Head coach Rick Neuheisel simply must succeed as the UCLA head football coach. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Let's begin with the conclusion:
Rick Neuheisel must succeed as our football coach.
If you accept that basic premise, than whatever standards of success anyone might unilaterally set become quite beside the point because this type of measurable obscures the reality of UCLA football in 2011. And that reality is that Rick Neuheisel's failure would be our failure -- representing a cataclysmic implosion of a once proud college football franchise whose wait for a Rose Bowl win is roughly a quarter century.
Setting certain goals is not uncommon in these parts. In past seasons, we've analyzed the circumstances surrounding the program as the seasons commenced and decided what would be an acceptable season, eight wins or bowl eligible, a win over the Trojans or a win in a bowl game. During the Dorrell era, setting the baseline minimum of acceptance for any given campaign made sense. We never believed in Dorrell and so we held him to a set of standards that his teams would either meet and prove us wrong (and, truly, we would have gladly admitted we were wrong if it meant having a program we could be proud of) or fail to meet, prove us right, and speed along the transition to the next coach, one that would return us to long past glory. But if Neuheisel fails to meet whatever standards we were to come up with this year, well ... quite frankly, I'm not sure what the reaction should be, because I believe that firing him gets us nowhere.
Why do I feel that way?
There are several reasons.
First, I have almost zero confidence that Dan Guerrero would hire a great football coach to replace Neuheisel.
I realize that there is an argument to be made against me here. I realize that if left to his own devices, he might have hired Mike Riley over Dorrell and while Riley might not be Knute Rockne, he was clearly the better choice there. I also realize he considered Al Golden and John Harbaugh when he was replacing Dorrell and they both sure seem like good coaches now. So, it is possible Guerrero could identify the right person and make the right hire. But I have no confidence in him; furthermore I'm not sure any AD deserves to hire a third football coach in their first 10 years on the job unless his first two choices did so well they went on to the pros or something like that. Put another way I'm not sure any AD should be able to fire and hire three head football coaches in a 10 year span.
Secondly, UCLA football desperately needs some continuity.
Just for fun, try to figure out how many times Bruin football had the same head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator trio for at least three season in the years since we won our last the Rose Bowl. Just try to name all the coordinators we've had over the years. Sure, you'll get Norm Chow and DeWayne Walker, you surely know Mike Johnson and Jim Tresey - but would you come up with Phil Snow? Larry Kerr? Nick Aliotti? Steve Axman?
If we only win five games this year and Guerrero replaced Neuheisel, we're looking at another turnover in HC and likely the coordinators, too. Neither of our current coordinators even have DeWayne Walker's cache, so what would be the odds that our next HC keeps them around.
Third, win or lose, I'm not sure Neuheisel is the problem
I think it's larger than him. I think there is a cultural problem.
The paradox of the UCLA athletic department is that it's created a culture that allows all of its teams to thrive and compete for national titles except one: the football team. Since Eric Ball ran for four touchdowns in a win over Iowa in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1986, this team has competed for a national title only twice, once in the Troy Aikman era and once in the Cade McNown era. And given those two quarterbacks, it's quite possible that the team competed for Number One not because the program achieved some jump in status, but because it was blessed with two of the best players ever to wear the Blue and Gold.
You may ask why I'm so focused on our last Rose Bowl win.
For one thing, winning the Rose Bowl is the real goal for any UCLA team. A national title would be amazing, but everything has to break right for that. You can have a perfect season and not win the national title. But winning the Rose Bowl means you won your league then won your bowl game and if we did that every once in a while, no one - and I mean no one - would dare complain we couldn't win the really big one.
There's another reason.
That reason pertains to the aforementioned culture.
The '86 Rose Bowl win capped, with all due respect to the '54 national title team, the greatest run in UCLA football history. For you old timers, at least concede it's the greatest run in the modern era of college football (with that era defined as the years after the NCAA imposed scholarship limits.) That Rose Bowl win was the team's third in four years, after beating Illinois the year before and Michigan three years hence. In between was a victory over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. Head Coach Terry Donahue's teams ultimately won seven straight bowl games. The '87-'88/Aikman Bruins won 20 games in two years. Simply put, the Bruins were a player on the college football scene in the 80s. (I can't help but wonder what would have happened had Aikman not broken his leg as an Oklahoma freshman, lost his starting job to a wishbone QB, and then asked Barry Switzer to see if he could use a pro set quarterback. Let's put it this way: Aikman was the first pick in the NFL draft and is in the Hall of Fame. Brendan McCracken isn't.)
Despite the fact that the program has, and there is no way to say it any other way, gotten progressively worse ever since, a season here and there proving to be the exciting exception to the rule. But I can't help but wonder to what extent the shadow of the Donahue glory days still overshadow the program and whether or not that shadow has overshadowed what came since - like lawn turning brown at the base of a once great oak.
