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The Dive to Abyss

Bumped. This post went up on Bruins Nation exactly one year ago today. Keep in the mind Li Tai Fang wrote the original post more than three years ago. GO BRUINS. -N

We have taken a lot of heat since the launch of Bruins Nation for starting our blogging over here.  But it looks like we weren't the only one seeing the writing on the wall a long time ago. Here is Li Tai Fang, who is a Ph. D. student in the UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Yes we have some really smart kids in Westwood. Li (didn't realize they actually followed football in South Campus ;-)) nailed it a long time ago when it wasn't so trendy to call out Karl Dorrell:

The Dive to Abyss
The Rise and Fall of UCLA Bruins Football Under Bob Toledo and Karl Dorrell
March 10, 2004
Li Tai Fang

Long-time UCLA Bruins football coach Terry Donahue led UCLA to four Rose Bowl appearances including three Rose Bowl victories. His successor, Bob Toledo, had UCLA football peaking briefly in 1997 and 1998 during his second and third season, when the Bruins was in the middle of the nation's best 20-game wining streak. However, sometimes when you reach for the heavens, you slip into abyss. Although the achievements was absolutely remarkable, the Bruins have very little trophies to show for these achievements, due to the bad timing of 2 losses capping both ends of the 20-game winning streak. In 1997, Bruins lost the season opener to surprising Washington State by 3 points, a team led by Ryan Leaf, and lost their 2nd game of the season to traditional powerhouse Tennessee by 6 points, a team led by senior Peyton Manning. These two quarterbacks will go No. 1 and No. 2 in the NFL draft following this season. The Bruins won rest of the games in the season by mostly convincing fashion, including a victory in the prestigious Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M, capping a 10-game winning streak. UCLA finished the season ranked No. 5 in both AP Media and Coaches' polls, and many think that UCLA had the best team in the country at end of that season. However, the thrilling loss to Washington State in the season opener gave Bruins one loss in the conference, matching the Pac-10 record of Ryan Leaf led Washington State, and the tiebreaker system denied UCLA a chance to play in the most coveted Rose Bowl. Had the Bruins been lucky enough to escape with two wins instead of two losses, it would be a national championship year for the Bruins.

However, Bruins' most heartbreaking season will come in the following season. Building on the momentum of the 10-game winning streak in the previous season, the Bruins cruised to another 10-game winning streak to start the 1998 season. 1998 season is also the first college football season that instituted the BCS system. A series of statistical categories and computerized ratings, as well as the Media and Coaches' polls decide the top 2 BCS ranked team to meet in the BCS Championship Bowl, and in 1998 the BCS Title Game was the Sugar Bowl. UCLA was indeed ranked No. 2 in the BCS, and was poised to represent the Pac-10 in the national championship game, until a series of late game breakdowns against Miami on the road knocked the Bruins from the ranking and shattered all their dreams. One crucial play came when UCLA was leading late in the 4th quarter, senior star quarterback Cade McNown made a bad pitch to the running back, and the loose ball was subsequently recovered by Miami who then quickly scored a touchdown. UCLA lost the game 49-45, and quickly dropped in the BCS standing. UCLA still went on to play the Rose Bowl, but a demoralized squad lost to Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, finishing the season ranked No. 8 both the Media and Coaches' polls. When looking back, these are two seasons of lost opportunities. Two bounces in two different games, against Washington State in 1997 and Miami in 1998, and one could be looking at a Rose Bowl Championship followed by National Championship. Bob Toledo would have made himself a legend then. Instead, these are two seasons are most memorable for what Bob Toledo and the Bruins failed to achieve. Unfortunately to the Bruins and their coach Toledo, the misery would not end.

After the forgettable 1999 and 2002 seasons where UCLA finished 4-7 and 6-6, respectively, the Bruins went right back onto the national radar in 2001, starting the season with a 6-game winning streak, including victories over 4 ranked opponents, and earned themselves a No. 4 national ranking. The Bruins was starting to have national championship inspirations once again. However, UCLA lost their next 4 regualr season games until regular season finale against Arizona State, finishing the regular season 7-4, and declined a chance to play in the Humanitarian Bowl.

Another mediocre season in 2002, capped by 4th straight loss to arch rival USC cost Bob Toledo his job. My judgment on Bob Toledo as a football coach is two-sided. Widely reputed as an offensive mastermind, Toledo either was not ready or was never fit to be the headman. In his 7-year stint as the Bruins football head coach, he clearly has had a lot of success early in his career, bringing Bruins national championship inspirations and a Rose Bowl berth. However, his flaws were equally obvious. During his 7-year tenure, Bruins has never had a solid defense, and the lack of defense costs the Bruins the crucial game against Miami where they gave up 49 points, and cost the Bruins the potential to be the national champion. Although brilliant at designing the offensive schemes, Toledo never seemed to develop his players very well. Few Bruins made marked improvement upon their arrival to their graduation. Toledo had a good football mind. However, it takes more than football knowledge and brilliance to be a great football coach. Also required to make a great coach is leadership, ability to maintain healthy relationship with players and the coaching staff, and also the ability to evaluate player as well as coaching talent to beef up the entire program, among other intangibles. The lack of these qualities made Toledo an excellent offensive coordinator, but a mediocre head coach.

