The Cal Game and Beyond

Bruin Blue with this week’s gem. Note his objections to DeWayne Walker, which we couldn’t agree with more. GO BRUINS. -N

It almost seems fitting that one cannot even find a point spread for this game, because of all the injury uncertainty.  It sometimes seems as if UCLA football has been existing in a surreal dream for years; and this week is doing nothing to alter that sense.  Over the years, we have had some big football games, though not very many lately.  But this one could be as big as any of them, for its implications for the future of our program.  And yet it is a contest which is currently shrouded in uncertainty.

If we lose to Cal, there is no way that Karl Dorrell is going to keep his job.  Lose by one, lose by twenty, it doesn't matter; if we lose, he is cooked.  At 4-3 we would have no legitimate hope of salvaging anything from this season of great hopes; and it is likely that we would lose another three games at least.  But with a win, Dorrell and his team could point to a 4-0 Pac-10 first-place tie; and undoubtedly it would give the team fire for the rest of the campaign.  And of course the ever-friendly media would jump on the story of Dorrell and UCLA redeeming themselves with their backs against the proverbial wall.  Now, as far as I and many others here are concerned, a win here over an injury-depleted Cal team should not save Dorrell's job; which should have been already forfeited based on his five-year body of miserable work.  But as we all know, that's not how it has worked at UCLA over the years, where it sometimes seems as if our coaches are like vampires who need to have a stake pounded firmly into their heart before they can be finally interred.  So while I had said before, and still do think, that Dorrell is almost certainly gone, we have to concede that he still has at least the theoretical possibility of saving himself, as long as he wins out.

But right in the middle of writing this essay, I read what some might see as good news, but what I view as very disturbing: A Sporting News writer saying that a source tells him that Dan Guerrero has talked to Dewayne Walker about taking over the job on an interim basis, with serious consideration being given to his being hired on a permanent basis should he do well. I can only hope that either this source or the writer is dead wrong; because if there is truth in this, it is in my view appalling. No one fires head football coaches in the middle of the year unless there is some kind of scandal or recruiting violations. I have never seen an interim head football coach hired in the middle of the season. And let us all well remember the disasters which interim hires have become in basketball. To review, we all remember the Steve Lavin saga. I actually was one of the few who was totally against him being given the full-time job during the middle of the season, when a couple of L.A. Times sportswriters were daily lobbying for it.  He got the job when the team was 10-6, then parlayed that into a good run for one year, only to drag this program down to the darkest depths before he was finished.

Here are some more examples.  Brian Ellerbe was hired as interim coach in the middle of the season by Michigan, when Steve Fisher was exposed for recruiting violations and other irregularities.  Michigan got hot, finished the Big 10 in third place, and went on to win the conference tournament, ultimately being upset by Lavin in the NCAA's.  Ellerbe was rewarded with a long-term contract, and then proceeded to do a terrible job.  Michigan basketball has not recovered to date.  And then we have Todd Bozeman, who  was handed the job when what appears to have been a racially tinged campaign against Lou Campanelli eventuated in his being stunningly fired in mid-season.  The players liked Bozeman, and went on a 16-game winning streak, made the NCAA's, and won two games in it.  Bozeman got a long-term deal; and then of course did everything possibly wrong, both on the court and off.  And for a final example, we can remember Michigan State telling Nick Saban that they didn't want him to coach their Bowl game after he told them he was leaving for LSU, and letting assistant Bobby Williams have a shot as interim coach.  Williams got the players to respond for one game, beating Georgia Tech; and then was rewarded with a longer contract.  Williams of course was another terrible coach, who ultimately admitted in his last season that his team had quit on him.

Those examples should be enough to chill anyone who contemplates the possibility of Walker being hired mid-season, getting the players motivated enough to win a few games, and then earning the permanent job.  The above examples and others should easily prove that any coaching change in mid-season is usually enough to motivate the players to play harder and do better for the short term.  In fact, I would imagine that any of UCLA's assistants, or even Ed Kezerian, could get this team fired up for a few games, and so what?  The hiring of an interim coach is usually a recipe for disaster--unless it is made absolutely, totally clear that the interim coach is interim no matter what he does, a la Jim Saia at USC.  And according to this note in TSN, this is not the case.  Now, let us fervently hope that this scenario is not going through Guerrero's mind, much lees that it will ever be consummated; because if it does, I am going to be as upset as I have ever been about UCLA sports, perhaps even more so than when Dorrell was hired.