Donahue's successor was his own offensive coordinator, Bob Toledo. Toledo's successor was a Donahue receiver (who got his start in coaching as a graduate assistant under TD), Karl Dorrell. Dorrell's successor is a Donahue quarterback (and hero of one of those Rose Bowl wins) Rick Neuheisel. In the background, is Bob Field, husband of the great gymnastics coach Valerie Kondos Field, once a TD defensive coordinator and now an athletic administrator said to have Dan Guerrero's ear on matters concerning football. My point is, the football program still operates as a linear extension of the Donahue years, seeking to recapture the three Rose Bowls in four years greatness.
This is not some accident and there are several reasons for it. On one hand, there is this belief that UCLA "knows what it's doing" and therefore just needs to keep doing it ... it's bad luck/injuries/whatever that is keeping us from winning the conference. On another, it's actually an acknowledgement that the UCLA way of doing things is somehow "unique" and therefore only a head coach with UCLA ties can handle the job. This last might be true, sadly, though our opinion of the "UCLA way of doing things" and the school's is likely different.
There is plenty of literature on the value of corporate culture. Peruse enough of those books and you'll find companies like General Electric, Johnson & Johnson and Starbucks as examples of successful corporate cultures - though they are all different corporate cultures. Companies with successful corporate cultures often have trouble with succession. Starbucks is a classic example, where Howard Schultz established a culture of success, then saw the company falter when he stepped away, leading to his return. He's since said (I believe, I'm doing this from recollection) that Starbucks would hire his next successor from within, to ensure continuity in the corporate culture.
I wonder if the culture at UCLA is working in reverse. The school has a football program that's not winning the way it should, but it insists on a continuation of the culture.
So, why aren't I suggesting that Neuheisel be fired? Why aren't I suggesting that we distance ourselves from the past and hire a Mike Leach or some coach who will do things vastly differently? It's because at UCLA, the head football coach doesn't determine the culture, the athletic director and the chancellor and other administrators do - and those creating the culture have failed to acknowledge an evolving college football landscape, while trying to duplicate a success that must read like entries in a history book to the current crop of players. (Seriously, Kevin Prince knowing that Rick Neusheisel set passing records in the Rose Bowl is like you finding our your dad won first prize in his high school science fair. I mean it's great, but it has nothing to do with today.)
UCLA's culture is many things and many of those are great things, like the Coach Wooden philosophies that permeate the halls, gyms, pools and fields. But it's also the culture that re-ups with Adidas when Under Armour wants in, reputedly for more money and despite the fact that recruits reputedly want nothing to do with Adidas. It's also a culture that's created for itself an academic no-man's land, a place where it won't accept players who meet the NCAA minimum standards that practically every other school uses as a guide and it can't compete with Stanford for the truly academically gifted players. This is a place where Cal and Oregon feast on players we can't get in and the Cardinal gets the kids with straight As. Everything else aside, this is a place where very few quality offensive linemen seem to dwell.
The academic thing has been rehashed many times, so I won't do it here. All I want to say, is that if we are we where we are because we must be where we are then the athletic department better be putting forth maximum effort in the area of academic support. I apologize for being vague, but I have reason to have my doubts about this. I have reasons to believe that, like with everything else, the belief here is that "UCLA knows what it's doing and isn't going to change" - but this belies the fact that Cal has virtually the same academics we do but somehow manages to accept players with lower qualifications and still keeps them eligible.
Maybe the greatest failure of the UCLA football culture is the inability to cope with the evolving landscape. When Terry Donahue was winning Rose Bowls, Oregon, Oregon State, Cal, and Stanford were frequently doormats. The league in those days was USC, UCLA and sometimes Washington. (I don't want to give the impression that those Donahue teams weren't talented because they were. The Rose Bowl winning teams had numerous top players and the talent on the '87 and '88 Aikman teams were the best in the country ... sigh!) But for some reason those other schools don't want to acknowledge UCLA's "rightful place at the top of the conference." No, they've evolved, improved over time, sought out the best coaches, built or are building the best facilities and basically acknowledged that winning in football is an athletic department priority over, above and separate from winning in every other sport.
Which brings me all the way around to Neuheisel. He is of the past and a continuation of the culture. But Neuheisel is also a coach who spent time in Boulder and Seattle, not to mention a stint in the pros. I believe that deep down inside, Rick Neuheisel sees and feels what's wrong just like we do and that he's working to change things from the inside.
And to do that he must win and he must be given the chance to win.
We must hope he does.
Rick Neuheisel must ultimately succeed because his failure would represent a bottoming out of the program. If he goes, we are really back to Square One. We'd become an expansion team. We'd sink from irrelevant to obscure. We just can't start all over again.
For that reason, we can't set tangible standards this year. There are too many variables, too many unknowns and as a result too great a chance Neuheisel and the team fail to meet them. And then what? We bring in a new coach? We give him five more years?
My plan is to hope for lots of wins, but short of that, look for comfort in the little things. Will we play with more cohesion? Will our play calling improve? Will we go for touchdowns instead of settling for field goals? Will our defense play with aggression and keep the opponent guessing with different looks? Will the team play better at the end of the season than at the beginning? Will we avoid any blowout losses? Will we meet Coach Wooden's definition of success, even if it isn't reflected in the win column?
Putting aside whatever reservations one had about the hiring of Rick Neuheisel, the simple truth now is that he represents the programs best chance for long term success.