Not surprisingly, I've known many UCLA alumni and football fans in my life. Most of them are intelligent, successful people; and they didn't become that way without high standards for themselves, for others, and for the quality of their work. But for whatever reason--the LA weather; the fact that UCLA is a commuter school; the many other things to do in this city--the typical UCLA alumnus/football fan may be the most sanguine, undemanding booster in the country.
I like to blame most of it on Terry Donahue, who broke the spirit of UCLA fans by aspiring to very little more than competing for a conference title (and rarely winning it). With a few exceptions, Donahue had variations of the same basic season year after year. He would beat the cupcake intersectional foes, lose to the powerhouses, out-talent most of the conference teams, get upset by someone else, lose to USC when the Rose Bowl was on the line, end up 7-4 or 7-3-1, win a nondescript Bowl game, go play golf for six months. UCLA never competed for a national title under Donahue (one season they actually got to #1 for two weeks, until we lost at home to WSU as a 19-point favorite; and then got run off the field by USC). There must have been 20 or so other teams which had shots at national titles over that span, but not UCLA, even though our talent level was better than almost all of them. So UCLA football, which once meant something, became a predictable exercise; a pleasant autumn interlude; best accepted for what it was; leave the tension and the national expectations to Miami and Penn State and all the rest.
We're now ten years after Donahue, but his indelible mark on this program remains. UCLA fans do not expect to compete for national titles, except in some pleasant futuristic haze. They have accepted the fact that USC, once no more than at our level, has so far exceeded us, that we essentially treat them as if they were from another planet. We hate their coach, claim that they cheat (although the NCAA hasn't punished them), bitterly resent the coverage that they get in the papers and on TV; but we don't really expect much of that to change, unless their coach somehow leaves. Our goal is to win more than we lose, go to the Holiday Bowl, stay on some vague "upward tick," so that we can look forward to the next season.
Now, I actually think that UCLA will have a pretty good season this year. And I don't say that to "cover" myself when they do. I think that we will improve defensively; that Olsen will be pretty impressive. And never forget that our schedule has plenty of beatable teams on it--now-QB-less Utah; pathetic Rice; and then a group of Pac-10 teams which are no better than our level, so that even if everything possible goes wrong, we should get at least six wins. With some of Dorrell's famous luck, we can easily get to eight. That would undoubtedly please 90% of the Bruin fans. And that is what is so frustrating and sad--that otherwise bright, capable people would be willing to countenance such a low level of achievement, given what should easily be possible here. The problem is that there is no way to prove what is possible here; so we are locked in an endless paradox, with us hiring second-rate coaches, watching them struggle to achieve 8-4 seasons, and thinking that this is pretty damn good; without realizing that with the right coach in here, we could be very close to USC's level, if not at it. But of course I can't prove it to you; you will say that we can't, because of our entrance requirements, or because we don't cheat, or because USC takes too many of our players. Maybe it's fear of success, of the pressure that comes with it, that makes us so willing to accept comfortable just-above-mediocrity status.
Do you thinnk Notre Dame cheats, or has low entrance requirements? How is it that two years after a losing season in South Bend, Charlie Weis has a Top 3-rated team? How did Jim Tressel and Bob Stoops win national titles in their second year, after taking over from fired coaches? Nobody can cheat that much, that quickly. Really good coaches make an immediate difference, almost as much as a quantum leap. But at UCLA, we conveniently ignore that fact, and settle for the concept of a painfully slow progress to respectability. Most people have convinced themselves that Bob Toledo's program was horrible (even though it was 15-9 his last two years) and that many, many years are needed to rebuild it. (Stoops took over a program off three straight losing seasons; but of course, that's Oklahoma; it's all so different there). Dorrell is 22-15 in three years; now Bruin fans say that 8-4 (for 30-19) would be great; and that the year after this, then we can shoot for 9-3, maybe. Oh, joy. That would be five years of not competing for a national title. I am utterly sure that if we had hired Urban Meyer and kept him, we would already be national title contenders. Cal went 10-2 in Tedford's first year, and now is considered a national title possiblity...but of course, that's Cal; their entrance requirements are too low; they must cheat in some way or another. It's ludicrous when you think of how our potential talent base is so much greater than Cal or Oregon; but that somehow we are not supposed to expect more than Top 25 teams (to take the words of one of the more eloquent "Blues" around here). It makes no sense, but I guess it doesn't have to.
And UCLA football fans can always return to themes about football just being fun; and why should anyone get exercised about this; and that we who expect or demand more must be unhappy people. It's even more fascinating that we don't hear this kind of thing from UCLA basketball fans (except during the Lavin era). And one would think that UCLA football fans and UCLA basketball fans would be the same people--except that I really believe that they're not; that somewhere around 1990 or so they funneled off into two separate species. Well, the one good thing is that when you expect 7-5 or 8-4, you are much less likely to be disappointed. And UCLA football fans do seem to be a more contented lot than those people in Columbus, Austin or Gainseville.