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The Morning After, Part 9: Arizona

The Bruins take a big step on their climb back to prominence in the Pac-12

Andrew Fielding-US PRESSWIRE

When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
for that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence,
as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.

- The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran

Happy Homecoming 2012, Bruins!

Yesterday was a very good day.

Our football team looked fantastic, and played even better. We destroyed a dangerous and explosive and higher ranked team. The Rose Bowl was nearly full and was rocking. *$c lost. It was such a good day that even our basketball team won a game...allegedly. That's how to celebrate Homecoming.

I have always loved those lines from Gibran. They work in a lot of ways, both figuratively and literally, from where I sit in exile at the edge of the great plains against the base of the Rocky Mountains. And they make a lot of sense for the Bruins this morning, too. From my point of view, my love for U.C.L.A. is made clearer every day by my distance and time away from Westwood. Like the climber from the plain, or the Bruin from Colorado. I hope everyone lucky enough to spend time on campus or in Pasadena had a wonderful weekend.

The mountains are an incredible asset of exile here. Colorado has 54 peaks over 14,000 feet. I have climbed over half of the fourteeners so far, and plan on getting the rest someday, but dad duties took precedence over climbing days a while back and I've been stuck on 29 for a few years. However, my kids are about old enough for me to start dragging them up the trails with me, unless it's the other way around already. Some of the peaks require real mountaineering skills. Many of them are just long uphill walks. All of them are pretty arduous, and the air gets thinner and chillier the higher you go.

As Gibran writes, it really is easier to see the mountain from miles away on the plain. You can't see the world with a microscope. To do that, you need to step back and broaden your view. From the plain, the whole mountain ahead is visible in profile from its base to its summit. You can see all the contours along the way, the steep sections, the flat spots, the crack that connects one ridge to one couloir that avoids a cliff that leads to a shoulder and a steady gentle slope that provides the key for getting from the bottom to the top. Mountains usually look readily climbable from the plain.

Once the climb begins, the perspective changes, and you can't see the mountain anymore. You see trees and ridges and cliffs and slides and couloirs and false summits. Often the true summit isn't visible until the last couple hundred feet. In the climb, the focus needs to be on the immediate, and not on the mountain as a whole. Which way does the path turn? Where is the next cairn to mark the route? Which drainage do I traverse and which do I ascend? Where did my dog run off to this time? As the route gets trickier, then the attention to immediate detail becomes more important. Where does the next footstep go? Will the rock support me or will it slide or crumble? Do I need to grab on to something to stick to the mountain while making the next move?

Honestly, the process of getting up the mountain can be kind of painful and not always a lot of fun, particularly if you walk up the wrong couloir for 3 hours before learning you missed a turn, or you find Mother Nature waiting at treeline with a cloud full of lightning bolts. But there is always some beautiful scenery along the way, and on those days when all goes right and you reach the summit, the view of the world around is worth all the pain of getting there. That's the reward. And our Bruins are closing in on the summit.

Mountain climbing has always been a great metaphor for the journeys in life, and it applies just the same to our football team. Back in August, the big picture of our football season was easy to see. We knew the failures of previous years. We could clearly see the task ahead of us this year. We knew the mountain we were facing this season had its share of obstacles, including the biggest obstacle in *$c, but reaching the summit of our conference didn't look like a technical nightmare. With the right moves and route finding, and before the climb began, it looked doable.

We've overcome some challenges and had a couple setbacks on our ascent so far. But then yesterday we took a major step on our climb. Even though the game featured more flags than the Buddhist prayer shrines in the Himalayas, our Bruins did everything else just about as well as you could dream. We creamed a ranked opponent in a game that mattered. Our offense was an avalanche. Our defense played better than I could have imagined. Yesterday's breeze past what looked like a really difficult step shows that we're getting good at this climbing stuff, and just as we are getting to the crux of our season in two weeks.

But before we get to that point, we have one tricky pitch in front of us next Saturday in Pullman. This section looked easy from the plain, but right now as we approach it, the step becomes clearer, and it is not easy after all.

Coach Mora was interviewed as he was leaving the field and said something to the effect that each game we win adds importance to the next game coming up. This is so true. Think of recent years when we we muddling around .500. Sure, there was always desire to win, but the result on the scoreboard was often secondary to the more basic need to show some improvement and simply make the Eye Test look better.

But now there is urgency to win. Wins and losses today carry a lot more weight than they have before, because we are really playing for something now. So Wazzu now becomes our most important game, and there is an awful lot riding on this one. Their coach has already anted up his team's character, and they will be playing to win that pot. So If we aren't paying attention and get careless with this step or especially if we are looking ahead to our crux in two weeks, we will fall on this next pitch, and all the work we have done to get here will be for naught. Our team better concentrate like crazy on making this next move just right. If we assume this step is easy, we're going to suffer a humiliating fall. If we focus the way we came out yesterday, we'll fly past and be onto the next.

The Bruins have run up against a lot of mountains over the last decade, but instead of climbing to their peaks we've squandered our time wandering and falling and getting lost in the wilderness instead. But it seems we've found a promising route at last, and by doing so, we're kind of off the beaten path for U.C.L.A. right now. The last time the Bruins were leading the conference this late in the season was 2001. There wasn't a Bruins Nation then. Was there even an Internet?

Of course, we haven't climbed the proverbial mountaintop yet. I'll leave that for Gus to decide. But we've climbed a long way and we're on track to get to the top, which makes every step important now. We need to watch our step very carefully this week. It would be an awful shame to take a fall and have to turn around and abandon this climb right now. And since we're on the climb, it's harder to see the whole mountain, to know where we are, to know if we've turned any corners, to know just how far we have to go still. But I can tell, we are getting close. The top can't be too far off now.

So let's stop for just a second. Catch our breath. Admire the incredible view from here today. Then, get a drink of water, and plan that next step. Got it? Good. Let's keep climbing, Bruins.