In the off-season between 2002 and 2003, the Bruins athletic director Dan Guerrero would make the most important decision for the athletic department: naming a new head coach for Bruins football. Guerrero failed in biblical proportion. With proven success such as Mike Riley in the candidate pool, Guerrero chose Karl Dorrell as the head coach of the UCLA football program. Karl Dorrell is a former Bruins wide receiver, whose only coaching experience in football is being a wide receiver coach with the Denver Broncos. With lots of complaints and questions about the lack of minority head coaches in college and NFL football circulating in the national media, many suspected that the reason Guerrero hired Dorrell was that he was black. In any case, Dorrell had little, if any, qualification or experience to be the head coach of a major college football program. From day one, Dorrell was woefully unprepared for his new job.

Promising to renovate the UCLA offense by installing the West Coast Offense, Dorrell only succeeded in demolishing the old one installed by Toledo. UCLA averaged only 18.8 points per game in 2003, a far cry from Toledo's offense that typically scored upward of 30 points per game. Although the Bruins started the season with a nice record of 6-2 after a 5-game winning streak, anyone who has actually watched the games could tell that the Bruins did not deserve the record. Game after game, the Bruins relied on lucky bounces and fluke plays, rather than making solid plays themselves, to win these games. The most telling game over the span was the overtime win against California in Rose Bowl Stadium. UCLA pulled out a victory despite being outplayed in every aspect of the game, because on California's 6 field goal attempts in this game, one was missed and three were blocked, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Unfrotunately, one who relies on luck will eventually run out of luck. When luck stopped favoring the Bruins, they showed their true color. In the very next game, Bruins lost to Pac-10 doormat Stanford, followed by back-to-back-to-back blowout losses to Washington State, Oregon, and USC. The misery was capped with an embarrassing loss to Fresno State in the Silicon Valley Bowl, where the Bruins embarrassed not only themselves, but the entire Pac-10 conference, by being dominated and manhandled by the minor college football program. UCLA finished the season with a record of 6-7, but in reality, the team was a lot worse than what the record indicated.

This upcoming season, I predcit, will be even worse. The lone bright spot on the 2003 Bruins squad was its solid, although not spectacular, defensive unit. The defense was anchored by its three star players: Dave Ball, Mat Ball, and Matt Ware. The Ball brothers will graduate to NFL, and junior Matt Ware also declared for NFL draft, leaving the defense bare of talent on defense. The offense will not be any better, because Dorrell and his staff lack the know-how to effectively design an offensive scheme or teach their players what it takes to execute an offense, especially one as sophisticated as the West Coast Offense. In 2003, Bruins had more returning players than perhaps every Pac-10 team, and resulted in utter failure. In 2004, however, Bruins will lose most of its seniors starters to graduation, and the recruiting has not been successful enough to replenish the leaving talents. The foreseeable future indeed looks bleak.

One cannot help but find many sharp contrasts between UCLA's Karl Dorrell and California's Jeff Tedford, and how they handled their career. Jeff Tedford first became a head coach in 2002, however, he had an opportunity to be a head coach long before that. When Jeff Tedford was an offensive coordinator at Fresno State under Coach Jim Sweeney, he helped directed a potent offense while guiding Trent Dilfer to the first round of NFL draft pick. When Jim Sweeney retired, Jeff Tedford was offered the head coaching job at Fresno State. However, upon careful consideration, Tedford realized that he was not ready to take the full responsibility of an entire football program, hence he turned down the job and stayed an offensive coordinator. Tedford later took another offensive coordinator position at Oregon for four years, having essentially made Oregon a "Quarterback U" with quarterbacks such as Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, and A.J. Feeley, and gave himself a reputation to be an offensive genius and a wonderful quarterback coach. Jeff Tedford sought a head coaching job only after he knew he was ready for the job, when he interviewed and subsequently took the opening at California. Karl Dorrell, on the other hand, had no such plan or discipline to ready himself to be a successful head coach. First of all, the application to the Bruins head coach position seemed spontaneous rather than something carefully planned. Being a head coach at UCLA is clearly a responsibility Dorrell was ill-prepared for. It seemed as though Dorrell took the head coaching job because he did not think he would ever be offered such job again. In doing so, Dorrell's first coaching stint is destined to be a disaster, and it may have ruined his own coaching career to an unrecoverable degree, that no one will ever give him a chance to be a head coach again. All in all, Dorrell taught all potential football coaches what NOT to do, if one wants to be a head coach somewhere some day.

UCLA and Cal, under two different head coaches, are going in two different directions. For the Bruins faithful, however, the Cal's history actually spells hope for UCLA. It proves to the UCLA fans that it only takes one great coach to completely turn around a sinking program, as Jeff Tedford has done at Cal. One day, Dorrell will either resign or be fired, and then the UCLA athletic director absolutely must spend the necessary time, energy, effort, and money to lure the best possible coaching candidate, to bring the Bruins football from Abyss and back to Prominence.
My only caveat to this great post was that I wouldn't pin the KD hire on DG. I will pin the hire on Al Carnesale. From what I know DG wanted to hire Riley but it was Carnesale who really wanted to hire KD out of the finalists of Riley, Robinson, and Dorrell. It is still a great piece and I don't have anything else to add to it. Do you?

Anyways a poignant (and sobering for Bruin football fans) essay on the eve of this weekend's football game.