The "Unreasonable Expectations" Card

Another seminal post from Bruin Blue. This is a must read post for everyone in BN and I urge everyone here to share this with all of your family members, friends who are part of the extended family of Bruins Nation. GO BRUINS. -N

One would think that this card, played so often during the Steve Lavin years, would have been discarded forever from use by UCLA fans and fans of other colleges who take an interest in the UCLA program.  But apparently it has become one of those things which has become almost part of the mythology of college sports, this idea that UCLA alumni and supporters are somehow spoiled and unreasonable with regard to their expectations for the basketball and football programs.

In the '60's and '70's, no one talked this way.  UCLA was described by Sports Illustrated in a major article as the "Athens of Athletics," the place where academics and athletics coexisted in splendor.  UCLA of course dominated college basketball; while in football under Tommy Prothro, the Bruins finished in the Top Ten in four out of his six years here, and actually came very close to winning two national titles, were it not for one of the worst big-game placekickers of all time.  Everyone knew that UCLA, sitting on top of the mother lode of athletic talent that is Los Angeles, was as well situated as any program to be dominant in both major sports.  And UCLA fans, even while they lamented the just-misses in football, looked forward to every season with great anticipation, and with high expectations that neither the legendary John Wooden or Prothro ever thought were unreasonable.

But then came the dark years, after Wooden left.  UCLA had an athletic administration which had grown complacent and insular; and an alumni and fan base which had been systematically robbed of power by the AD, and which itself had begun to think of UCLA as some kind of blessed place where any ex-player or ex-assistant coach could be hired, and some kind of "Bruin magic" would take over.  But there is no "magic"--at UCLA, Notre Dame, Alabama, or anywhere else--without the right coach in place.  And when UCLA stopped hiring proven winners as coaches, they stopped winning big.  Oh, they had enough talent to be competitive, but other top programs with top coaches started beating them regularly, particularly when it counted.  And when that happened, some of the coaches began to use the "unreasonable expectations" argument in order to deflect criticism away from their own failures and toward the allegedly demanding fans.  In football, Terry Donahue, who somehow seven-winned himself into the Hall of Fame, but who, with all the talent in the world, was unable to win any championships, liked to complain about this, though usually in a mild way.  Somehow the fact that UCLA at one time had more players in the NFL than any other school, including such legends as Aikman, Eatman, Norton Jr., and Ogden, but still didn't even really contend for a national title was not seen as the coach's failure, but as somehow simply part of the reality for this program; and those fans who couldn't understand this, were expecting too much.  When Donahue left, UCLA hired another journeyman coach in Toledo, but even he finished in the Top Ten in two of his first three years, and came within one very bad call in the Miami game of playing in the national title contest.  To his credit, Toledo at least though that winning a title at UCLA was not only possible but not unreasonable.

In basketball, UCLA went through a series of unqualified coaches, and of course the program slipped further and further from what it once was.  Of course other programs had built up, and UCLA was never going to be as dominant as it was under Wooden.  But the soft Los Angeles media (for those who follow other programs, it is important to realize that unlike the media in "college towns" like Lexington, Bloomington and on Tobacco Road, the L.A. media is very easy on the college teams, and particularly the coaches, since this is in many ways a "pro town") started to make excuses for the lack of titles by essentially writing that UCLA's time had passed;  that there were too many barriers, academic and otherwise; that other programs simply spent more and cared more; and that winning 20 games a year in basketball was something to be proud of, not disdained.  And of course the implication was that the UCLA alumni and fans were being unreasonable to feel otherwise.

Then Steve Lavin came along.  Lavin was not only an incompetent coach, he was a charlatan, who endlessly spun the media, local and national.  Lavin had the audacity to actually blame the UCLA fan base for his own inability to win big games.  He would talk about the "wine and cheese crowd" which presumably showed up late, and didn't think that a five-point win over Cal State Northridge was something to celebrate.  He talked about the "pathology of UCLA basketball," whatever that was supposed to mean.  He was fond of saying that "Lew Alcindor (or Bill Walton) isn't walking through that door."  And sadly enough, much of the media bought it' and so did too many of the fans and alumni, who had apparently been beaten down over the years, or who were too young to remember what good basketball looked like, and what was possible at UCLA.  There were people who knew otherwise, including some of the fine analysts at Bruin Nation.  And those of us who had the time wrote essays about it, and tried to keep the flame burning.  But the defense of Lavin became even more vociferous, and some in the media (those who had come from other places, and really had no idea) found it simpler to just complain about the fans, and tell them to leave Lavin alone, with his 21-10 records and Sweet Sixteens.

