. Most recruits who demanded that kind of work they wouldn't show interest in, and they gravitated toward the recruits who weren't as talented but, in their academic profile, looked like they could get past the UCLA admissions far easier.
Dorrell did make a considerable impact on the academic situation. When Dorrell and Ben Howland came to UCLA they inherited two programs that weren't in great academic shape. The academic committee bases much of its acceptance of certain special admits on the current academic standing of the program, and how well past recent special admits were doing academically. Dorrell – and Howland – have done very well in upgrading the academic level of the programs. The programs' special admits have done well recently, so the academic committee has been more pliant with subsequent special admits.
The situation is still tough, but it's not as tough as it was a few years ago.
In fact, there are many around the program that believe, if UCLA mounted a consistent top 10 program with a dynamic coach, who was dilligent with his program's academics, the academic committee would be forced to be even more compliant.
Bottom line in recruiting: A potential coach has to recognize, as Howland did, that he'd be sitting on a recruiting hot bed that would always be able to supply him a relatively steady flow of talent.
Salaries and Facilities – Dan Guerrero has done a lot of work to upgrade the salaries UCLA can pay its coaches. We were aware Guerrero was doing so, but it only became apparent when he cut a new contract with Howland, paying him $1.5 million per year. While UCLA is probably not ever going to be among the top 3 programs in paying its coaches, it at least can get competitive in the market place now. UCLA is prepared to pay a qualified football coach in the $1.7 million range, which would put it among the top 25 in the country and be unprecedented for UCLA. From what we hear, especially with this coaching hire, there is now money available to pay assistant coaches very competitive salaries also, enough to offset some of the standard-of-living imbalance of living in Los Angeles. We've also heard that Guerrero is trying to keep pushing on upgrading facilities.
The problem with UCLA football, where it finds itself now, is not an intrinsic problem with the program or with UCLA. The primary problem in trying to attract a big-named coach in this current coaching search is the mediocre course the UCLA administration took for the program in the 1990s and the legacy it's created. When Terry Donahue was coming to the end of his tenure, the Athletic Director, Pete Dalis, who had been on the job for 20 years by that time, was tired. He, unlike Guerrero now, didn't have the energy or fire to fight the university administration – in terms of facilities, coaching salaries, etc. The choices and decisions made between then and the hiring of Karl Dorrell have created the current mediocrity of the UCLA football program. Dalis didn't want to fight to improve coaching salaries, so he hired two assistants on the cheap – Bob Toledo and Steve Lavin. When Guerrero first arrived, he was confronted with the same problem in finding Toledo's replacement.
When Donahue was preparing to leave the football program, it was a critical time, a crossroads. The powers-that-be chose to accept some issues rather than try to change them, and in doing so, UCLA football has found itself on a 15-year slide. The current state of the football program was established by the docile acceptance of many things at that time and in the following decade.
While many criticize Guerrero for their perception of the current coaching search, they are naive about what Guerrero has been up against and what he's accomplished, in a relatively short time.
In this coaching search, UCLA might not be able to attract a big-named coach. The issues that we laid out here, the contributing factors of the last 15 years, have probably clouded the perception of the UCLA program by many potential candidates. Chris Petersen, for instance, probably sees the limitations and can't recognize the potential – potential that could take a UCLA program far beyond the natural limitations of Oregon.
The success of this coaching search, because of the current environment of the program, could depend on either of two scenarios. Either a big-named coach would recognize UCLA's vast potential, or Guerrero would hire someone without a big name, who is a good coach, and either of the two might turn around the program and benefit from its potential.
At this point, it appears that Guerrero is out of big names with the vision to recognize UCLA's potential. Perhaps Guerrero could pull a big name out of his hat at this late date in the coaching search.
But if he doesn't, and UCLA is down to Rick Neuheisel and DeWayne Walker, either of the two could still fit the bill.
Because if there are two coaches that do recognize UCLA's potential for success, it's them. While, in the past, merely having UCLA ties shouldn't have automatically made you a candidate for the coaching job, it doesn't necessarily mean it shouldn't. Of course, Neuheisel and Walker want the job because it's an upgrade in their careers, but you have to know that Neuheisel recognizes what he could do with the potential of the UCLA program.
If you want to cite Karl Dorrell as a failure in hiring a coach because of his UCLA ties, it's a legitimate point. But, first and foremost, Dorrell's failure at UCLA was mainly two things: His marriage to a bad offensive scheme, and his lack of experience in the business to be able to bring in strong assistant coaches immediately. In five years on the job, he had 22 assistant coaches. In a profession where you have to hit the ground running, it can't take you three years to find a good defensive coordinator. And, ultimately, if he had abandoned his offensive scheme and found a proven coordinator to run a more proven one, Dorrell would probably still be UCLA's coach.
With the perceived limitations to the job, UCLA might not hire a coach that gets all of the fans immediately ecstatic. There are many fans who are against Neuheisel, and many who are against hiring Walker. But we've learned from Dorrell; the biggest factor in hiring a new coach is whether he has experience with proven schemes. Dorrell didn't, on either side of the ball. We know Walker's defensive scheme is a successful one, and you'd have to believe that Walker recognizes the importance of bringing in an offensive coordinator with a proven scheme, and that he doesn't have the luxury to experiment with a scheme and a coordinator. We have heard that Neheisel has made it an issue that he wants money to hire proven coordinators. We've also heard that a big emphasis in this coaching search has been the schemes. Really, bottom line, the biggest factor in the next coach being a success is not hiring inexperienced coordinators on the cheap, but paying good salaries to get proven coordinators.
So, we're at a point in the history of UCLA football where it probably is going to take consistent success on the field to change the program's perceived limitations. Guerrero is doing what he can to improve many of the elements, but it's obvious that, with how few big-named coaches showed interest in UCLA in this coaching search, it isn't enough to offset the environment created by a near two decades of accepting mediocrity.
The #1 factor in changing the perception of a program is its success on the field. Really, UCLA doesn't need a big-named coach. It just needs a good coach. UCLA, even with its current limitations, can still get enough talent. Heck, Dorrell had only one truly successful season in five and was on the hot seat this season, and the program still currently has a top ten recruiting class in the nation.
This isn't New Mexico State. It's not Florida International. UCLA can put a very good product on the field, with all of its current limitations, just by having a good coach. And once it does that consistently for a few years, the coach that was either lucky enough, or had the vision enough to recognize UCLA's potential, could benefit greatly from a now supportive athletic director and establish a new, successful era of UCLA football.
Also, here's more, follow-up analysis more specific about the candidates: More Coaching Search Analysis