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The UCLA Bruins, the Denver Broncos, and a Ruthless Desire to Win: Continuing Football Education, 3.0

The Denver Broncos provided yet another lesson for the U.C.L.A. Bruins on how - and how not to - compete for a championship.

A coach, a quarterback, and three good years
A coach, a quarterback, and three good years
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There is a football coach who was hired to take over a team that had just suffered through a string of some of the worst seasons in that program's proud history. His hire wasn't flashy, but those who knew felt he was what the team needed to turn things around.

It helped that the coach had an incredible quarterback fall into his lap at the same time, and that once-in-a-generation quarterback produced record-breaking numbers during the next three years. The players revered their coach and he inspired a culture change within the program, and in a very short time that team morphed from an afterthought to one of the top teams in the league. The coach and his team produced three of the greatest years in the program's proud history, and things looked so good that they even developed aspirations of winning championships.

Sound familiar so far?

Well, that coach just got fired.

So, no, I wasn't talking about Jim Mora. I was talking about the Denver Broncos newest ex-coach John Fox. But it's a story that Coach Mora and all Bruin fans can take to heart

John Fox took over a Broncos team that had just gone 4-12 and made them competitive. He got the team to 8-8 his first year and even miraculously won a playoff game with Tim Tebow. And then Peyton Manning arrived and the team started winning all the time. Fox led Denver to consecutive 12, 13, and 12 win seasons and people looked at the Broncos as potential Super Bowl champs.

The problem was that every time the team faced a big game, they fell flat.

Does that sound familiar?

For the Broncos, two first round playoff upsets at home, an embarrassing blowout in a Super Bowl, and a 1-7 record against the Seahawks and Patriots gave a prevailing sense of good-but-not-good-enough, and those 37 wins in three seasons began to look like a beautiful façade on a tenement with rotted joists and bad wiring and leaky pipes. Like Sproul before seismic reconstruction, the team lacked substance where it was needed the most, and Fox was sent packing to Chicago.

In my (and MarkPav44's) years and years of cheering and suffering with my two favorite football teams, the uncanny parallels between the U.C.L.A. Bruins and the Denver Broncos continue. I've written before here and here about how lessons with the Broncos can apply to our Bruins, and here we are again. Which is really the whole principle of parallels, I guess. Mathematically speaking, this should be no surprise. Maybe football is a South Campus sport.

But let's not go too far. No mathematics nor philosophy nor delusional imagination will ever find any parallels between Broncos GM John Elway and U.C.L.A.'s AD Dan Guerrero.

Some of you U.C.L.A. folks right now are whining that this is Bruins Nation and not Mile High Report (an outstanding blog, by the way) so why the hell all this Broncos talk? But just stick with me for a bit. We're getting there, I swear.

In the fallout from the Broncos third consecutive postseason flameout, John Elway fired Fox and his 46-18 record. Now, being a BN editor, I was never enamored with Fox in the first place (that's only partly sarcastic but I do want to throw the haters a gratuitous bone here and there). After all, he posted an awful 2-14 season with Carolina the year before the Broncos hired him. Fox was an improvement over the previous coach for sure and a good guy to rebuild a team, but for an organization that has a championship as its stated goal, he never appeared to be the guy to get there. His style was far too conservative (sound familiar?) and his teams consistently lacked the fire and effort and guts needed to win a trophy. Game plans were vanilla and the coaching staff didn't make adjustments and allowed other teams back into games from big deficits (sound familiar?). Sure, the regular seasons were light years better than his predecessor, but regular seasons are just that - regular. Playoffs are special and that's where heroes are defined and mediocrity is exposed. Can anyone say Joe Montana?

Now before the haters jump to the absolutely false conclusion that I'm pointing at Mora and suggesting that he share Fox's fate...stop. I'm not suggesting or advocating that in the least. I'm happy and satisfied with the progress and direction of the Bruins program under Jim Mora so far. But the key is: I don't want to plateau here. I still want U.C.L.A. to play for Pac-12 Titles and go to major bowls and deliver the annual beatdown to the ridiculous trogans and get good long looks at the College Football Playoffs. And I'll be thrilled if Mora is the guy to get us there. Of course, I would have been thrilled if Karl Dorrell or Rick Neuheisel had done the job, too. The question now is whether Mora can solve that problem or not.

I don't think we can absolutely say yes or no to that question yet, but look at the various criticisms leveled at the Broncos above: lack of fire, unprepared teams, vanilla defenses, predictable offenses, incomplete effort, poor adjustments, falling flat in the biggest games. Do any of these criticisms sound familiar, Bruin fans? Yeah, they all do. Jim Mora and his coaching staff have been working on these problems for three years but they haven't been resolved yet. Lucky for Mora, his boss isn't in the kind of guy to push for any prompt resolution of these issues. But there are places in the football world where those issues get addressed for you.

So this is the lesson we can learn from the 37 year old quarterback who, when he had a Super Bowl finally within reach, lowered his head and dove and helicoptered his team to its first ever championship.

During the talk of the firing this week, I heard a reporter use a term to describe Elway that, after years of following him as a fan, I'd never heard used before, but after hearing it I realized it actually fits him perfectly.

Someone said that in firing Fox, Elway was ruthless.

