Colors of UCLA road uniforms shining through .... Photo Credit: Stephen Dunn /Allsport (Getty Images)
I have purposely stayed away from writing any stand alone post on 66-3 all week until right now. I mean if you are really dying to read about memories of that game, they are all over the internets. The gist of all those articles and blogposts go over the agony of Texas fans, how it is personal for them (can't blame them), how the two programs headed in different direction after that mythical game, and of course how it is going to be different this time.
I have been trying to figure out all week about how I really felt about that game and what that meant for UCLA. I never got to watch that game sadly. I was holed away in my law school library after I had lost hope following two soul crushing losses against Washington State and Tennessee. The agony people have been expressing here was nothing compared to the frustration I felt watching Skip Hicks taking himself out during last second goal line situation against the Cougars or Cade missing a wide open receiver in the end zone, which could have been the difference against Peyton Manning's Tennessee. The game was not on locally, so I resigned myself to checking the score on the internets via tWWL's scoreboard page (there were no blogs, message boards or chat rooms back then), and saw in disbelief the scores going from 7-0, 10-0, 17-0, to 24-0. I thought for a while that ESPN online scores were just going wacky and until I call my friend back home I didn't believe that the Bruins were actually winning.
While everyone talks about how that was the game that propelled number 18 and his team-mates to that 20 game winning streak, I think the impact of that game was something more for a generation of young Bruin alums, students, and fans who were following the program on a day to day basis at that time. That game in many ways changed our expectations re. the level of success a football program should strive for in Westwood. Up until that game many of us were preconditioned to thinking a successful season meant winning the Pac-10 and beating Southern Cal. That all changed that afternoon in Texas.
For the first time ever, after that game UCLA fans were not just thinking about the program in terms of contending for the Pac-10 championship and beating Southern Cal, we were setting out sights much higher. Then of course December 5, 1998 happened and it all came crashing down. What is worse following that phantom fumble by Brad Melsby coupled by no show of Nick AIlliotti's defense, the program went through a slow, gradual disintegration to today's state where forget winning NCs, now even going to a good bowl game seems like a major challenge.
I do think Coach Rick Neuheisel understands and appreciates where UCLA program needs to be. He has said all the right things since he came aboard. He has certainly recruiting in a manner that shows he intends for lot more than just "competing" in LA.
All that said, the bottom line is the UCLA football program has not posted any significant and program defining win since that day in Austin. The 13-9 thing was pretty cool, but it just masked mediocrity and incompetence for few weeks until we got exposed in the Nut Bowl. The comeback wins and breath taking finishes with the 2005 team didn't matter all that much to majority of us because they were essentially negated by season ending humiliating losses in two out of our last three games. Even the two so called "big" wins against Tennessee last couple of years didn't matter all that much in the grand scheme of things, because we never followed them up with consistent success.
So with that gloomy background in context it is getting difficult to get excited for Saturday. One hand I fully appreciate it is unrealistic at this point to expect UCLA to pull out a victory against what will assuredly be a supremely confident but fired up Texas team, which is going to feed off an emotional crowd. On the other hand, even if the Bruins play a tough, hard fought game, it is going to be difficult to get excited over some kind of moral victory. Of course, if the Bruins pull of a miracle somehow in Austin tomorrow, then the question is going to be whether they will be able to follow that up with consistent success.
Of course all of this needs to be balanced out with the perspective that the team - like it or not -is still going through a rebuilding mode thanks to the completely shattered talent pool in the trenches at the QB position when CRN inherited this program. No matter what happens tomorrow, it will be important not to lose the perspective that we are not going to know the ultimate results of this rebuilding experiment under Neuheisel for at least two more years.
That said right now it feels agonizing and frustrating to go into a Saturday, not feeling confident about our chances, and not seeing our program what it is capable of becoming if it played up to its potential:
As CRN said following last year's game in Knoxville:
No matter what happens tomorrow afternoon, I hope we don't have to wait very long to see him in a similar post game video after the last regular game of the season and/or sometime during first week of January. Oh yes, we are going to be reasonably patient. Given the state he inherited this program, he will get time (at least two more full seasons in addition to this one unless there is a cataclysmic collapse). However, the bottom line is he needs to recapture that vision we all experienced after 66-3.
We know what a UCLA football team can look like. We have seen it happen in course of 20 games starting with 66-3. Neuheisel needs to recapture that kind of magic again. We have been dying for it.