And it looked like this nightmare might never end.  But somehow it did.  UCLA got a new Athletic Director in Dan Guerrero.  The word got around to all the high school athletes and their coaches, that Lavin didn't have a clue, so the talent pool dried up.  Lavin had a losing season, which gave the AD the excuse to fire him.  And at long last, UCLA actually hired a proven big-time coach in Ben Howland.  Then, astonishingly enough (but not to those of us who had said this would happen if UCLA finally had the right coach in place), everything turned around.  After a poor first year, saddled with Lavin holdovers who wouldn't or couldn't learn fundamentals, Howland took his next team to the NCAA Tourney.  In his third season, Howland won the conference, and amazingly took the Bruins to the NCAA Finals, where they lost to one of the best teams of the last 20 years in Florida.  Last year, Howland essentially repeated the feat, by winning the conference again, and getting to the Final Four, where once again UCLA was beaten by Florida.  It could easily be argued that if it were not for the Gators, UCLA would have won two straight national titles.  A far cry from the "UCLA should be darn proud to get to the Sweet Sixteen" mantra which Lavin tried to sell.  And next year, UCLA will once again be ranked in the top five, and has as good a chance to win the title as any club.  Suddenly, UCLA basketball, while not the dominant force it once was, is at a level equal to any other program in the country.  And since I am not as tolerant as some people, it sometimes galls me that those individuals who did everything they could to keep Lavin are now blissfully enjoying the Howland era, without apparently much of a twinge of guilt, or the realization that had they gotten their way, Lavin would still be here, and the "unreasonable expectations" claim would have kept on being made.

And that is the preface to what is going on now with UCLA football, because from almost every angle, the story is the same.  No, UCLA football was never the dynasty that UCLA basketball was. But it was very successful, every time that a good coach was in place.  Under Red Sanders, UCLA had one of the top; three programs in the country.  Under Prothro, UCLA was about as good as anybody out there.  Dick Vermeil was only here for two years, but in his second year, he went 9-2-1, routed the so-called "greatest team of all time" Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, and may well have had the best squad in the country at the end of the year.  So that shows what can be done here.  The mother load of talent is every bit as golden in football as it is in basketball.  Witness what Southern Cal has done under Pete Carroll, recruiting mostly players from L.A. County.  And while it is true that UCLA does not have access to every player that Southern Cal can recruit, it can go after most of them.  It is likely that outside of Southern Cal, Florida, Texas, Notre Dame and Ohio State, no school in the country has the opportunity to bring in better talent yearly than UCLA.

And the Athletic Director believes it, because when Bob Toledo was fired, he said that "The goal at UCLA is to win conference titles and go to BCS Bowls."  The coach he hired, Karl Dorrell, believed it--or said he did--as in his first press conference he stated that "I want to win the Pac-10 title next year."  (If you don't believe he said it, listen to the audiotape).  Well, he didn't win the Pac-10, that year or any year so far.  He didn't get to any BCS Bowls, and has compiled a 1-3 record in the three third-tier Bowls his squads have played in.  But he did manage a 10-2 record two years ago; and this upcoming club is the best he has had, in his words.  Nineteen starters return, and almost all of a defense which stifled Southern Cal and stopped Notre Dame cold for 59 minutes.  The former prep phenom quarterback Ben Olson is healthy again, and there is a very capable backup on hand.  And just as importantly, the schedule is very favorable.  The Pac-10 is decent but certainly not a power league right now; and all of UCLA's tough conference games outside of Southern Cal across town are at home.  The nonconference slate is very beatable, with rebuilding Notre Dame, middling Utah, and A BYU club which has lost its star quarterback.  Barring major injury or implosion, UCLA will be favored in every single game this year except against Southern Cal.  So why would it be "unreasonable" for UCLA fans to expect and even demand a conference title and a BCS bid this season?

It's not as if only a few programs manage to make a BCS Bowl.  If West Virginia can do it; if Boise State can go undefeated and then win a BCS game against Oklahoma; if Maryland could do it a few years ago; if lowly Rutgers can come within a multiple-overtime game of making a major BCS Bowl, why in the world should UCLA be relegated to a status below that?  As for how the Pac-10 has done, a few seasons ago, Oregon finished no worse than #3 in the country.  Cal has won ten games under Jeff Tedford.  We all know what Southern Cal has accomplished.  But still UCLA supporters are being unreasonable to think that once in five years, UCLA might manage to win a conference title?  The argument that they are being unreasonable is being pushed by people who either mean well but do not realize what the potential is for this program, with a strong coach in place; or by people who are happy that UCLA hired Karl Dorrell and not someone of higher stature, just like they were happy that UCLA hired Lavin, and desperately wanted UCLA to keep him, fearing what would happen if UCLA somehow found its way to hiring a top coach.

A paradox is that while I and others are absolutely convinced that with a solid football coach UCLA would have a perennial top ten program, we cannot prove it to you until it happens. And if UCLA keeps hiring unproven, inexperienced coaches simply because they are "True Blue Bruins," it may never happen.  But rest assured that the talent on hand this season is enough for virtually any coach to win at least ten games, with this schedule.  The bitterly amusing truth is that UCLA fans, far from being unreasonable, are mostly accepting and docile, far more so than the football fans of such schools as Michigan, Alabama, Texas A&M, and Penn State, whose athletic administrations could only wish that they had an alumni base so relatively passive.  For a program with the built-in advantages (large student population, tremendous talent base, lovely weather, fine academic reputation, attractive women) of UCLA to not be able to reasonably expect to win one conference title and make one BCS Bowl in five years, would be ludicrous.  Even those people who root against UCLA, or who do not really care how they do, should at least realize that the "unreasonable expectations of UCLA fans" is a silly myth that should be discarded once and for all.

- Bruin Blue

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