This Fanpost is a bit of an experiment. It's a continuation of Part 1 of this series, but this one is all fiction. For a sports blog that prides itself on reasoned and factual discussion, there is none of that in this piece. Save the mention of UCLA and current real departments and people, all of the events and names have been conjured out of thin air.
I suppose I owe an explanation. Why have I besmirched a fact-oriented blog with concocted fancy? I wish there was a profound explanation, but the truth is simpler. This is a "What the hell; take a chance" role of the dice, a hail-Mary, really.
One big caveat up front: I am not an accomplished writer of fiction. This is amateur city, all the way. If the scenes, characters, and dialogues seem unnatural, well, I'm trying to learn. So, there will be no hard feelings on my part toward readers who toss this piece into the electronic rubbish bin, nor toward non-readers who simply ignore it. If you do stick around, I hope you enjoy it.
If I'm not run out of town after this post, Part 3 will continue the fantasy. Current plans are to continue the fiction in one or two more episodes after that, and then to snap back to reality and wrap up the series.
To understate my view, I regard the current UCLA administration, both in the athletic department and at the top, as failed leadership. I won't try to go into the details of the failings, as others have done a much better job at these than I can. Instead, I am trying, with this post, to imagine what an enlightened, energetic, and passionate UCLA leadership might look like. Desperate? You bet. Naive? Yep, that too. Pollyanna-ish? Probably right.
I will say one thing in defense of my naiveté, though. While the tale is fabricated, the fantasy is grounded in reality. The experiences of many of us in the greater Bruins Nation is not so far different from the fairy tale below, at least in comparison to the current situation. Many of us have experienced in our student and alumni days dynamic, engaging Chancellors who, rather than turn their nose up at banal sports, embraced them with open arms. Many of us have experienced Athletic Directors who were not content to coast on UCLA's past accomplishments, and who worked earnestly and smartly on behalf of their current and future teams.
These Chancellors and ADs were not fictional characters. They were real, and, they had several things in common: (1) They saw sports as an integral part of UCLA, not as an interesting-but-non-core sideline; (2) they recognized the value that successful sports brought to UCLA, in terms of stature, desirability for students and teachers, and revenue; (3) they saw no reason why UCLA could or should not strive for excellence in all endeavors; (4) they were not ashamed to be fans, themselves, even engaging with students and players on occasion; and, (5) they not only had bold visions, they worked systematically to realize them.
These are the kinds of leaders UCLA used to have. These are the kinds of leaders that UCLA needs, today.
The Morgan Center, on the UCLA campus, April 2014
Madison Dawn Eberle pushed back from the desk in the Herman Miller Aeron mesh chair with custom calf-leather armrests. She leaned far back, nearly reclining, put her blue-sneakered feet on the desk, placed her hands behind her head, took a deep breath, and exhaled abruptly. The $2500 chair and the $6700 English Walnut desk were two of the furnishings left behind by the previous Director. The true-blue Bruin windbreaker that was draped over the right arm of the chair looked good against the dark, slate-grey arms of the chair, she thought. She looked out of the window of her third-floor office at the azure California sky, appreciating how close the color was to true blue, and how fitting that match was. She said to herself, "Wow!" She shook her head in amazement. "I mean, just WOW!"
Madison could scarcely believe the recent turn of events. It had all happened so quickly. She was six weeks into her new position, and she was still trying to catch her breath. She thought of the many Bruins basketball and football games that she had attended over the years with her mother, Patricia, and sometimes with her father, Ronald. Ronald, had done a lot of traveling in his jobs, and often was out of town on game days. Those vivid remembrances at the Rose Bowl and Pauley Pavilion with one or both of her parents swaddled Madison's heart like a baby's blanket. Now 47, just walking the campus raised goosebumps on her arms and caused tiny hairs to tickle the back of her neck. And, now, this!
Patricia had graduated UCLA in 1966, the year Madison was born, with a B.A. in American Literature and Culture. Ronald had taken a couple of classes at a local community college, but realized early on that college was not for him. For one, he thought he was neither smart enough nor school-seasoned enough to get through the six or seven years that it would take him to graduate. For another, college was not a requirement or even an asset in his work. Mostly, though, Ronald's family needed the money, so that Patricia could devote herself to her classes.
