Why Has UCLA Football Been So Mediocre for So Long?
This will not be an easy piece to write, being a UCLA alum and all, but...
As we approach the end of this decade, it is safe to say that this has been a frustrating 10 years for the UCLA Bruin football program and everyone in Bruin Nation.
With the exception of 2005, the Bruins have spent every year of the 21st century thus far in a struggle; they would usually start strong and win a few games, but then fade at the end and either barely make a lower-tier bowl game or miss the postseason altogether.
Even in 2005, when they went 10-2 with a victory in the Sun Bowl over Northwestern, UCLA had to make dramatic fourth quarter comebacks to pull out four of those wins. Though exciting, the Bruins could have easily finished 6-6 that year.
These last three seasons in particular have been plagued by an anemic offense that has suffered devastating injuries, underperformed, and has been a source of much anguish for students, alumni, and fans in Westwood.
Meanwhile, across town, UCLA's eternal enemies the USC Trojans have flourished as one of college football's most dominant programs.
I have thought long and hard about the reasons behind the Bruins' mediocrity on the gridiron and why UCLA has only averaged six wins a year dating back to 2000.
Here is my take on why the Bruins' situation is the way it is...
Though it is part of the game, the injury bug has bitten UCLA hard the past few years.
This was especially the case with quarterbacks Ben Olson and Patrick Cowan, who both missed significant time from 2006 to 2008 with injuries ranging from torn ACLs to high ankle sprains to broken bones in the feet. The offensive line has fared worse, as the last two seasons found the Bruins having to make do with the proverbial chewing gum and string up front.
It had gotten to the point where even USC coach Pete Carroll offered sympathy to former Bruin coach Karl Dorrell in 2007 for all the injuries that his team had suffered, telling the press to give Dorrell a break.
SUBPAR RECRUITING CLASSES
Until just recently, four- and five-star high school blue-chippers have avoided coming to Westwood.
A big factor in that, I feel, is the fact that USC's Carroll, with his competitive, personable, high-energy style, was a more attractive option for high school players than the low-key, soft-spoken Dorrell.
Combined with USC's football tradition, this has led to Carroll getting many, if not most, of the top recruits, while the Bruins, for the most part, have had to settle for mid-level talent at best, with the exception of Olson (who turned out to be too injury-prone) and Maurice Jones-Drew.
In other words, too many of UCLA's players have just not been very good.
Examples? Cowan, who engineered the Bruins' only win over the Trojans this decade, shocking them 13-9 in 2006, was a one-star prospect coming out of high school. When Olson was knocked out of the Notre Dame game in 2007, UCLA was forced to go with McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who—last time I heard—is currently at Division I-AA (now the FCS) Sacramento State.
Cowan and Bethel-Thompson, while not solely blaming them, are symbols of people that apparently no one else of note or significance wanted, which has contributed to UCLA's mediocrity in the 2000s.
To UCLA's credit, they now have a coach in Rick Neuheisel who is as personable and energetic as Carroll; that will make the Bruins more attractive to the athletes that are so badly needed.
Another factor in the Bruins' less than stellar showing on the field lies with UCLA's admissions department.
Although the requirements to get into UCLA, one of the country's elite institutions, have always been extremely difficult, UCLA admissions decided to get extra tough with football players and recruits this decade, in light of problems such as fights, DUIs, illegal leasing of SUVs, and the handicapped parking permits scandal in 1999 that various players were involved in.
Having been embarrassed by that, UCLA officials were determined to never let those sort of things happen again. That's why it is now just as tough for a football player to get admitted into the school as it is a regular student.
Need some proof?
There have been several accomplished high school players who spent their lives dreaming about becoming Bruins, most notably quarterback Rudy Carpenter and wide receiver DeSean Jackson; Jackson spent many days watching UCLA's practices during his prep years.
However, when it came time to commit to a school, both players, stellar athletes who could have immediately contributed to and vastly improved the Bruins—and quite a few more blue-chip recruits, I may add—chose to go elsewhere because of things like a missing class that UCLA wanted to see on the transcript, or a grade or test score that was slightly below what admissions wanted.
