I used to have a boss who would tell me "Achilles, you’re either in the game or you’re out of the game."
The reference he was making was to our company. We worked at a place where we were in competition with some other firms, but the owner’s sense of victory was only his own personal profit margin. He didn’t even try to beat the competition, he just cut corners and nickel and dimed and made sure he was personally profiting and the fact that everyone else in the company was barely surviving was of no interest to him. So, every time any of our competition made a move to strengthen their organization and we failed to make a countermove, we’d just note that as a company, we just weren’t really in the game.
And that’s how I feel about UCLA football right now. I feel like we’re not in the game.
Think about it: The fun part of the college football season is not just the games involving your team, your tailgate, your conversations with fellow fans. It’s also about following the sport in general. It’s about watching the ESPN show on Saturday morning, watching the highlight shows, checking out the Top 25 polls, the BCS standings and even watching the other big games from around the country. But when your offseason is mostly notable for who got hurt, who gave up football, who’s suspended and who’s academically ineligible and then the first half of our season is notable not for what could have been a program defining win against a top ten team in Austin but instead three humiliating losses to teams that were once sure wins on the schedule -- well, you just don’t matter to the rest of the college football world. In 2010, teams circle UCLA on their schedule and assume it’s a game they can win.
Being irrelevant is a drag and it renders all the aforementioned "stuff" sort of meaningless and instead of being into the college football season you find yourself agreeing to go shopping for hardwood floor with your wife on Saturday instead of flipping channels with one hand and drinking some cold suds with the other.
The paradox of Rick Neuheisel at this point exists between his recruiting – where he appears to be going all out, fearing no other coach or school and is reeling in a lot of well-respected high school players – and his on field coaching – where he seems to be channeling his mentor Terry Donahue with a conservative, punt-from-the-35-on-fourth-and-short, let’s-take-the-field-goal, play-the-less-talented-upperclassmen-over-the-less-talented-younger-guys, forget-about-winning, we-just-want-to-keep-it-close approach to football.
Just so you know, I just visited the student store and they are selling a new line of adidas white flags for fans to wave every time Neuheisel elects to punt inside our opponents territory or opts to kick a field goal on fourth and goal and the team down 30.
But one can only imagine what impact another mediocre-at-best season will have on recruiting. At what point do results start to weigh more heavily on the minds of future players than the program’s perpetual potential? How many blow out losses can the program endure before the recruits start to realize that the promises made don’t match the reality they’re witnessing. The answer: I don’t know.
There is another element to the Neuheisel paradox worth considering. Try to follow along with me:
There are three elements to coaching college football, basically. There’s the recruiting. On that front let’s be generous and stipulate that Neuheisel and his staff are doing a good job. Then there is the strategy. Strategy includes everything from calling the plays to deciding who gets to play. Here, I’m less than enamored with what RN and the coaches are doing, but then again, anytime a team is playing poorly the armchair coaches and Monday morning quarterbacks have issues.
The most difficult thing for me to assess is the "coaching up" part of coaching. I mean, it's somewhat easy for me to comment on play calling. It's easy to comment on strategy. I can comment on personnel decisions. I mean, I see what's happening and I have an opinion. What's really difficult for me to assess and comment on might be the most important thing of all: the concept of coaching the kids so they improve.
I mean, when you look at Boise's roster or Oregon State's roster -- they don't have more four and five star players than we do – and if someone were to really count them up and see that Oregon had a few more it still wouldn’t account for a 47 point blowout. But somehow they have guys who look like studs when they are sophomores, juniors and seniors and our guys don't seem to improve at the same rate.
As I’ve been noting in a few emails to a few friends: UCLA recruits four star high school prospects and turns them into three star college players, other programs recruit three star prospects and coach them into four and five star studs.
There is something about the way these guys coach (and many, many guys coach) that makes their players better over time and that doesn't seem to be happening at UCLA. I don't know if it's mental or if it's a confidence thing. I don't know if it's the way we teach and coach the fundamentals. But there is some gap between our practices and everyone else's whereby our guys don't have the same growth as players over time that other schools demonstrate. If a guy is a stud like Brian Price, he stays a stud. But if a guy has some natural talent like Randall Carroll but needs to improve his skill set -- they don't seem to get better over time.
Along the offensive line it actually seems to be different. Coach Bob Palcic actually seems to be coaching the line to be better players over time. But our running backs never get better. Our receivers never get better. They just stagnate. (Or get worse over time – there is a receiver on this team who was really great as a freshman who I believe only has 10 catches or less this season as a junior. How does that happen?) The guys who are naturals play fine. The guys who are raw, never fulfill their potential. It just seems that many of our top recruits never turn into studs. Off the top of my head, is anyone else shocked that Morrell Presley isn’t kicking ass, just based on his high school reputation.
So, the paradox of Rick Neuheisel actually has another dimension. He recruits with reckless abandon, but employs strategy like a coach who just wants to keep things close, keep the score down and hopes his superior opponent makes a few mistakes and he can steal the win. (Which is a good synopsis of the Texas game.) But the second level consequence is that he recruits great raw talent, but seems to have no idea how to mold that talent into and turn it into a winning program.
At least not yet.
Until he figures it out, until he realizes that it takes more than just great recruiting, it takes great coaching both in terms of coaching the kids up and employing the right strategies, UCLA will be irrelevant in college football circles. Until he is excelling at all three aspects of college football coaching, instead of just one, we as UCLA football fans won’t be in the game.