She was the bright one, he reasoned, so she should go. Even at that, Patricia had supplemented their meager income with several part-time jobs during her four and a half years at UCLA, often over Ronald's objections. It hadn't been easy, but they had done it. A family on their way up, with a brand new college graduate and a brand new baby. Arriving only three months before Patricia took her last final, Madison's very first experience at, if not memory of, UCLA was in the lap of a very proud father at the graduation ceremony.
Madison had been a fine athlete. In her junior year of high school in Reseda, she had been named honorable mention on the all-California girls' basketball team. In her senior year, she was named to the all-state third team. She stood only five foot five, but was exceptionally quick, a marvelous passer, and a deadly shot from sixteen feet, in. Those hundreds of hours, shooting hoops and playing one-on-one with her dad in the driveway had given her many basketball skills, but even more, had nurtured within her a love of the game. The sessions with her dad had also given her one more thing--a nickname.
Ronald refused to cut any slack for his being more than a foot taller and having much longer arms than his daughter. She was eleven years old before she even got a jump shot off cleanly. She was twelve before she made two shots in a row against his defense. Ronald would swat away and often catch in mid-air her nascent shots. One time, after swatting away yet another one of her shots, Madison looked at him with utter despair in her young face and wailed, "This is so-o-o unfair!"
Ronald said simply, "Tough. That's the way it is. Handle it." Each time, after he swatted away her next five shots, he said "Handle it." After the sixth, he said, "Come on, Madison. Find a way. You can do it. Handle it."
When they stopped for a water break, Ronald put his arm around Madison's tiny, tired shoulders. "Look, Madison," he said. "I know it's frustrating. This is the way things are sometimes, in basketball and in life. Sometimes, it just doesn't seem fair."
"But, you have talents that I don't," Ronald continued. "You have skills that you haven't yet recognized. You don't need to grow two feet to beat me with your jump shot. You just need to recognize the skills that you have already, and then you need to learn how to use them."
"You are quicker than me. You can run hard for a longer time than I can. You can change directions faster than I can. Your vision is superb; your reflexes are snap-quick. You need to recognize those things, and you need to find ways to use them."
"The basket is up high, this is true," Ronald went on. "But, the basket is only involved at the end of a shot. Almost everything that happens before a shot, happens much lower. Once you figure out a way to use all that space below the basket, before you shoot, I won't be able to stop you."
Ronald was right. His daughter learned to feint and to head-fake. She learned to recognize when his weight was leaning in one direction, and to go another way when it was. She learned to shield the ball with her body. He coached her to imagine that she was playing with teammates. He taught her that small advantages can lead to easy baskets, especially when a small advantage gained by one player is combined with small advantages gained by teammates. A small advantage by the dribbler means the pass is made cleanly, and not deflected. When the pass is to a teammate who also has a small advantage on his or her defender, then that teammate now has either another, even more open pass, or an open shot. Small advantages add up to easy baskets.
By the time she was thirteen, her frenetic style of play would have her dad puffing after a handful of possessions. One time, when he thought he had her pinned against the baseline, she drove by him, scored a layup, and got fouled by him on his late recovery. Ronald walked back to the top of the circle holding the ball, shaking his head and trying to laugh between snorts of exhaustion. In part, he was stalling to catch his breath before he gave the ball back to her. "You are just too (puff, pant) too damn quick for me, Madison. (puff) You're all over the place. (pant) You're everywhere. You're like a mad dog. (puff, pant) In fact, I think I'll call you that. 'Mad-Dog Madison'."
Madison grinned at this appellation. She loved playing basketball with her dad. She loved hearing his praises. She even loved hearing his corrections. And, she loved her new name. Mad Dog Madison. It fit.
Now only three years removed from fifty, her frame was still athletic, her movements still fluid. She rocked gently in the Herman Miller, bobbing to music heard by her, alone. Her weight was barely seven pounds over her playing weight in college, decades earlier. She didn't color her shoulder-length brunette hair, and although some splashes of gray had creeped in, she still had her Wheaties-box, all-American-girl looks. From the many book readings with her mother that began when she was four months old, Beverly Clearly remained her favorite author. If you wanted to picture what Ramona Quimby would look like in middle age, she was rocking slowly in a luxury chair right now in the Morgan Center.
For as long as she could dream, Madison had fantasized of going to school at, and playing basketball for, UCLA. She was a Bruin, practically from birth. Beginning when she was a sophomore in high school, she had started to write letters and send photographs of herself in basketball action to UCLA's coaches. But, to her mounting sorrow, the interest wasn't returned.