What I have always been concerned about is the race angle here.  It is an absolute fact that Dorrell was hired at least partly because UCLA thought it was a major plus for the university's image to have one of the few Black football head coaches.  They now are the only university which has ever had  a head coach and both coordinators be African-American.  I am not bringing this up out of nowhere; UCLA has called attention to it.  It is a nice thing in the abstract, but not when the people in question are not up to the job.  Now, Walker is the one assistant who has been given plaudits during the Dorrell nightmare.  I think that he is a straightforward guy who seems to be a pretty good, not great, defensive coach.  I have yet to see him stop a spread offense.  And even if he were a great defensive coordinator, which he is not; I would not want him to be hired as head coach here.  I have seen plenty of great DC's (George Perle, Woody Widenhofer immediately come to mind; there are plenty more who tried and failed in the NFL) who did not make it as head coaches.  So why would we want to try this with Walker?  Because he is here; like Donahue and Toledo and Lavin were here?  Because he is African-American, and thus would deflect any criticism leveled against UCLA by those who are obsessed with playing the race card at every opportunity?  Because as always, there is a contingent of alumni which is enamored of the assistant coach (see Farmer, Donahue, Romar, Lavin), and desperately wants to keep him around, even if it means making him head coach for five seasons or more?  Because if Dorrell is fired in the normal way, most of his staff are going to end up going with him, and UCLA does not want to lose all three of the Dorrell-Norvell-Walker trio?  I would prefer not to see it this way, but I think it does need to be considered, as we all know that public relations  is immensely important to this university.

Now, in a more optimistic vein, I am still hoping for the full-scale coaching search.  And I love the idea of Steve Spurrier; in fact, I was thinking just that when I was watching South Carolina play on Saturday.  It would be a bold gambit, and it is certainly worth a try.  But I would have to be very optimistic to expect that UCLA is actually going to shoot for a homerun in that way; unless Spurrier, like Howland, were to express interest in the position at the outset.  I have never seen UCLA actually go after someone like Spurrier, so I will believe it when I see it . It's a great idea, though.

While I am not jumping off the Chris Peterson train just because of one game, I was not really happy with all the points and yards his team gave up to Nevada last Sunday.  I realize that it's one game, but when you have only been a head coach for two years, every data point is very important for purposes of extrapolation.  It is easy to see that Peterson is a great offensive coach; and all he probably needs is a very good defensive coordinator.  But I am  becoming more interested in Paul Johnson of Navy.  He has certainly been mentioned before, and has unquestionably done a fine job there.  What is important to note about Johnson is that he almost never loses when he has the better personnel; and sometimes surprises when he does not.  Coaches like that usually do very well when they have a chance to coach better talent.  And I was very impressed to hear Lou Holtz, doing color commentary on Navy's last game, say that when Johnson was offensive coordinator at Hawaii, and Holtz played them, Johnson had developed one of the best passing offenses Holtz had ever encountered.  Now, that is something I did not know; that Johnson, who coaches the option offense at Navy because his athletes have so many academic and extracurricular demands that they don't have the practice time to perfect a complex passing game, can also coach another entirely different system.  That is very impressive, and leads me to think that Johnson may be a great offensive mind.  I would not at all be disappointed if he were hired here.  Peterson and Johnson remain my top two choices in the "realistic" category; but I certainly think we should still talk about the "dream" hires such as Spurrier, Cowher or even Bob Stoops, who I sense is not wedded to Oklahoma, and would consider another school.  (Watch out if Pete Carroll leaves, and Garrett, who knows football, makes a run at Stoops).

So with all of this swirling around us, this is going to be one tense week, culminating in Dorrell's biggest game ever--his last stand, as it were.  I continue to think that the long-term future of this program is going to be decided by Dan Guerrero in the next few weeks, not when the season is over.  I have yet to see UCLA ever institute an all-out coaching search in football.  Usually there are only one or two candidates, and the hire is quickly done. Maybe this time it will be different; it certainly should be.  UCLA should gauge interest, and wait for coaches to contact us, because sometimes you can be very surprised at just who is interested.  And of course, we should have our own list to work from, based on either the AD's own homework,or discussions with respected football minds at other schools who usually are happy to assist with their own recommendations.  That has not been the way it has been done here, but it is long past time that it should be.

I had a chance to watch Arizona State for the first time last weekend, and I was very impressed.  Dennis Erickson is a topflight college coach, even if he tends to run outlaw programs.  At ASU, he has access to a good deal more talent than at Oregon State.  I think that in a year or two, he will have a perennial top ten program, one which beats us every season--unless we make the homerun hire. Then we have to contend with USC, which will certainly hire a major name if Carroll leaves.  Add in Cal with Tedford and Oregon with Bellotti, as well as Arizona which will finally hire someone creditable, and perhaps even Washington State with a new coach, and we may well be looking up from the lower end of the Pac-10 for years.  There is no law that says that UCLA has to have one of the better programs in the conference; we certainly don't now, and haven't for nine years.  This time, we had better hire a coach who has the ability to get us there; not another "flyer," or "goodwill hire," whom we need to test out for a few years to see how he might do, and who needs a head coach "learning curve."  Either we step up to the plate and make a grownup, big-time hire, or we can forget about it for as long as our current mindset remains the same.  And who wants to wait for that?

I just wanted to express thanks to those who have favorably commented upon my essays.  Such encouragement is sincerely appreciated.  We here at BruinsNation are the real keepers of the UCLA football faith.  Let's hope that all our efforts are ultimately rewarded.

-Bruin Blue

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.

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