A UCLA Football Chronicle: The Path to Our Lost Decade of Mediocrity

Terry Donahue established a conservative, vanilla UCLA program without any vision, stayed in Westwood 5 years too long, and left UCLA in the hands of a retread OC from Texas A&M, who was not a good fit for the Bruins. Photo Credit: Al Bello, Getty Images

Well it has already been an interesting night (open game thread for various actions going on here) on the eve of our rivalry game against Southern Cal. Bruins are backing into the Pac-12 "Championship" game thanks to the unbelievable mediocrity of Pac-12's "South" division and to cheating ways of Southern Cal. No doubt handful Morgan Center apologists and Neubs will be out in force celebrating this as some sort of "accomplishment," but savvy UCLA alums who have been following our program for decades.

Speaking of years of mediocrity and our lost decade of irrelevance (don't put too much stock into what happened tonight in Salt Lake City), people seem to wonder a couple of things these days.  One group wonders how our program has gotten so mediocre, while the other cannot figure out why so many of us are up in arms and are demanding a wholesale regime change in the Athletic Department.

So, for the sake of history and filling in some blanks for some who do not know how we got here, here is a chronicle of our beloved UCLA football since Donahue's last days.  The point is really to illustrate glaring mistakes that should not be repeated going forward, not to wallow in our past glory.  Even the lazy, misinformed MSM repeatedly touts UCLA as a sleeping giant, a program with huge potential that consistently underachieves.  What they fail to address, with the exception of Randy Cross, is the common thread that permeates that fact: a conservative, cheap and arrogant administration that refuses to provide the product that its alumni want and deserve. 

Follow me for a digest of the last 20 years of UCLA football.

Terry Donahue (HC, 1976-1995)

I don't want to belabor the Donahue era yet again, we have spent a lot of time on it already, so here it is in a nutshell. TD was 151-74-8, and 9-4 in bowl games.  He took the team to 4 Rose Bowls, winning 3 of them, and won the conference title 5 times (tied for 1st in 1987 and lost tie breaker for the Rose Bowl).  He had a solid streak of 8 bowl games in a row from 1981 to 1988, at a time where there were fewer bowl games, and most of them were significant ones.  He lost the first but won 7 in a row in that streak.

I'm pretty sure a lot of us would take that record today.  So why are so many of us unwilling to worship Donahue?  I have met him three separate times and really like the man.  He always took a moment to chat with me.  But if you look closely, you will see that TD underachieved somewhat during his tenure.  This is a period in which the Pac-10 was dominated by 3 teams:  Southern Cal, UCLA and Washington.  How dominant were they?  In Donahue's years, only 2 other teams went to the Rose Bowl:  ASU in 1987 and Oregon in 1995.  So, think about it.  Donahue only had to recruit against two other schools, in the talent-rich SoCal area, during a period in which players tended to stay close to home.  And given the ridiculous amount of talent that went through UCLA in that period, it is really mind-boggling that they consistently took themselves out of national championship contention.  But if you saw how conservatively Donahue used to coach, you would understand this.  His goal was to compete for the Pac-10 title, not national championships.

By the mid-90's, it had become apparent that Donahue's tenure at UCLA was coming to an end.  Sure he ended with a 5 game winning streaking against those SCumbags from cross town, but people still seem to forget that he was responsible for the incredible letdown of a hugely favored Bruin football team against the Badgers in our home stadium in the 1994 Rose Bowl.  After that, he was just coasting, and it was evident in his conservative, boring coaching in those final two years.  Donahue ended up a respectable 10-9-1 against Southern Cal, but started out 0-4, with 3 of those losses having the Rose Bowl on the line for UCLA (ps: all those games were being played at the Coliseum until 1982).

Not only that, Donahue was an insecure head coach who was never truly confident in his abilities. So much so that he did not have the balls to promote Neuheisel from wide-receivers coach to OC, when Homer Smith left the OC position for the second time in 1994, right after the Rose Bowl. Instead of promoting Neuheisel, Donahue decided to hire Bob Toledo, a loser OC from R.C. Slocum's Texas A&M program, who was never going to be a threat to TD, unlike Neuheisel.  Rick Neuheisel instead ended up HC at Colorado.  So you get a sense of the mindset there already.  That Rick still puts Donahue on a pedestal shows that he has a lot of class given how he was treated.

Bob Toledo (HC, 1996-2002)

Now, you've got essentially the modern icon of UCLA football leaving the program, after a pretty successful run.  You would think this is a desirable job.  Enter pea-brain Pete Dalis.  Dalis somehow blows the hiring of the coach, whiffing on Snyder (KSU), Barnett (NW), Neu (CU), Mason (KU), and then settling with Toledo after being implored by none other than Cade McNown.