When she was a senior, and it was clear that there wasn't going to be a scholarship for her at UCLA, she applied as a regular student. She hoped to walk on and earn a spot on the team. But, even more than playing basketball for UCLA, she wanted to go to UCLA.
Watching occasional cotton-ball clouds drift slowly by, Madison thought of those days as a high school senior, waiting for UCLA's response. On school days, she would arrive home, find her mother, and wordlessly ask with her eyes, "Well?" On Saturdays and on those glorious days when school was closed, she would wait in the family room that looked out on the front lawn for Curtis, the mail deliverer.
One day after school, Pat was especially slow to respond to her "Well?" request. Just when Madison was ready to concede that another answer-less day had come and gone, her mother said, "Well, there was this." She pulled an envelope from the cherry-wood secretary by the door. The slender and elegant secretary mismatched their Formica, chrome and beige vinyl dining set, but it was a treasured piece from Ronald's mother. She handed the envelope to Madison.
Madison's gentle rocking paused, as she remembered the vivid, heart-stopping drama. In her hands, she recalled thinking at the time, she was holding the rest of her life. She remembered standing in the hallway, holding the letter in trembling hands, breathing scant breaths, and hearing the blood pumping through her temples. She remembered her mother waiting silently.
Finally, Pat had said, "I know you're nervous, but holding it won't change anything. You might as well open it." Madison remembers taking a letter opener from her mother, so there wouldn't be any jagged edges. Scarcely able to breathe, she inserted the opener under the flap and cut away the top of the envelope. She turned the envelope back to the front, looking for clues on the outside. It said only "Madison Dawn Morris," and her address. In the upper-left corner, it said, "Admissions, University of California at Los Angeles," and an address.
The hall pendulum clock was ticking extra loudly, she remembered. Carefully, Madison pulled out the single sheet of paper, which was folded in thirds. She gazed upwards, sighed heavily, looked down, and unfolded the letter. Although the letter was several paragraphs long, Madison stopped reading after the first two words. They said, "We regret..."
"Oh, mom..." she cried. "Oh, mom... I didn't get in. I didn't get in." Unable to contain her disappointment, she collapsed into her mother's arms, and sobbed.
Madison ultimately accepted the scholarship to play for Chinook Columbia University, a small, Division III college in Oregon. She had found peace with this choice, knowing that, with the scholarship, the burden on her parents would be small, and she could continue to play basketball. Disappointed though she was, this would be for the best, she knew.
She had enjoyed her years at the school very much. She had been a four-year starter at point guard on the basketball team. Her teams had won the conference two of her four years there, and she had won some individual team and conference awards. She had formed several lasting friendships, and her degree had paved the way toward a rising career in university athletic administration. Too, the greenery and full, lush rivers of Oregon were fantastic departures from the dry, concrete viaducts of Southern California.
Nevertheless, the often grueling bus and train trips from Northern Oregon to Southern California made her feel like she was a million miles from home. She was glad to graduate, so she could move back to California. She was thrilled to land a menial job as an athletic administration intern at a community college in Kern County, California. Her position would blossom into that of Assistant Athletic Director at the school.
She was home. She could see Mom and Dad again. She could go to Bruins games again. Going to school at night while serving as Assistant AD at the community college, Madison would go on to earn a Master's degree in the field. Her experience and her education would launch her to a position of Athletic Director at a four-year, Division II university, California State University, Red Rock Canyon.
Madison looked at the shelf above the laser printer, opposite the window. There was the photograph of her Mom and Dad, taken at home just last Christmas. There was the photo of the three of them at Sequoia National Park, taken when she was eight. She still had the compass she was holding in the photograph. A tattered, hard-bound volume, Ramona and Beezus, stood between the pine wood bookends that she had made in ninth-grade shop. There were the four team photos of the Chinook Columbia Lady Grizzlies. In all but one of them, she was sitting front and center, her hand securing a ball to the floor in front of the team.
There was the photo that she had taken, herself, of her dad standing with John Wooden. Ronald was grinning unashamedly. Coach Wooden was smiling and gazing intently and, it seemed, proudly at the young photographer as though she were his own granddaughter. Ronald and Coach Wooden's heads were centered in the picture, their lower bodies cut off from the waist, down. The curved, pink smudge of her young fingertip obscured half of her dad's torso. Pauley's rafters filled the remainder of the picture. She laughed softly at her novice photography.