Ruthless. That's what I want.

(apologies to anyone named Ruth)

If you read between the lines of Monday's presser, Elway comments tell you where his deal was. Elway said that it was disappointing that the team lacked fire, and that for two years it didn't feel like the Broncos went out kicking and screaming. He never said that this year was Super Bowl or bust, but his actions spoke louder than any words at a press conference could.

Too many times the Broncos strolled into games thinking that talent alone was enough to get them a W, and sure enough, it usually worked. But too many times the Broncos would run out to a 3 touchdown lead by halftime, only to see the defense clinging to make a play on the final drive to preserve a win. There was never enough fire, never enough killer instinct. There was never any ruthlessness.

We've all read Class of ‘66's barn cats analogy and it's a great one when you are playing with mice, or the Cal Bears (ironically) for instance. But being the barn cat isn't enough when you are playing with the coyote or the wolf or the grizzly, or the Oregon Ducks (ironically). When U.C.L.A. plays the Ducks we have to be the great white shark or rogue bull elephant or freaking Godzilla and nothing but destruction will satisfy. And until the Bruins adopt that mindset and play set, they will continue to struggle with the Virginias and Memphises, and fall to the Utahs and Stanfords. Ruthless.

Despite the parallels, there are differences between the two football programs. The Broncos are 1 of 32 NFL teams and the Bruins are 1 of 128 FBS teams. Simple math shows Denver has an easier route to a championship. In the NFL, 38% of the teams make the playoffs. In college, it's currently only 2.3%. If you want to look at just the Pac-12 South, then only 1 of 6 teams gets to play for the conference title. The NFL is a pro league and the only marker is winning. UCLA still has standards for academics and limitations on practice time that don't inherently contribute to wins. No mater what the bar Denver execs set for their expectations, the margin for error in a championship run is far more unforgiving for U.C.L.A. But then, I've never excoriated the Bruins or Mora simply for not winning a title, but I have been critical of their results this year which fell short on IE's Eye Test and Coach's definition of success.

So I don't want to say that Denver's failure to win a Lombardi Trophy exactly parallels the Bruins failure to win even the conference. I admire Elway's extreme standards, but I don't think it's fair to hold U.C.L.A. and Mora to that level of achievement. At the same time, I think it's fair to look at the things that failed the Broncos and Elway's subsequent response to note some similarities and take some lessons that the Bruins can apply.

You see what happens when the talent gap closes - when Denver plays Indy instead of Oakland or the Bruins play Stanford instead of CU.  The team that kicks more and screams louder is probably going to win. There are plenty of examples of the Broncos' coaching staff being underprepared (but not underinterviewed). You see what happens when a defense stays in its base, doesn't capitalize on matchups, and responds without ever dictating. You see what happens when an offense is predictable, goes through the motions, and doesn't work hard. You see what happens when a better team isn't ruthless with its opponent.

Everyone who complained that Bruins Nation was too harsh on Mora and the coaching staff and the team this year and that the irrational fan base should be happy with another 10 win season is totally missing the point. There's more to it than the regular season record. The point is what could have been, and it's clear for both the Broncos and the Bruins that the seasons didn't meet expectations. We simply analyzed the shortcomings. Those calling BN unreasonable should take a look at Elway's tolerance for underachievement before they complain about our lamentations.

At U.C.L.A., There remain issues of X's and O's, and we'll have a new QB (oh god that Denver will not...) next season, and Mazzone's playbook is still on sale just a few clicks away from here, but the one thing we can control every day is effort and attitude. And while the culture in Westwood has taken a turn for the better, it's not all the way there, and the Broncos once again demonstrated for everyone what happens when the more talented team doesn't show up to fight. Teams lose, seasons are ruined, and coaches get unemployed. I didn't want to see that pattern with Dorrell or Neu, and I don't want to see it happen to Mora, because I simply don't want to ever see it happen to our Bruins.

What's Mora going to do when faced with the next big play or the next big game? Will he be like Fox and punt and play field position? Will he take a knee and play for overtime? Will he limp off the field after squandering yet another opportunity to play for the ultimate prize? Will Mora show that same ruthless desire to win, that refusal to lose, that Elway did as a player?

What's Guerrero going to do if the Bruins settle into an annual 9-10 win team but continue to fall short against the Oregons and Stanfords of the Pac and play in middle tier bowls without ever challenging for the conference title and bigger games around New Years?

Can you imagine Dan Guerrero ever making the kind of move Elway made this week? Can you imagine Guerrero showing the stringent adherence to success and ruthless desire to win that Elway has shown in the front office?

You can agree or disagree with how Elway handled Fox, but I think it's hard to argue which GM is more desperate to win and which is going after it with more intensity. Personally, I hope Mora makes the leap and the Bruins become title contenders and lets our Apathetic Director off the hook.  But if Mora isn't the guy to win titles for U.C.L.A., do you see our AD making the kind of bold and maybe rushed or reckless but totally ruthless decision that Elway made? And in a race between the two, who do you think wins one first between Elway and Guerrero, and who is more likely to settle for good enough and never get over the hump?

Bruin fans should watch how a leader with a championship pedigree and championship aspirations and championship expectations handles those issues.