As documented thoroughly here on BN, Toledo had a great run mostly due to having Cade McNown as his QB.  His best team was probably the 1997 squad which had just as good an offense as the 1998 squad but a much better defense.  The thing about Toledo was that his offense was exciting to watch and he at least talked about national championships instead of conference championships.  That was his goal, and we all know how close we got.  But the Toledo tenure got undone by few things:

  • Handicapped parking.  That was just dumb, but a public relations nightmare.
  • December 5, 1998: "Our Bill Buckner" Moment(s): Not much to add to this pain.
  • Recruiting of JP Losman:  JP was an elite recruit from Venice High School and was supposed to be our next great QB.  After graduating early, he showed up in spring training after enrolling early just like Brehaut and Hundley had done at UCLA. Basically he never fit in with his team-mates and reports were that he specifically didn't get along with Cory Paus. He then demanded that Toledo make him the starting QB before the season starts, but Toledo refused, even though he would have been the starter unquestionably.  Everyone acted incredibly immature and as a result Losman took his ball and went to Tulane. The biggest shame of this all was that Toledo had no handle on what was going on.  With Losman leaving, Cory Paus became the unremarkable starter for the next 3 years.  What is significant here is that because UCLA took Losman, Kyle Boller (who grew up a huge UCLA fan) went to Cal instead and ended up being a much better college QB.  Losman eventually played in the NFL for the Bills, while Boller went to the Ravens...
  • Mishandling of DeShaun Foster's SUV gate/Cory Paus DUI Arrest.  Aside from the drug snafoo in 2001, which also garnered a lot of negative publicity, DeShaun also was not allowed to play in his last 3 games because of illegal benefits involving a "borrowed" SUV. Many of us still believe that was a Trojan plot. The Foster scandal came out just couple of weeks before the game against Southern Cal. Right around that time news came out that UCLA QB Cory Paus had been arrested for DUI. While UCLA and Toledo didn't waste any time in suspending Foster for rest of the season, they let Paus play in the SC game despite Paul's arrest story had come out. It was a case of uneven discipline and we heard reports that it severely undermined the moral of the team heading into the SC game. It was clear the Bruins were not focused during the SC game, resulting in Pete Carroll's first blowout win against UCLA. The history of this "rivalry" took a dramatic turn (not in a good way for the Bruins) following that game. All of this was keyed off by how badly Toledo and UCLA botched the handling of Foster and Paus situations.
  • Various other scandals:  guys like Ricky Manning got in trouble for getting in fights with students, recruits like C.J. Niusulu beating up a parking attendant at a drive through movie (before he got to UCLA). This raised questions about kind of kids Toledo was bringing in the program.  Niusulu eventually did become a Bruin butkept getting suspended by Dorrell until he was essentially thrown out of the program.

In all of Donahue's years, and much to his credit, he never brought the school any negative publicity and ran a pristine program with great student athletes.  Unfortunately for Toledo, that was the standard he was held up against, and all the negative attention essentially did him in.  I am not so sure that without those, UCLA would have fired him.  Except for his two 10-win seasons, his record is quite mediocre (29-28).  He ended up 3-4 against Southern Cal, losing the last 4.  When Dan Guerrero got rid of Toledo right when he arrived on campus, his stated goal was to make the team more competitive...but the real goal was likely to "clean up" UCLA's reputation, and for DG to "make a splash". 


Karl Dorrell (HC, 2003-2007)

So Guerrero comes out talking about having a perennial top-25 program, winning conference championships, etc. His solution is to fire Bob Toledo and hire...Karl Dorrell?  Sure, he was a good WR at UCLA, but what was his experience?  11 years as an assistant in college football...the last 5 of which were as Neuheisel's offensive coordinator at Colorado and Washington (which essentially means clipboard holder).  3 years as WR coach for the Broncos.  So what on earth made DG decide to hire him, in his grand effort to make UCLA a top-25 program?  It makes no sense whatsoever.

Now we have discussed repeatedly how DG's choice for the position was actually Mike Riley, but that he was urged by Chancellor Carnesale and Vice Chancellor Peter Blackman to hire Karl Dorrell because they were impressed by his suit.  So what were the true motives?  Instilling discipline with Dorrell's military upbringing?  Making a "progressive" hire?  Keeping it in the UCLA family?  Regardless, the reasoning behind the hire was shaky at best.  And allowing a chancellor who knows jack squat about football to meddle in that decision was another huge failure by DG and representative of Morgan Center's ineptitude.  I met Carnesale once and he struck me as elitist, dismissive and arrogant.  But maybe I'm a poor judge of character.