Unlike Arizona State and California, where Carpenter and Jackson, respectively, ended up and became stars at, UCLA chose to not make any exceptions to their admission standards to admit those players and others. Bruin coaches have complained for years about not being able to get kids in due to that.
Meanwhile USC, being a private school, has always had much more freedom in who they can admit and continues to.
Case in point: When Marc Tyler, the son of former Bruin standout Wendell Tyler and a five-star running back, found out that his grades were not good enough to be considered for UCLA, guess what he did? Yep, he went straight to USC and became a Trojan.
This has all led to recruiting at Los Angeles' two major universities being akin to a race in which one guy has his legs tied together. It has been that way for years.
I know that some opposing fans, namely Trojan fans, will point out that UCLA's admissions standards has not hampered the basketball team's success.
That is a completely different situation, however. In college basketball, teams only need one or two top recruits to make an impact. Football requires at least one whole class.
The bottom line here is, while UCLA and its admissions department has retained its integrity by keeping their standards high for football players and recruits—which I'm glad about; I definitely want our players to be real student-athletes—it has cost the Bruins in talent, talent that could have made a difference in Westwood.
CULTURAL AND HISTORICAL ATMOSPHERE
This is perhaps the most significant reason as to why the Bruins have been a mediocre program for years now.
For comparison's sake, let's take a look at crosstown enemy USC...
This is a school at the edge of downtown Los Angeles where football means absolutely everything, not only to Trojan students, alumni, and fans, but also to their administration, their board of trustees, and their well-heeled boosters.
Ever since the 1920s, the USC community has committed their energies—and their money—toward Trojan football. It was decided long ago that their emphasis was to be put toward building the dominant football program on the West Coast and being one of the elite college football teams in the country.
Considering their fortunes not only during this decade, but over the past eight decades, I think they've more than succeeded in that task—so much so that USC students themselves have called their school "a football team with a classroom tucked at the bottom of it."
In contrast, UCLA has never seen football the same way their Trojan counterparts have. Not even close.
Due to the triumphs of legendary coach John Wooden in the 1960s and '70s, UCLA sees itself as more of a basketball school, as well as a place with a top all-around athletic program, rather than merely a football factory.
Football is seem as only one piece of the puzzle in Westwood, not the whole enchilada.
The UCLA community generally sees any real football success, such as BCS bowls and national championships, as a sort of icing on the athletic cake. In their minds, if the Bruins can beat USC and go to the Rose Bowl every few years, that's OK with them.
On the other side, Trojans consider anything short of a BCS championship a failure.
While it's true that UCLA has had some great teams and players on the gridiron and has enjoyed national success, particularly in the early 1950s and throughout the 1980s, Bruin football has never had the same level of support that Trojan football has had and continues to have.
And that has hurt.
Though it's wonderful that the Bruin Athletic Department is top-notch as a whole, and I would not want them to commit any NCAA violations to get the football team to where I think they should be, if UCLA truly wants to change and become one of college football's dominant programs on a yearly basis, the culture within the Bruin community must change.
The UCLA administration and boosters must, as a group, have the same attitude toward football as they do basketball; excellence on the gridiron as well as in the classroom must be demanded. They must demand Rose Bowls and national championship contention on a consistent basis and see anything less as a failure.
Like USC has done, energies and an emphasis toward building a program that can contend for the BCS championship game every year must be committed, and not just from the football team or a few alumni and boosters; they cannot do it alone.
Until that happens, I'm afraid that UCLA Bruin football will continue to be merely a fair program with occasional bursts of success—beating USC, a couple of 10-win seasons once in a while, maybe a conference title and a Rose Bowl or two every 10 seasons.
I know that many Bruin fans are not OK with that. Being a alumnus and a loyal member of Bruin Nation, I don't know if I am, either.
While I am very proud of UCLA's athletic success—104 NCAA titles and counting—it would be ecstatic to see the Bruins lifting that crystal football in the BCS championship game.
Whether or not enough people in the Bruin community agrees with me on that remains to be seen.
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