The Donahue Curse

Rebumped. I was going to write a post which would start with recounting the nightmare from Donahue years. Instead of reinventing the wheel, rebumping this post from November 7, 2007. While I am supporting of Rick Neuheisel, I hope he understands that if he wants to break away from the the culture of mediocrity that has engulfed UCLA football for more than a decade, he needs to break away from the legancy and mindset left behind by Typhoid Terry. GO BRUINS. - N

Bruin Blue with a must read post on Typhoid Terry who is working OT to play the violin for CTS. GO BRUINS. -N

A number of UCLA alumni and fans have at least some positive things to say about Terry Donahue.  I do not.  I have nothing against Donahue as a person; but I hated him as a football coach.  And I mean hated.  From the first season, when he was totally outcoached by John Robinson in the conference decider, and then embarrassed the university by not even showing up against Alabama in the Liberty Bowl, I knew that he was a mediocre-at-best coach who was going to hide behind UCLA's talent and natural advantages over most of the teams in this conference, and probably last a long time.  I didn't know how long, of course.  I still regret the loss of that 20 years of my football fan life.  Following UCLA football has never been the same for me after that experience.  Year after year of essentially nothing; losing to almost all the good teams, trudging to victory over the bad ones; never competing for a national title, despite a host of Pro-Bowl-type players.  And on and on and on it went.

I know that some will argue; and point to the Rose Bowls (four in twenty years), and the other Bowl wins, and the victories over USC at the end.  I used to be more vehement about such arguments, but it's so dreary to relive that now, that I seem to lack the energy.  Otherwise, I could tell you stories about some of the most pathetic, cowardly, stupid decisions ever made on a football field.  Well, just to make my point, and for the sake of amusement, I'll give you three.:  In 1978, UCLA was loaded, with Theotis Brown, James Owens and Freeman MacNeil as offensive threats; Jerry Robinson and Kenny Easley on defense.  Donahue managed to lose to a Kansas team which ended up 1-9  Later, he played an Oregon State team which finished 3-7.  OSU had no offense at all; only a really good field goal kicker and a good punter.  In typical Donahue fashion, the Bruins had slogged to something like a 12-10 lead, entering the fourth quarter. There was a strong wind which was against UCLA in the last quarter; but even knowing that, Donahue had played as conservatively as possible in the third.  So in the fourth, what does Donahue do but continue to run the ball into the line on every play, apparently fearing something awful will happen if he throws it.  What happens is that on each change of possession, UCLA gets pushed back further and further;  as their punter, with the wind, keeps outkicking ours.  Finally, with about eight minutes to go, UCLA is stuck back on its four yard line.  Donahue, acting like a bad poker player who keeps betting the same amount on the same bad hand, has the team run three more conservative plays, leading to a punt.  The punt goes about thirty yards, and OSU gets the ball on our 38.   They run three plays for a couple of yards, and their FG kicker then kicks the winning field goal.

The second is a game against Oregon in 1980, I believe.  (Rich Brooks, of all things, coaching Uof O).  UCLA is on probation that year, so even for  Donahue, who loved to play for ties, there was no reason not to go all-out..And remember, there was no overtime back then.  Anyway, Oregon is leading 20-14 with about six minutes to go.  UCLA drives down to the Oregon 27, where it's 4th and 3.  With what thought in his head, we will never know, Donahue has the team kick a field goal, to make it 20-17.  Oregon gets the kickoff and is able to run out the clock. I can only imagine that Donahue was thinking, "Well, a field goal is three points, and if we kick it we are only down three.  Then if we get the ball back with a couple of minutes to go, we can perhaps kick another field goal and end up with a tie."  Here is one more.  In 1989, UCLA is having a dreadful season.  They are playing Washington, who the week before had lost to USC, thus knocking themselves out of the Rose Bowl.  In that game, Don James could have played for the tie late, but needing the win, went for it and lost.  Well, in this game which now meant nothing but pride to either team, UCLA surprisingly got ahead early, 21-0  Washington rallied to cut it to 24-21.  Late in the fourth quarter, UCLA went on a potential game-clinching drive.  First and goal on the UW 6, Donahue did what he always did--run three plays into the line.  Now there were less than 3 minutes to go.  Donahue had the team kick a FG to make it 27-21.  Now, what did this accomplish?  In Donahue's limited mind, it meant three more points.  In the mind of anyone else, it meant nothing, because Washington wasn't going to go down and kick a FG to play for a tie (again, no OT then).  So what happened was that UCLA kicked off, Washington ran it back to about the 45, and went down to score the winning TD, 28-27.

I hope those stories were interesting.  There are more.  

Those who did not live through that era cannot possibly comprehend how unbelievably, suffocatingly stupid and cowardly Donahue's coaching was.  But then again; perhaps you indeed can.  For incredibly enough, you are seeing it repeated, in slightly different form, in the coaching of Donahue's disciple, Karl Dorrell.  The only difference is that Donahue (and his great recruiting coordinator Bill Rees) brought in better players, so he could mostly beat the bad teams on the schedule.  And every once in a while Donahue managed to bring Homer Smith in to save his offense.  Other than that, though. it is eerily similar.  Steve Axman was there.  Bob Field.   All the legends which helped make the Donahue era what it was.  And believe me, the Donahue era is still very much with us.

