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The Morning After, Epilogue: UCLA Football v Nebraska

Nebraska had a lot to play for. The Bruins didn't have so much. And that's just about how the two teams played last night. Has Jim Mora's opportunity to build something bold and lasting and inspiring at U.C.L.A. passed by?

Your move, coach.
Your move, coach.
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Really, this bowl game was kind of a no win situation for us, which was our own fault in the first place, of course.

If you consider a championship as the ultimate determinant of success, then 127 D-1 football teams are going to have to consider 2015 a disappointment.

I think that's a bit harsh. If you take coach's definition of success, then there are probably a decent number of teams who will and should rightly be satisfied with 2015, even if their final W-L records don't stand up to every team in the country, or even their own conference.

But by nearly any definition, I don't think there are too many U.C.L.A. fans who were really satisfied with this 2015. This was the first Jim Mora team to really have a clearly worse season than the previous one, or actually, two. Hell, losing to Southern Cal alone should eliminate any option of satisfaction altogether. But if that wasn't enough, the Foster Farms Bowl in and of itself should have sealed the deal. Come on, chicken puppets slaughtering Sister Christian was unforgivable, and that's before we even talk about the football game.

Never mind there are way too many bowl games in the first place, and that comment is not aimed entirely at allowing a 5-7 team into this particular game. We're all pretty huge Nebraska fans after the way that fanbase treated us in a time or tragedy two years ago. Their fans travel well so any bowl would jump at the chance to include them, no matter their record. And we all know the Huskers were a few plays away from 9 or 10 wins this year, so they weren't your ordinary 5-7 team coming in. Not like, say, Buffalo. Or South Alabama. Or Texas.

But still, there wasn't a whole lot for U.C.L.A. to gain in this game. Beating any 5 win team, regardless of whether they have really classy fans and could have won more games, in some mediocre middle tier bowl isn't really the fulfilling epilogue to this season that we were looking for.

And losing to that 5 win team when they push you around on both sides of the line of scrimmage and basically make you look ridiculous and weak and disinterested and soft was even less so. The body language on the Bruin sideline looked like we were playing an exhibition. Meanwhile, Nebraska played like a team with something to prove. Even when we had a 14 point lead, you could see it coming as plain as day.

Line wins games, remember? Congrats, Cornhuskers.

Oh, and defending the pass against one of the worst passing offenses in the country shouldn't be a lot to ask, either.

U.C.L.A. was supposed to do more and be more this year. Yes, the injuries to a couple potential all-conference players hurt, but those injuries weren't enough to account for how far this team missed the mark. Sure, we probably another game or two if not for those injuries, but those injuries weren't the ultimate difference in what could have been and what was this year. Oh, and nor were those injuries able to account for similar disappointments the previous two years.

So how does this morning's epilogue fit yet another discouraging story of a football season at U.C.L.A.?

I was thinking about this question last week while I was rereading the epilogue to Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb. It won the Pulitzer for non-fiction in 1988 and it is absolutely the finest book I've ever read. It's also one of maybe 5 books I've ever purposely reread (not counting some textbooks I reread out of necessity) having read it the first time maybe 8 years ago. There are a lot of works out there I need to get to before the end so I can't afford to reread much. But the book is an incredible amalgam of the birth and growth of nuclear physics among the geopolitics and sociology and psychology and economics and military actions and academics of the first half of the 20th century. When the reader is in suspense and even surprised when Chadwick discovers the neutron or when Seaborg creates plutonium or when Trinity works, events all well known to history, the writer has won. Best book ever.

After the book's narrative, Rhodes' epilogue looks beyond the enormous endeavor to release the enormous power of the atom to consider what that effort accomplished, and what opportunities were missed with its accomplishment. The genius of so many scientists combined with an unprecedented financial and logistical investment of the Allied powers in the late 1930's and 40's resulted in an incredible technical feat, but created a bigger entity that required a good deal more consideration of how to manage that feat, and the failure, or fear, to deal with that entity jump started an arms race that dominated the last half of the century and contributed to proxy wars and distrust and lost opportunity between the world's two superpowers.

In reading Rhodes' regrets from 1986, which echoed the realtime warnings of greats like Bohr and Szilard and even Oppenheimer, my mind inevitably wandered back to football and I wondered what we would be writing and regretting about Bruin football in another decade or two when we look back and consider the recent big jump and opportunity for something special that the football program held the last 2-3 years and whether fear or failure, or both, squandered that opportunity in the end.

I don't know what it's going to take for U.C.L.A. to reach its potential. We've talked about the trials and failures of the recent coaching regimes. We've talked about some glaring weak links on the current coaching staff. We've talked about the current head coach who has the power and responsibility to address those weak links - but has not. We've talked for years about the boss who presides over it all and seems content with things simply being not terrible. And all that leadership has gotten us is the recurrent fluctuations of the seasons, ups and downs without sustained growth and progress, and the fanbase suffers and lashes out.