At this point, Dorrell was quite possibly the worst type of coach to have at UCLA.  He had a subdued personality and his game-day management was terrible, on top of trying to install a west coast offense in college which is simply ludicrous.  This was the worst counterpart to Pete Carroll.  At the same time, it is possible that he was mandated to recruit players of high character (to avoid more scandals) and it is possible that academic standards were more strictly adhered to.

In any event,. He would consistently lose out on top local recruits to Cheat Carroll and was left with the "scraps", so to speak.  After one decent year in 2005, any coach who was remotely good left the program. Dorrell floundered in recruiting, until DeWayne Walker and Eric Scott showed up.  He plain sucked at establishing relationships with the player and had a revolving door of coordinators.

Dorrell was 0-3 against Southern Cal, and reports were that UCLA was looking at Mariucci if Dorrell hadn't won that game in 2006.  The 13-9 victory looked like a turning point.  Dorrell had a golden opportunity to seize the momentum but blew it against FSU in the nut bowl.  In fact, Dorrell's teams, while they went to 5 straight bowl games, were 1-4 in those games, against inferior opponents.  Like Wyoming.  After another blowout loss to the cheaters across town, DG fired Dorrell, likely one year too late.

Rick Neuheisel (HC, 2008-present)

Here we go.  DG is on the spot.  The community college across town is in the midst of an amazing run, snapping up every top recruit in the region and getting its butt kissed by every newspaper and overrated sports network.

Which candidates will he go after?

Keeping to tradition, DeWayne Walker is a frontrunner.  With many supporters pimping his recruits, Walker was a serious candidate for the job.  No one stopped to really see how ordinary his defenses truly were.  And, here was another candidate without head coaching experience.

Norm Chow was seriously considered.  The guru, the offensive genius...who for some reason has been passed over every single time he was considered for head coach.

We heard reports of Al Golden (then the Temple HC, now Miami HC) and John Harbaugh (now the Ravens HC in the NFL) also being considered for the position, but it is unclear how serious this was and the deal may have already been done before interviewing these guys.

Enter Rick Neuheisel.  On paper, this seemed to make sense.  Neu had experience, success, a great personality to counter Cheatey, but came with some baggage (which was mostly overblown).  DG gets his man, for cheap, with UCLA connections.  He must think he's brilliant.

Except, what do they do?  They meddle with the process yet again.  Neu was essentially forced to keep Walker, to "save" the recruiting class (as if Neu's recruiting skills were chump change).  It wasn't a terrible decision, but when you hear that Rick's first choice was actually Vic Fangio (Harbaugh's DC at Stanford, now with the 49ers), it is quite bothersome. It is unclear if Norm Chow was also forced on Neu, but regardless that hire looked much better initially.  We should have known better though, and so should they.  Of course this is hindsight, but why would a coach who has made his living on the offensive side and involves himself in playcalling and QB coaching hire an offensive guru who does the exact same?  Of course Neu said he would stay out of the kitchen, but that is not realistic.  We also started hearing rumors that Chow wasn't really pulling his weight, that he would constantly refer to his U$C days and put little trust in the players.

Not surprisingly, Walker jumped at the first head coaching opportunity he got...New Mexico State.  That begs the question, why force the coach you hired to keep a guy who's looking to be a HC and who interviewed for your job?  Really stupid managerial decision.  His replacement?  LB coach Chuck Bullough...on the cheap, of course.

2010 was the culmination of a perfect storm.  A switch to an unfamiliar offense that left Chow useless, a clueless defensive coordinator and a rash of injuries. The switch to the Pistol may be the type of risk-taking that we value in someone like Neuheisel, but somehow his game management was excruciatingly conservative. 

After a third year of losing to Southern Cal, Neu was allowed to fire both his coordinators and a whole host of other assistants, setting up the whirlwind that drove us crazy.  You have to wonder if any other AD would have allowed him to do that, given that he hadn't "earned" it (unlike Mack Brown, for example).  So you also have to wonder, did DG do that because he had forced his first coordinators on him, or because it was cheaper than going out and getting a new coach?  And would DG have allowed it if he wasn't already sure that he would keep Neuheisel at least through his contract? 

In any case, we have laid out our expectations, but if things hold true to history, it is once again the Southern Cal game that could hold Neuheisel's future in the balance even if UCLA has "won" the Pac-12 South.  A fourth straight loss and he is likely gone, but you can see DG keeping him if UCLA wins that game or pulls of a miraculous win in the "championship" game. 

Ask yourselves if you really want a repeat of Dorrell's fifth season.  We cannot allow the Morgan Center to perpetuate this cycle of mediocrity by ignorantly meddling with football and hiring unqualified candidates on the cheap.

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