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The Morning After, Part 13: Stanford

Friday was one small step for a season, but one giant leap for a program.

Keep running.  We've come a long way.  And we have a long way to go.
Keep running. We've come a long way. And we have a long way to go.

In 1985, my family spent Christmas with my grandparents in Mount Vernon, Missouri, in the Ozarks near Joplin. After a great week with my extended family there, we drove to Kansas City for our flight back to L.A. It was December 30, and the plane was loaded with people fully decked out in Iowa gear.

I sat next to one particular fan who spent much of the flight alternating between deifying the great Hawkeyes and disparaging everything about California and the "surfer boys" at U.C.L.A. I was always proud of being a Californian and proud of growing up as a public school kid. Having just applied to U.C.L.A., in addition to some other U.C. schools, I was silently bristling, defensive, and insulted. And though I was a few months from hearing from U.C.L.A. admissions, it was probably somewhere over Colorado (ironically, and naturally) that day that I became a huge huge Bruin fan. I do owe that Hawkeye an enormous thanks.

We all know what happened a couple days later. I was so proud and so happy for U.C.L.A. I wasn't yet a Bruin, but I celebrated that win like I was. There was nothing that U.C.L.A. couldn't overcome and I couldn't wait to get a chance to share in that celebration.

I started at U.C.L.A. that fall. And the Bruins haven't won a Rose Bowl since.

When I was invited to join the front pagers at BN, I confessed this to the crew, and that if I truly was our No-Rose-Bowl curse, I would immediately enroll in extension classes at *$c and relocate the hex to the trogans. But no one has proven for sure that it was me so I haven't jumped on that sword yet. And I am waiting for the chance to take my family to Pasadena for New Years and watch the Parade and see a game that afternoon. Still.

Friday's loss killed me. Then, unusually, Saturday turned out to be much worse than Friday. On Friday evening, I was still in post game analysis mode, thinking about schemes and execution and the intricate ins and outs that decide football games. With most of the analysis played out, I found I was left only with emotion, and it was despair. I didn't sleep well on Friday night. I actually had a dream about the game and it still ended badly. The drought continues even in the subconscious.

I don't see much point in rehashing the game. Counting the game threads, Freesia's post game, and N's recap yesterday, we've had over 3,300 comments on the game. Kudos to the BN community. That is some real passion there everyone. But aside from IE's Eye Test, there is nothing to say that I or any number of others haven't already said a hundred times, or anything that hasn't been refuted by any number of others a hundred times.

So I wasn't going to write anything. Besides, my title wouldn't even make sense. But N reminded me that we really haven't looked forward yet. Looking forward makes Friday just a point along the path, and so I thought that if nothing else, that would be a therapeutic thing to do. And I need that.

So let's see...

"You are what your record says you are" - Bill Parcells

If someone had said before the start of the year that we would finish 9-3, be repeat Pac-12 South Champs, and have the ball at the end of the Pac-12 Title game with a chance to win, I bet we would have taken it. Hell, be honest, every single one of us would have taken it and we would have been jacked. So I think it's a bit unfair in the grand scheme of things to look at that game with the benefit of hindsight and be overly critical of the result.

We can tell ourselves over and over that we were the better team on Friday. We absolutely steamrolled the best rushing D in the nation. We outgained them in the air. We stuffed their excellent rushing game and a fabulous player in Stepfan Taylor. We cut our sacks from 7 to 3. Hell, even our penalties were down, though we had plenty of room on the under on that one. And we did it all on the road, in their house, in front of literally tens of their fans, and in crappy No Cal weather to boot.

But we lost the one stat that matters most. The only start that matters, in fact. Scoreboard. We were not the better team.

But you know what? We were close. Very close. About two yards to the left at the end to be specific, and we could have been even closer. And that does count for something. So while Friday night was an incredible heartbreaker, 2012 was an incredible boost. And I am willing to accept that for now, for a bunch of reasons.

First, for self preservation, because I personally need something good to focus on. If I am paralyzed by the thought of what might have been, I will never move forward. We cannot get trapped by the disappointment and frustration of a loss, ever, because there will be another game sometime, and preparation begins now. I know we have people who say you don't celebrate moral victories, and that is true to an extent. But is is the right thing for a competitor and someone with championship aspirations to push the loss to the back of the mind and focus on what went right and what went wrong with the purpose of being better next time.

