The Last Pity Party
When my friend, the no-longer Cynical Dan, called me up that Sunday evening with the news that Norm Chow had actually accepted the OC job, I couldn't help murmuring to myself, "Oh happy day… and about friggin' time!" At last Bruin football appears to have gotten the kind of significant break that regularly occurs across town, but seldom here. So allow me to offer up, for historical purposes (hopefully for the last time), a litany of "snake-bit" Bruin abominations down the years:
(1) The "forward lateral" (UCLA/SC, 1952)
(2) The Ellis Duckett blocked punt ('54 Rose Bowl game)
(3) The "no-repeat," no Rose Bowl National Champions ('54)
(4) The coaching-from-the-sidelines-call on Jim Meyers ('56 Rose Bowl game)
(5) Red Sanders' absurd, cockeyed ending in the Lafayette Hotel
(6) Tommy Prothro's ill-timed departure for Oregon State, leading directly to the 7-year Dark Age of Billy Barnes
(7) Jim Owens' double cross of the Bruins, sending undeserving SC to the Rose Bowl ('66)
(8) There was the short Pepper Rodgers wishbone experiment...the aborted Dick Vermeil "Era,"...which then led directly to the dull, grey, seemingly endless Terry Donahue Era.
(9) Rick Neuheisel's ill-timed departure for Colorado (thanks TD), leading directly to the 7-year Dark Age of Bob Toledo, which then led to the mini-Dark Age of the over-reaching Karl Dorrell.
For every Beban to Altenberg, John Barnes to J.J. Stokes, Norm Dow, Freeman McNeil, Marvin Goodman and Eric McNeal moment there were seemingly double the Elmer Willhoite, O.J., Danny Graham, Sam Dickerson, Eric Affholter, Zenon Andrusyshyn, Frank Jordan, Rodney Peete, "big play" Johnny Morton, Poli-Dixon moments. But with Neuheisel's New Deal, the "curse" may finally have been lifted. If it can happen in Boston, why not here? Even if, as rumored, DeWayne Walker makes off for the NFL, the predicate for the reawakening is still in place.
You Can Go Home Again
Like a lot of inflated rhetoric, Thomas Wolfe's famous declaration doesn't really hold up to the light of day. Wolfe was, of course, merely stating his belief, then illustrating it in terms of his art. But reality is too often written by a rather cold trickster, possessed of a droll sense of humor. What did T.E. Lawrence say? "Nothing is written" (or was it just Peter O'Toole?). In any case, it's fair to say reality often defeats our best attempts at understanding. I mean, who would've believed in Rick Neuheisel's ultimate return to Westwood, considering his hurried flight out of Boulder, then his crash in Seattle. Who would've believed it possible immediately after the 13-9 celebration. Think of the coincidences that had to perfectly line up for fate to have delivered Rick back to UCLA as the conquering hero he is today. Even the "charismatic" darling of the national media, Pete Carroll, would have been hard-pressed to pull off such a trick.
Remember all the solemn declarations from Bruin "sources" quoting "insiders" to the effect that Neuheisel would never be allowed back inside the hallowed halls of Westwood (other than, perhaps, for a class reunion)?. Remember the name calling: "Skippy," "Slick Rick," "Bumpy." Remember the accusations: Desertion for failure to answer the clarion call of the old school in '96; cheater (or, at the very least, corner-cutter… and a lawyer, for Godsakes); and, worst of all, "negative recruiter" against his old alma mater. On the other hand, who ever said we weren't a forgiving nation. "Hate the sin but love the sinner," or something like that.
While all this stuff was percolating within the Bruin Nation, I remember thinking why all the vitriol? You would have thought the guy was a convicted wife beater. Wasn't all this testiness just a bit excessive? Had I missed something or were we dealing with misdemeanors here, not felonies. Most of the notorious violations sounded more like a complacent frat-boy foolishly thumbing his nose at authority (though admittedly to his own benefit). And the fact both Colorado and Washington tanked after his departure… might it have had something to do with his successors?
Negative recruiting? Please.
Deserter? How could Neuheisel have decently returned to UCLA after Terry Donahue had apparently sold him out in the Toledo Affair? Or, after his new employer, Colorado, had only just jumped him over some older, more experienced hands, making him one of the youngest head coaches in major college football? If Rick deserted UCLA, so had the beloved Prothro when he quite decently chose to stay on at Oregon State, in similar circumstances, rather than rescue the Bruins from a fate worse even than KD.
Was some of this "Bad Rick" business simply bitterness and disappointment at an apparent golden boy who was beginning to lose his shine? 66-30 certainly doesn't sound bad enough to have supported such spleen, though 13-10 his last two years at Colorado, and 15-10 his last two years at Washington, might begin to explain it.
Neuheisel's fate this time around will likely have less to do with "staying clean" than with simply winning and getting this famous "corner" turned. Presumably he's bright enough to know he not only can't stray from the straight and narrow, he had best not even think about it. He must be seen as reborn a kind of "boy scout," at least in Bill Plaschke's eyes (or until he starts winning big, since Bill is partial to winners). But the fact he has no history of "scouting" at least speaks to his competitiveness and the unlikelihood of his ever becoming a good loser, a little gentleman, and a dilettante in the pool of coaching sharks like his predecessor.