She looked at the shiny gold figure atop the trophy next to the team pictures. The figure was of a pony-tailed girl in basketball shorts and shirt in a defensive position, legs spread slightly, knees bent, weight on the balls of her feet, and arms spread wide. The plaque said, "Most Valuable Player, Madison "Mad-Dog" Morris, 1987."
The past four weeks had been an incredible whirlwind. Three months ago, Madison had been comfortably ensconced in her position as Athletic Director at the CSURRC campus. She enjoyed being in administration, more so than in teaching. She liked being able to forge plans that would shape the entire school for years to come. She saw herself as a ship's athletic captain, needing to be ever vigilant, looking ahead for dangerous waters, and planning moves of navigation miles ahead. She obsessed over campus facilities, and constantly looked for ways to improve them within shrinking California budgets. As ship's captain, she saw herself as ultimately responsible for the entire athletic department, and every player, coach, and staff within it.
She had thought she would retire at this campus. Leaving for another position had not even crossed her mind. But, when she saw the headline atop one day's Daily Bruin, a paper to which she had subscribed since she graduated college, she stopped and stared. It said in big, bold letters, "Block, Guerrero Step Down!"
She raced over the story. Neither had been fired. They both had been allowed to retire, slightly ahead of time. But, it seemed that an undercurrent of dissatisfaction among Regents ran through the story. Or, maybe it was just one or two Regents who were restless. She couldn't tell. Something about travel scandals and opulent hotels. The story seemed to imply that the Regents had been biting their tongues for some time, but had run out of patience, or something, over a recent development. They had, it seems, strongly suggested that the Chancellor and Athletic Director both retire.
The lack of fight by the outgoing Chancellor and AD, she intuited, must mean that there was some un-aired laundry that was being held back as long as they resigned gracefully. "Must be some doozy dirt," she said to herself quietly. She knew there was much to the story, but the details weren't important to her. She was already writing, in her mind, her letter and application for the position.
Her timing was perfect. The Regents, eager to minimize any fall-out and scent of scandal, were looking to find replacements with impeccable credentials, and to do it soon. The recent revelations, hinting at systemic corruption, had accelerated their calendar, and they were eager to move on.
Madison's credentials were, indeed, impeccable. Her curriculum vitae showed dramatic increases in both revenues and attendance in several sports during her tenure, for both CSURRC and the junior college before that. Her letter and application arrived less than a week after the outgoing Chancellor and AD had "retired," and her package was noticed. She received a phone call from UCLA the day after her letter was received. She was scheduled for an interview two days hence.
She wound up staying in L. A. for nine days, all told. She had thought that two skirts, three blouses, and the dress that she packed would be more than enough, but it turned out to be barely enough. She was glad for the complementary and contrasting colors that she had selected, for they allowed her to create multiple outfits, and she was able to look fresh for each interview.
She had eight interviews during her stay, some with individuals, some with small groups of two or three. The interviews with Morgan Center staff and with the Regents had gone progressively better and better, allowing her to find a balanced blend of humility, vision, and ambition along the way. Without exception, she impressed them with her grasp of financial realities, her understanding of the economics of sports, her energy, her affability, her quick-wittedness, and her humor. She convinced them that her methods would work at a larger school with larger budgets and larger expenses, as they had at both of her previous employers.
Even though she had yet to wear the dress that she had packed, she went to Nordstrom's and treated herself to a stylish skirt-suit, coral-colored blouse, and merlot peep-toe pumps. In her final interview, with newly appointed University of California President, Janet Napolitano, Madison was in full stride. Her answers clicked with the President as though they were old sorority sisters. Judging by the President's thoughtful pauses, it seemed to Madison that her questions impressed, too. Five minutes after thanking Ms. Napolitano for her time and consideration, the President picked up the phone, said a few words, and the deal was sealed.
Still fighting notions that this had to be a dream, Madison spun around the brass name tag on her desk. Yes, it really said, "Madison Eberle, Athletic Director" below an ornate engraved UCLA symbol. The business cards in the rosewood holder, confirmed the title. But, even with all this evidence, Madison was still struggling to believe the reality. She felt a lot like Melanie Griffith in the movie, Working Girl. Incredibly, just like Tess McGill, she had skipped right past the usual ladder rungs in breath-taking fashion, and had landed right in the penthouse.