Maybe we just aren't built for success. For every visionary like Bohr, there were more than enough politicians and military men in control of the bomb in 1945 to force the short term cautious and conservative route that ultimately led to a long term nuclear standoff that diverted trillions of dollars and millions of the best minds away from fields that could have been developed more fruitfully. When you consider the leadership in our athletic department and football program, is it any wonder that our amazing school with a gorgeous campus and great weather and incredible opportunities and unparalleled legacy and untold natural advantages remains mired as a mildly above average program that talks and dreams of competing for titles but finds itself once again getting bruised and bullied in some unnecessary bowl game for also rans and others receiving votes?

For every step forward there is hope, and for every backward step that dashes that hope there is pain. These repetitive stuttering seasons of stuttering reopen our wounds and are infect our fanbase. Just look at the tenor of the comments in the postgame thread. Smart people, good people, loyal Bruins, all dealing with distrust and pain and discontent amongst ourselves. We're fighting our own cold war in our threads and behind the scenes here.

We need to remember who the real enemy is.

I've hesitated to us the analogy of health to talk about U.C.L.A. football, as I think it diminishes the suffering that real illness brings on people and their communities and it overemphasizes the role of sports. But it's the thing I know best - even better than football. It's easy to tell a patient that yes, surgery hurts, but it's necessary to get that appendix out or that tumor removed, because we believe you'll be better off in the long run.

Cancer finally touched my immediate family this summer when my dad was diagnosed with melanoma. He went regularly to his doctor, so we were hopeful it was caught early. We were disappointed when the biopsy showed there was about a 30% chance it wasn't early and may have spread. We were thrilled when surgery showed no evidence of lymph node spread and we were told it was gone. We were gutted when it reappeared in his lung just a month later. We're currently optimistic that the great response to an experimental immunotherapy regimen lasts, but who knows what's coming next week. We've been bitterly disappointed already.

Being on both sides of that desk, as the one who sometimes delivers the good or bad news, and as one on the receiving end with my dad, I understand the existence of the ups and downs and the hopes and disappointments. Now of course U.C.L.A. football and cancer occupy wholly different levels of importance, but the parallels are there, and I'm using my own analogy here to avoid offending anyone else dealing with any kind of illness. This story is mine. I realize it's not everyone's.

In a lot of ways, we've ridden the same roller coaster with U.C.L.A. football this season. But it's not just this season. It's been the whole of Jim Mora's career, with highs at Nebraska and 3 wins over Southern Cal and recruiting battles and lows against Stanford and Oregon and a couple teams we should beat each year and SC and Nebraska and recruiting this year. There are things holding this football program back, and it may hurt to go in and excise them, but it's for the good of the patient. If we take the easy way out now, we're going to suffer for it in the long term.

And even before Mora there were highs that came with the return of of Rick Neuheisel and his relentless positivity accompanied the lows of 50-0 and other bad football. And before that there was the hope of Karl Dorrell and 13-9 and the lows of recruiting and every other year against Southern Cal. And Toledo and Cade had a 20 game streak and a Miami game and Aikman had two great years and a Washington State game.

I've realized after years of practicing medicine, and from more years following U.C.L.A. sports, and from more years than that playing football and volleyball and baseball and soccer and cycling and hockey, and from more years than that competing in the classroom, that disappointments and failures happen. They happen in every walk of life and they happen every day. They happen in sports and in school and in relationships and in health, and the failures hurt every single time.

It's never going to be all good. And it's frustrating as hell. And this morning, things just feel like shit.

But what Coach Wooden, and maybe not coincidentally, my parents, taught is not to get bogged down by the failures. Coach stressed to play up to your own potential. Success is getting the most from your ability. Maybe your best isn't good enough to beat AV as a senior, or get a GPA to get into your school of choice, or keep that one girl interested, or help that one patient. Coach's success does not imply an absence of failures. But with every loss, we need to learn and grow, and then our subsequent success grows with it. In the end, it shouldn't be the failures that define us. It should be the successes we achieve when we have the opportunity to do so.

So I think about what the epilogue will say in the future. What could have been done? What should have been foreseen? I think about what could happen if medicine went all Manhattan Project on cancer and dedicated a similar effort and similar resources for 4 or 5 years. What could come of that? Or what would happen if the best and brightest of U.C.L.A.'s alumni and fanbase came together with a goal of elevating the football program? What could come of that?

I know things suck this morning, Bruins. Today is one of those downs, and it's a pretty big down, honestly. And unfortunately, until we somehow take the painful and difficult step of excising those things that keep us down, we're probably going to feel this way again next December. Maybe in El Paso or maybe in Las Vegas, but probably not in Santa Clara. If we let our failures keep us down, we'll be here again. We were in this position in the first place because of that. Are we really surprised that what didn't work well enough last year didn't work well enough agin this year?

If we take this failure and get stronger from it, then we might look forward to a shot at a successful 2016. The last few years combined with all U.C.L.A. already has to offer have created an opportunity, but without any meaningful changes, that window is quickly closing. Time will soon tell if any of our leadership takes the opportunity to make something positive come from 2015.

And we as fans have a say in how this narrative will be written in the future. Here's our opportunity...

As your will is bent and broken, And every vision has been cast into the wind

As your courage crashes down before your eyes, Don't lay down and die.   - One Day Remains, Alter Bridge.