Anyone Remember 16-17?
At the time, we all understood something like the latest Las Vegas Bowl humiliation wasn't important in the whole scheme of things; yet one more heartbreak loss did seem a bit like piling on. Of course, blowing yet another pissant bowl game was, from an artistic standpoint, the right ending to the whole misbegotten KD Era; also a perfect reflection of the latest, and longest, Dark Age in which the Bruins have been floundering for the past 19 years. That's a generation, BROs! That's a lot of losses (96 to be exact, or an average of 5 per year). In case you're curious, I'm dating this Dark Age from the '89 season, the year of Bret Johnson… also the year of TD's foolish gift to Greg Robinson of the OC job, presumably to sweeten a friend's resume in pursuit of a head coaching gig. An obvious case of over-reaching all around.
What came to be known as DeWayne Walker's mostly impressive "audition" for the Bruin head job was, in the end, one more late-season flameout in a rich tradition of such things (not that this one was Walker's fault). Here it was basically a single play, the easy field goal try, straight on, victory assured… and with an excellent kicker. It wasn't much more than your "automatic" extra point. As much as I'm generally prepared for the worst, I never saw this one coming. Neither, apparently, did Kai Forbath. "I thought we're going in there and the game is over," he said. Oh well, water under a burnt bridge.
While watching that Mormon stampede onto the field, I could only smile and wonder at how completely Bruin this had been, and how this tradition of playing the chump needed to be stamped out once and for all. You make your breaks, and when bad luck seems to continuously dog you, you need to kick yourself in the ass and start changing things. Looks like Dan Guerrero has done just that.
Of "Mediots" and Mutts
The only thing worse than hearing stuff like "the gutty little Bruins" and "UCLA is just a basketball school," is hearing people like Colin Cowherd repeat the idea that UCLA is not a prime football job. Of course the Dark Age is his point of reference. But like so many "mediots," he's merely reflecting conventional wisdom, glibly shooting from the hip, no detail, no context, which come to think of it is entirely understandable in a lazy, narcissistic, sports-talk "personality" like Cowherd.
Cowherd and others ignore the fact that UCLA has maintained a consistent national profile whenever they've had either a great coach (Sanders), or very good coaches (Prothro and Vermeil). Even a bald mediocrity like TD was able to piggy back into the College Football Hall of Fame on the backs of teams and players he never would have gotten at such a dead-end place as, for example, Oregon State. (In fact, TD's first lucky break, in a long, long series of them, was losing out to SC's Craig Fertig for the Oregon State job. Fertig soon died and went to local radio, doing time with Tom "O'MercyNurtz" Kelly. Terry, of course, forced to soldier on in Westwood as an O-line coach, fell into the Bruin job when Vermeil… well, you know the story. So, do you believe TD would've lasted any longer than Fertig had he "won" the Beavers job?)
Here's a few numbers to consider: In the post WW II Era, the modern era, between the one "great" coach and the two "very good" coaches, UCLA has garnered 1 National Championship, 6 top five finishes, 9 top ten finishes and 11 top twenties.
Throw in the "bald mediocrity" and the figures expand by 1 top five, 5 top tens and 12 top twenties.
Throw in the remaining five mutts (Bert LaBrucherie, Barnes, Rodgers, Toledo and KD) and the figures further expand by 1 more top five, 4 top 10s and 7 top twenties.
If my figures are correct, that makes a grand total of 1 NC, 8 top fives, 18 top tens and 30 top twenties.
Sorry guys, but combined with its natural advantages, that may not be a five-star tradition, but it damn well sounds like a solid four-star, which to any knowledgeable person should make UCLA prime coaching territory. It's just that, thanks to the last 19 years, what had been a kind of hovering giant, if you will, had been allowed to become a hibernating "sleeping giant," an apparently faceless mediocrity and regional also-ran, not to mention being known as the softest program in the west.
And, during the search, if we're to believe that some of the other "candidates" were stringing UCLA along, perhaps what that really indicated was that these guys were not the subtlest, most knowledgeable coaches in the world. Add to this the fact that most coaches today seem terrified of risking their lottery-like life styles by moving to a different geographical (read recruiting) area, to become, in effect, the "new boy" in a strange, less worshipful environment.
I guess we can now quit worrying about UCLA's notoriously frugal ways since DG seems to have finally nudged this naïve institution into the 21st century athletic marketplace. As for "academic restrictions," watch that excuse dissipate once RN returns UCLA to the national stage, something we have little reason to doubt.
RN wasn't my first choice (Chow was), but who could possibly quibble with the way things have worked out. Rick told us all he was going after Chow as his OC, and most of us just put it down to "slickness." Whatever it was, it certainly worked.
Around here we like to say it's all about the coaching, or it's all about recruiting. Truth is it's all about both, which made it imperative that Rick put together a formidable staff, which he's certainly in the process of doing. And he's made it clear it's an "egoless" enterprise. He's also got Pete in his sights, which is the only way to deal with that monster. For Bruin fans it was always simple: Quit hiring mutts and we'll all be happy. Well, most of us, anyway.