She looked out on the intramural field, where two games of soccer were taking place. She saw a corner of Pauley Pavilion, where she had spent so many rapturous hours as a child, screaming "Go Bruins!" at the top of her lungs. Madison wanted to call her mom again, for the third time today, but knew that the rally would start soon. She would try to call afterwards, before the buses left. She wanted to call her husband, Stephen, for the second time today, but figured that she could text him from the bus.
Madison had met Dr. Augustus Jalen Winthrop, only three times before she was hired, but had spent probably an hour with him every day since. Known as "Gus," "A. J.," and "Boomer" to his friends and family, the new Chancellor presented a regal, dignified presence. Standing six foot four, about the same height as Madison's dad, Winthrop's face carried a lifetime's worth of sadness and warmth, a cross between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.
The nickname, Boomer, had come from his playing days as tight end and defensive end at an east-coast university. Known for his straight-ahead style of play, Boomer had been a teammate who was looked up to by younger and older players, alike. He was elected team captain for three of his four years of college football. To this day, he cherished football for the valuable life lessons that it had taught him. He had no ties to UCLA before he was hired, other than his admiration from afar.
Madison was just beginning to rouse from her reverie when she saw Stephanie, through the imported stained-glass panels that framed the door to her office, approaching. She lifted her feet from the desk, placed them on the floor, shook her head in wonderment one more time, and returned to a normal sitting position. Stephanie knocked. "Come in," Madison said.
"Yes, Director Eberle, you asked..."
"Excuse me," Madison interrupted. "You remember. I'm Madison, or Mad Dog. I don't call you 'Assistant Holman' or 'Ms. Holman,' and you don't call me 'Director Eberle' or 'Ms. Eberle.' OK?"
"Yes, I remember." Stephanie laughed sheepishly. "It's just that it will take me a while to get used to this. The previous Director was..., wasn't so informal."
"I'm sure you'll get used to it. Anyway, that's not important. But, look at my poor manners. I'm being very rude, Stephanie. You came in to tell me something, and here I am lecturing you on what we call each other. Let's start over, OK?" Madison said "Knock, knock" softly. "Come in," she said, in answer to her own knock.
Stephanie smiled. "Yes, you asked me to tell you when it was time for you to go, Dir..., Madison. You're about five minutes away," Stephanie said.
"Thank you, Stephanie." Madison stood, picked up the windbreaker off the arm of the chair, put it on without zippering, donned her powderkeg-blue Bruin "B" cap, and said, "Alright! Let's go! This is going to be fun." She paused. "Is Chancellor Winthrop going to be there at Drake?" Winthrop was "Gus" or "Boomer" to Madison, between them, but "Chancellor Winthrop" when she spoke his name to others. Her own informality was not presumed in others.
"Actually, I just spoke with him, and he said that, if it's alright with you, he'd like to walk with you from the plaza."
"Alright?" Madison beamed. "That's more than alright. That's just really great! Thank you, Stephanie. You are terrific!"
Now, it was Stephanie's turn to beam. She asked, "Here's your travel bag. Are you coming back before the buses leave?"
"I don't think so," replied Madison. "I'd better take it with me. Thank you. Are you sure you can't go, too? It is Saturday, you know?"
"I know," said Stephanie. I'd love to, I really would, but I just can't, this time. Next time, for sure," she said.
"Next time, it is," Madison said, as she took the UCLA-blue canvas tote bag with gold lettering. Inside the bag were a medium-weight navy-blue Bruins jacket, in case it got cold, sunglasses, two bottles of water, some SPF-15 lotion, and a few toiletries. "Is Chancellor Winthrop going to meet us at the plaza?"
"No, he'll meet you right outside your office. He's here now."
"Stephanie, you rock. I really appreciate your help in getting this all together. Go Bruins!"
"Go Bruins," said Stephanie.
"Gus," said Madison, walking toward the Chancellor with outstretched arms. "How good of you to come." They hugged, Winthrop crouching at the knees and waist, and Madison standing on her tip-toes.
The elevator doors closed. Alone in the teak and stainless steel-paneled lift, Madison looked at the Chancellor and said,"So, can I tell them anything?" Winthrop looked at Madison, turned, reached toward the elevator buttons and pressed Stop.
"No, only that you're going to do everything that you can to help our teams and students," said Winthrop. "But, no specifics, and certainly no promises."
Grinning, Madison said, "Yeah, I know. Can't blame me for trying, though, right?"
Winthrop smiled and pressed the Stop button again, and the elevator continued downward.