For apart from the various games, the lack of fundamentals, the strategic blunders, the major import of the Donahue nightmare was what it did to the psyche of UCLA football.  Before Donahue, expectations had been high in Westwood.  Tommy Prothro was an unlucky coach, because with even decent luck, he could easily have gone to four Rose Bowls in six years here.  He did finish in the Top Ten four times.  Pepper Rodgers was 17-5 in his last two seasons and was essentially run out of town for not being able to beat USC.  Ah, those were the days.  Dick Vermeil won the Rose Bowl and finished #5 in his second year.  And then along came Donahue.  In the middle of his tenure, Donahue said, "Winning a National Championship is not a realistic goal at UCLA.."  Donahue made up every excuse to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy.  He blamed steroids for his teams' inability to beat Oklahoma and Nebraska (1-7 against them).  He once said that the L.A. riots had hurt his recruiting.  Every Spring, without fail, Donahue would be quoted by the Times as to how injuries had just decimated his club for the Fall.  It was Donahue who started this nonsense about the only thing that mattered here was competing for the Pac-10 title.  This was undoubtedly because his record against ranked OOC teams was about .250.  What Donahue did was to lower the bar to where his typical 7-3-1 season was sufficient.  UCLA stopped being the national power that they had been under Prothro, and became a program which simply settled for hanging around the #15-20 range year after year.

And essentially that's where we've been ever since.  Yes, we had that one glorious run under Toledo, and then fell back.  We've had worse seasons, of course; as our talent edge has dissipated.  But the essential motif of the Donahue years has sunk into the Bruin psyche so much that most of our fans have become inured to hoping for those 7 or 8 wins to call it a successful season.  How else could our current coach who has lost six games in three of his first four years still be here?  Surely he wouldn't have been at any one of twenty major programs; and not at the UCLA of 40 years ago.  But because of Donahue, his disciple Karl Dorrell is not held to any significant standards.  Four more losses this year and people are still arguing for him to be given another chance.  That's all a residue of the Donahue years.

I think that Donahue is still very much with us.  Not just psychologically, either.  He has his fingerprints very much on this program.  He has his corps of acolytes in the Morgan Center; and of course his cadre of ex-players: Norrie, Stevens, Cook.  They are always the ones who argue for patience with the current coach; they are always telling everyone that UCLA has all these disadvantages relative to other programs; and that expectations are too high in Westwood.  It is as if they are all the pod people in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," because they always say the same thing; and they are completely wedded to the Donahue philosophy.  They are the ones who get the UCLA color and postgame jobs; and they all repeat the mantra over and over, until the press media believes it.  And now, as five years ago, when it might be time to choose another coach, here they and Donahue are, somehow using their almost hypnotic influence to suggest someone from their cult.  Rich Brooks, who of course was one of Donahue's assistants here in the '70's, and who was supposed to be Dalis' replacement hire had Donahue taken the Atlanta Falcons job..  They are running out of names, but here they have found another one.  It was a setback for them that Greg Robinson had gotten hired by Syracuse, thus exposing his ineptitude, or assuredly Robinson would have been right on top of the list this time.  They still have Johnny Lynn; maybe Dick Tomey.  Ron Carragher was Brooks' OC at Kentucky.  Like the sinister members of a cult, they spread out across the country, only to be called back when the master needs them.  And what does Donahue need now?  Why, to keep his own legacy where he wants it.  Should UCLA ever hire a big-time coach, it might actually become clear to too many people just how mediocre the Donahue era really was.  If UCLA ever actually starts competing for national titles, the comparisons to Donahue's regime will not be positive for him.

Okay, perhaps I'm being a little bit overdramatic for effect.  Donahue is not a sinister person, just an inordinately sensitive one who happens to know too little about coaching and finding coaches.  My fondest wish is that he would somehow go far away from this program, and take all his minions with him.  They have poisoned the well of UCLA football, far more than any basketball coach ever did to that program.  Harrick is good-natured enough to be a big fan of Ben Howland; and Lavin, as awful as he was, really never brainwashed the Bruin alumni to accepting his brand of ridiculous underachievement, just the A.D. and Chancellor.  But Donahue did manage to completely change the mindset in Westwood, and we are still suffering from its effects now.  And as far as I am concerned, our biggest barrier to actually hiring the kind of coach we are all hoping for, is Donahue--in person, by dint of his cult of supporters, and by virtue of the effect he still has on far too many people in the UCLA world.  When you hear that Rich Brooks is being mentioned as a possible replacement for Dorrell, you have to know that this is the Donahue effect being felt again. When there is a long thead in another forum suggesting that UCLA consider hiring Donahue again now, you feel as if you are in an H.P Lovecraft nightmare. The Donahue curse must be lifted once and for all, if we are ever going to travel out of the gloom into the sunlight.

-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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