Rick Neuheisel is out. That much is clear. Where UCLA goes from here is as foggy as can be though and that's because ensuring the future success of the football program is not as simple as picking a coach. The UCLA football program stands at a crossroads, with an opening for head coach, a proven failure for an athletic director, deficient facilities and worst of all, university support for the football program that can be described as apathetic at best. None of these things are new problems for the Bruins, but with the changing dynamics of college football and the Pac-12, this is the last time they will face these problems in the same form as they are in today Simply put, if the Bruins don't get their football program on track this time, they will begin digging their own grave at two times the pace than they have in the last decade, while outside forces make it tougher than ever to dig their way out.
While Neuheisel had some success at Colorado and Washington, he wasn't deemed to be an incredible coach. He succeeded early on at both schools, ran into a rough spot then was gone before long, either to a new school or because he was fired for athletic department incompetence. Karl Dorrell wasn't a success anywhere, although being called a pretty good wide receivers coach might be considered a succes, but that's hardly enough to get a Pac-10 head coaching job, you would think.
Neither Neuheisel nor Dorrell were elite head coaches. They weren't even second tier head coaches. There was hope that both could succeed, but neither was the cream of the crop. They were the caliber of head coach that UCLA was in the market for though. Yes, they performed poorly and no Bruin expected such disappointment, but UCLA got what it paid for. In an era of skyrocketing coaching salaries, UCLA chose to continue their cheap spending ways. There's a reason why Neuheisel and Dorrell commanded what they commanded while the elite head coaches commanded two and three times as much. Unfortunately, UCLA had to spend nine years finding out exactly why that is first hand.
Not coincidentally, coaching salaries have skyrocketed as interest in college football has also skyrocketed and college football becomes big business. Once the SEC became the first 12-team conference and introduced conference title games, college football changed. The money changed. The Big XII followed and then the ACC did. Multimillion dollar renovations to stadiums became the norm, as did dedicated football buildings with every amenity possible included to properly pamper players. Eventually, these things became so common that it was no longer pampering and just the cost of playing top-level Division I football.
While all this was going on, UCLA was playing it cheap with their head coach and his staff. While teams were building dedicated football buildings, UCLA was building the Acosta Center and forcing football to share space with the rest of the sports. The football coaches' offices were in a completely separate building to comply with the school's philosophy, program needs be damned. Unwilling to explore the possibility of building an on-campus stadium, UCLA was playing far from campus at the Rose Bowl and their practice field wasn't even the full 120 yards.
Many argued that UCLA didn't need to do more than they were doing. After all, they were doing more than they did in the 1980's and 1990's and those teams were going to Rose Bowls. Ignoring that such an outlook is lazy and short-sighted, it is also ignorant to the changing dynamics of college football. The money in college football was different then, with no 12-team conferences or mega TV contracts. Facilities were afterthoughts and coaches were just public employees, not sought-after commodities. Times changed, but UCLA didn't.
Now we sit in 2011 with UCLA on the verge of falling even further behind. If the big money in the last 15 years completely changed college football, it's only the beginning of what we're going to see going forward. The Big 10, a conference that only the SEC can match in terms of fan support is now at 12 teams and ready to cash in. The SEC has expanded further and the ACC is trying to become relevant. The competition is only increasing and in hopes of getting a leg up on their competition in this college football world, schools are going to continue and then increase what has become their go-to move. Toss more and more money at the one thing that is unregulated by the rules of the game and NCAA: coaches and facilities.
Most importantly to UCLA, the Pac-12 is finally starting to get into the modern world of college football. Oregon has become a national powerhouse in large part because of the hundreds of millions they've poured into their football program, but they're not the only spenders anymore. Cal is spending more than $400 million on their stadium and practice facility, while Oregon St. and Washington St. have undergone stadium renovations. Stanford recently built a new stadium and there is talk of stadium improvements at both Utah and Arizona St.
Pac-12 coaches are also starting to see this money and it's leading to a major boost to the conference's coaching ranks. Chip Kelly, Jeff Tedford, Kyle Whittingham and Lane Kiffin are already known as good coaches (although varying degrees of good), while the same is expected of David Shaw. That leaves a lot of not so good coaches too, but those not so good coaches are quickly on the way out. Arizona has picked up Rich Rodriguez and there is talk that Mike Leach will find his way into the conference. That means more than half the conference could have coaches that could lead their teams to the Rose Bowl and no one would be surprised, while other promising, but unproven coaches in the conference can make it more than two-third of the conference with good coaches.
Never before has the competition been so tough for UCLA. Never before has being UCLA and being in a fertile recruiting area meant so little to UCLA. Look at the list of coaches in the conference. Is there any doubt that they are more than capable of swooping into Souther California and poaching recruits? If the Bruins really have a desire to be excellent in football, they will have to be excellent in every phase of the program, starting with the administration's support to a committed, intelligent athletic department and then down to the coaches and team itself. There's no such thing as "getting by" anymore. From here on out it is really simple. You either excel or you fail.
The problem is that, as we explained, UCLA is already behind. Even the departing Neuheisel admitted as much, telling Dan Guerrero that if they want a successful football program that they'll have to improve the practice field and build a football building. That doesn't even get into the stadium issue. In short, Neuheisel told Guerrero that UCLA needs to care and commit to their football program.
That care and commitment starts with the selection of the school's next head football coach. The rumor is that for the first time ever, UCLA will top dollar on a head coach. That is a start. The rumor is also that UCLA will spend more money on assistant coaches. A nice step two. Guerrero said that they plan on improving the football practice facilities, which is a nice thought, and when all three of these things are done, we might begin to believe that UCLA cares about football. Until then, I haven't seen a contract that shows UCLA is spending on a head coach or his assistant and I haven't need anything that resembles a halfway decent plan of a football facility, let alone an actual facility.
If that looks like a daunting mountain to climb right now, imagine it in five years? Imagine falling further behind and going up against competition that is better prepared than ever before? That's what UCLA is facing if they can't get the football program righted this time around. Instead of the do-overs they got after Dorrell and now after Neuheisel, the Bruins will not walk into the same world and try to get it right for a fourth time, but walking into a completely new galaxy with no idea how to figure out up from down.
Right now, UCLA is all talk. There is no actual action that shows the Bruins have learned and are going to step into the modern world and that is what scares Bruin fans most. They have no assurances. They have no trust in the decision makers. They have no reason to believe that UCLA has a clue what they are doing because for the last decade and arguably longer, they haven't had a clue.
Everything is still there for UCLA to become a major player in college football. They're still in a major market and in a fertile recruiting ground. They still have the UCLA brand, even if the last decade has diminished it, and they still have one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. They have a huge alumni base and thanks to the Pac-12's new TV deal, they will have all of the money and exposure they could want.
The resources are there, but unused and mismanaged resources have no value. The question is whether the school can finally make good on their resources because each time they waste their abundance of resources they become far less valuable. The last decade has left the Bruins' resources and program essentially on the verge of college football bankruptcy. UCLA has one last lifeline to keep them from liquidating and selling off its assets before closing up shop for good. Get it right now, UCLA, or you might as well hand in those helmets and shoulder pads for good.