The Real Issue: Will UCLA Step Up?

The question is not whether UCLA will fire its coaches. It's whether UCLA will ever step up and finally be committed to paying new coaches a competitive salary. If not, UCLA could continue to spiral in a cycle of mediocrity...

While many fans and sportswriters are quite focused on the issue of whether football coach Bob Toledo will be fired or not, that isn't the truly relevant issue. I mean, it's pretty relevant, but it's not the most important issue concerning the future of UCLA sports.

Whenever a UCLA coach is fired, whether it is Bob Toledo or head basketball coach Steve Lavin, the bigger and more important issue is: Will UCLA step up?

The situation that UCLA finds itself facing in its football and basketball programs really isn't mostly a result of its coaching. It's a result of the longheld UCLA mindset that has plagued the school, the upper management and the athletic department for decades.  It's a willingness to accept less than excellence. It's the UCLA mindset that it won't pay for the best.  It's the numbing psychology that pervades the school's athletics.  To steal Steve Lavin's term, it's the real UCLA pathology.

Basically it stems from the fact that, at UCLA, with all it has to offer, it has always been pretty good at its sports. UCLA has always been fairly good since it always got enough talented athletes that wanted to come to play at UCLA on the strength of the school alone. In football, it's been enough to get you to, for instance, 7-4 almost every year.  This has caused a strange, collective psychosis at UCLA: it makes its administration believe that it doesn't have to pay top-flight money for its coaches and facilities because it will always be pretty good. If this were Oregon State, this attitude would get you 3-8 every year.  That's why Oregon State's upper management has realized it has to pay its coaches if it wants to compete. UCLA will always perpetually be the embodiment of 7-4 in all of its sports unless it shakes off this strange psychosis and realizes it has to step up to be excellence.

Times have changed, though. UCLA used to be able to pay its coaches salaries toward the low end of the pay scale and still be pretty good. But that era is coming to an end. The pay range -- from the higher end to the lower end -- has widened and is now quite a bit more significant.  And so many average schools, like Oregon State, are stepping up and doing what has to be done to be good. The edge that UCLA has in its natural advantages in attracting talented athletes has been narrowing in recent years because of it.   Former athletic director Pete Dalis said once that he didn't see how UCLA could stay competitive in its programs unless it did step up and pay competitive salaries.  UCLA, right now, isn't even close to the level of funding that Oregon State's programs are getting for its coaches and facilities. Here's reason enough to be alarmed: With USC paying its head coaches and assistants generally twice that of UCLA, UCLA's competitiveness with USC will continue to erode.

In this era, UCLA will need to abandon its longheld mindset, and pay for top-flight coaches and top-flight facilities.  If it continues down the same path, it will continue the cycle of mediocrity. It will have a few highs in the cycle, such as in the late ‘80s in football and 1995 in basketball. But those highs in the cycle will be less frequent and less pronounced.  It could, of course, get lucky and find a discount coach that will end up being a very effective coach, but the mindset that it won't step up and be competitive with not just the elite programs in the country but even the average programs will always hurt UCLA on the field.  Because, even if UCLA did happen to find a good coach at a discount, he won't stay long once he has success at UCLA and his market value is three times what UCLA is willing to pay him. 

It's a commitment to mediocrity. It's a somnabulistic sense of well-being. And more than any other factor, far more than coaching, it's what has put UCLA in its current crisis.

Many are quick to blame Dalis for the situation. And admittedly, he is the legitimate recipient of some blame.  When you're working with the mindset at UCLA, it takes a sharp, dilligent athletic director that is willing to go to the mattresses. Someone like J.D. Morgan.  Dalis was not that man.  While he did put up a fight against the UCLA mindset, he did also relent and accept it at one point and stopped trying to fight it.  That combination, of the UCLA mindset, Dalis' abandonment, and Dalis' lameduck status for the last several years, is truly what has put UCLA's programs in the low end of the cycle you see the teams in today. 

There is enough information about new athletic director Dan Guerrero that leads you to believe he's more in the mold of J.D. Morgan than Pete Dalis.  The problem undoubtedly confronting Guerrero, though, is:  Can he actually change the UCLA mindset? From all that we've heard about Guerrero, if there is someone capable of doing it, it's him.  But it might be literally impossible. It might be that there is no way Guerrero can get UCLA to fork out more money for its coaches. 

What to look for here is not whether Bob Toledo is fired. What to look for here is if Toledo is fired, will UCLA be in the market for a top-flight – and relatively pricey – coach? There are incidents from the past that might lead you to believe there is a ray of hope.  Before UCLA hired Toledo, UCLA was willing to offer Gary Barnett a pretty competitive salary before that deal fell through.  Two seasons ago, Dalis was actually pretty serious about trying to hire Rick Pitino, which would have cost a good chunk of money.

But there are also discouraging signs.  When UCLA went shopping for athletic directors, there were very capable candidates from around the country that didn't even make the potential list because they were too pricey.  Sources close to the athletic department, having lived with the mindset for decades, are extremely pessimistic that UCLA will ever pay its coaches well.

It's the biggest challenge for UCLA athletics, and it has been for years.  Because, if UCLA doesn't meet this challenge, you'll probably start to see the cycle of mediocrity cycle downward.   As other programs keep upping the ante and paying coaches big salaries,  UCLA will continue to lose its natural edge in football and basketball.  In the two major sports, if the team is less successful consistently, it will definitely cut into UCLA's ability to attract top talent.  It's a matter of UCLA making the commitment to being competitive in the market, rather than just clinging to its natural advantages and praying that, with a lucky string of hiring cheap coaches it happens to make the teams competitive. 

Really, the question hasn't really been whether UCLA's coaches are doing the right things. And it isn't whether Dan Guerrero will do the right thing (it's pretty clear, from good sources, that if he could, he would). The question is whether the upper UCLA administration will do what it takes for UCLA to live up to its potential in its athletic programs.

Pretty much it comes down to this: The Sleeping Giant needs some cash if it's truly going to wake up...

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