Second, because we have to accept some limitations in our Bruins right now and realize that no team is perfect. Well, except Notre Dame according to ESPN, although no one else falls for it. But everywhere else, good and bad come together. Silver linings have clouds. Every rose has its thorn. U.C.L.A. employs Dan Guerrero. Well, scratch that last one. Or two. But my point is that nothing is completely positive and good. But as far as our football program looked,
we got so much more good out of things compared to bad. Our coaches didn't suddenly change on the last drive or two. We can wish Mora or Mazzone had done things differently in the 4th quarter, but then we're throwing away San Bernadino and BOOM! and no over the wall. One criticized lineman with the most penalties was also the difference between OSU/Cal, and the rest of the season. If you change our kicker, maybe you change the ASU outcome and we aren't playing in the game on Friday at all. Or if we go for it on 4th, maybe we never get to kick at all.

So I don't think it's totally fair to pick and choose our criticisms. There is no line item veto with coaches and players. You take the good and accept the flaws. There are things I wish my wife wouldn't do, but I still wouldn't trade her for anyone ever, including Kate Beckinsale. In the big picture, I'm happy with where our Bruins are now, but that doesn't mean we stand pat. It means we keep assessing and reassessing and look to improve wherever we can. Keep learning. Keep improving. We're way in the black right now. Let's keep going that way. Because we aren't there yet.

Most importantly, I'll accept 2012 for now because it is a fair way to assess, if not one game, an entire season. I try to imagine what I would say if I ran any of our players today. There is no way I could look them in the eye and say that this season as a whole was a failure. As bad as I feel, I am sure our players feel worse about Friday. I'm sure our coaching staff feels worse about Friday. But I hope they all understand how different things are today than this time last year. We played in the same game last year. The result was the same last year. But the environment around the fans and the school and the program are nothing like last year. The fact we are stinging from a close loss rather than just being happy, if partly embarrassed, to be there at all says a lot On one hand, it is unfair to move the goal posts on this team midgame. On the other, it is a very good sign that we can do that. Expectations for our football team have changed, and that is marker for where things are, and where I expect that things are going. You can choke a midterm and still pull an A. I did that more than once. I hope the Bruins did that on Friday. And the final grades for Coach Mora and his staff are years away.

I got an email from my brother yesterday. He's an attorney in San Diego and thus fulfills my suspected but unconfirmed belief that criteria for BN editorship requires being a lawyer, being married to a lawyer, or having a first degree relative as a lawyer. Or maybe lawyers just make me nervous. Anyway, my brother is the best guy in the world. We both played team sports for years and played against each other in the front yard for longer than that. I have to admit he was a better athlete with better size than I was, and I was really pretty good, and he probably won't read this so I'm ok writing it. He knows his sports better than anyone I know, and he also knows how I feel about my school and my teams. With that in mind, and a day to reflect, he simply wrote:

Your school should be very proud of this season. That was a great effort last night and a huge turnaround from the last several years.

My brother is not a proponent of moral victories, but he also understands the realities of sport, and sports at the highest levels. He knows that Friday was a killer - on Friday - (and for the next few days, too) but that it should be a giant step when you look at the long term direction of U.C.L.A. football.

He's right. We can be proud of that effort on Friday and we can be proud of this season. Neither of those precludes the importance or necessity of improving from here. I wrote last weak that we are a good team but not a great team, and the goal was to be a great team. Well, on Friday, we got closer to to that goal. We followed up a pretty shabby and discouraging performance with a great and heartbreaking performance. In six days. That's a good trend.

Five years ago, Jim Harbaugh turned a Stanford team that was 1-11 the prior year into a 4-8 team. This year, Stanford just notched their third 10 win season in a row. I don't know what the Cardinal fans, ahem, fan was saying at the end of Harbaugh's first season, but I'm sure there wasn't unconditional support or belief in the future.

Right now, it is reasonable to believe that we can become the team that we want. A team that is always in the running for the conference championsjhip. A team that plays in major bowls every year. A team that is consistently ranked. A team that gets a look at the national championship. And it is ok to be excited about that possibility.

Time will tell. In five years, I will look back at this game and consider its significance. Will we see this game as a step on the road to elite status and being a perennial contender? Or will we look at this game and this season as we look at Karl Dorrell and 2005.

The message to Bruins Nation, and to all the U.C.L.A. fans now is to keep the goal in sight. Remember what we want U.C.L.A. to be. Continue to insist that the program reach its interval potentials, as it did this year, and continue to insist that the program reach its ultimate potential in the next 2-3 years. Keep the pressure on the school to make sure that the Athletic Department has the best leaders, and the student-athletes have the best coaches and facilities and support, and that the students have the best experience.

It is absolutely fine and appropriate to be happy with what this team accomplished this year.

"You are what your record says you are" - Bill Parcells

Well then, we were a damned good football team this year.

But do not settle here, Bruins. Happiness and success are not the same. Happiness is a waypoint. Success is the journey. And we have a bowl game on the road ahead.