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Hair of the Bear: Football Blues, AD Clues, Basketball Woos

The college football season is over, yet the hits just keep coming for UCLA.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at UCLA Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

That sure was a fun national championship game, huh?

It feels like a bit of a humble brag at the start, but the game went about how I expected it would. The Clemson Tigers possessed by far the best defense the LSU Tigers had faced all season, and had a defensive coordinator in Brent Venables who I had confidence could design a scheme that could frustrate Joe Burrow and company. At the same time, LSU has an offensive staff that is creative enough and possesses enough talent that they would eventually find a way to break through, and break through they did to the tune of 42 points. This is not to say LSU is now the next major power in college football. I’d put my money on an angry Clemson and Ohio State next year for starters - but they had the exact conflux of talented players and great coaching that you need to win a national championship.

If you’re a UCLA Bruins fan and I’d guess that more likely than not you are if you’re reading this, there had to be a part of you that thought about comparing either of the Tigers squads to the current UCLA program. And since there’s been a small deluge of news about the program in recent days and weeks, this is as good a reason as any to take a look at the state of the program.

As I said, both LSU and Clemson possessed an elite mix of top-end talent and top-end coaching and it cannot be stressed enough how much you need those two factors to be competitive nationally. Even at the Pac-12 level, you still need either top-end talent (Oregon) or top-end coaching (Utah) to have a shot at winning the conference. UCLA, at the moment, appears to be deficient in both categories, which is a terrifying place to be two years into the Chip Kelly era.

Let’s start with the players. This is not meant to be a slight against the current Bruin players, but the talent level has dropped off considerably compared to the heyday of the Jim Mora era. For example, here’s a chart showing the class ranking and average rating of players starting with Jim Mora’s first full year of recruiting:

UCLA Football Recruiting 2013-2020

Year National Rank Average Player Rating
Year National Rank Average Player Rating
2013 7 0.9037
2014 18 0.8883
2015 12 0.9163
2016 13 0.8834
2017 20 0.8838
2018 19 0.8732
2019 40 0.8569
2020 29 0.8673

The drop-off under Kelly begins in that 2018 season, but the relative strength of that class compared to the two following ones can be attributed as much to Mora-era holdovers like Dorian Thompson-Robinson than anything else. We can argue all day long about how important star rankings are, but they’re a pretty good indicator of general team talent level, and if UCLA is to have any shot at future relevance, they need to pick things up from a recruiting standpoint.

It would also help if they could retain players, but once again we’re in the middle of another offseason exodus of UCLA players. NBCSports highlighted the fact that, as of Monday, UCLA has had 13 players enter the transfer portal this offseason. While some of the names in the portal were non-contributors, the big news was last week when two-year offensive line starter Christophany Murray entered his name into the portal. Murray was not at risk of losing a starting job. If anything, the question was going to be whether he would stick at right guard or shift over to center. Instead, he’ll be leaving Westwood and one has to wonder why a two-year starter at a position of need would feel compelled to seek his fortunes elsewhere.

Let me give a basic read of the situation: the exodus of players after Chip Kelly’s hiring was understandable and was perhaps the most normal part of Kelly’s tenure so far, even if it seemed a little excessive. Even the further exodus of players following that first season made some level of sense, though it was a bit worrying. Having another wave of transfers after two years? That’s a gigantic red flag, especially when those transfers include impact starters like Christophany Murray and Theo Howard. It was reported last October that 63 players had left the program. When you add the 13 that have entered the transfer portal so far this year, we’re up to 76 players who have left since Chip Kelly took over. There are only 85 scholarship positions on the team! You could almost field an entire D1 football program with UCLA transfers! Any coach with the ability to self-reflect and look at this might realize there are some flaws with their style.

Chip Kelly’s lack of self-introspection brings us to the other half of the championship formula: a great coaching staff. After going 7-17 in the first two years, it isn’t much of a stretch to say that UCLA did not possess a great coaching staff heading into this offseason but, if Chip Kelly recognized that fact, he hasn’t shown a willingness to correct that. After the Early Signing Period, Chip Kelly said that he didn’t anticipate making any staff changes, and, at this point, we really should take him at his word. That’s not to say that there won’t be any staff changes at all. After all, former defensive backs coach Paul Rhodes is now the defensive coordinator at Arizona while defensive line coach Vince Oghobaase appears to be headed for a position at Boston College. But it does look increasingly likely that embattled defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro, whose defenses have been nothing short of suspect during his tenure at UCLA, will be retained at the same position, which boggles the mind. The departures of Rhodes and Oghobaase have seemingly given Chip Kelly an out to relieve his friend of coordinator duties while still keeping him around, but it does not appear Kelly will take that route. Indeed, with the recruiting Dead Period ending this weekend, UCLA will again be able to host official visits and the general assumption would be that the school would like to have the majority of its coaching staff settled by the time recruits arrive.

Here’s the big kicker: Chip Kelly really cannot afford to fail at UCLA, especially by this magnitude. His success at Oregon is still recent enough that he could potentially find work as an offensive coordinator, but if he flames out in Westwood, it would mean that he has been fired three straight times, with the latter two coming after dreadful performances. Crashing and burning at UCLA would be a bigger black mark than his time in charge of the San Francisco 49ers and, of course, it should be noted that the Niners captured the #1 seed in the NFC just three years after jettisoning him. Kelly was given complete autonomy over the program to go along with a sizable contract and was back in a system where he last had success. He runs the risk of turning into the second coming of Charlie Weis — a coach who caught lightning in a bottle and saw initial success, but flamed out once it became clear just how much of a beneficiary of circumstance that he was.

That’s where UCLA football fans sit, as they optimistically hope that Kelly’s survival instincts will override his sense of pride and loyalty. Unfortunately, that possibility looks increasingly unlikely.

One of the contributing factors to the current football malaise is the impending retirement of athletic director Dan Guerrero.

It is hard to separate the lack of accountability in how the football program is currently being run and the lame-duck nature of Guerrero’s current situation. With Guerrero set to retire in June, it’s understandable that he would want to leave the fate of Chip Kelly to whomever the new athletic director is. At the same time, that very fact has to be part of the reason Kelly feels confident enough to keep the ship running as is. If anything, Guerrero’s natural inclination to be hands-off in the day-to-day of the athletic programs had to have been a positive to Kelly when he was deciding between UCLA and Florida.

For the record, the ineffectiveness of the athletic department is a top-down issue under Guerrero and is one of the reasons it is hard to get behind Josh Rebholz taking over the job.

That said, the search to replace Dan Guerrero is one of the most important storylines in UCLA Athletics going forward. So, let me break down the recent coaching hires made by three potential candidates.

I’m going to start with Patrick Chun, the current athletic director at Washington State, as it was his hire of Hawaii’s Nick Rolovich that prompted me to write this section in the first place. I will be transparent and say that Pat Chun was already one of my favorite options to hire, in part because my Cougar friend has raved about him, but the hiring of Rolovich moved him firmly into the #1 position on my personal board. Rolovich is a fantastic coach who has rebuilt Hawaii into a Mountain West contender, not an easy feat for that program, and he was secretly a guy I was hoping would be available next offseason should UCLA need to go on another coaching search. Most impressively, the hire was done quickly and decisively. Mike Leach left to take the Mississippi State job on January 9 and Rolovich’s hiring was announced four days later. I loved everything about this hire and am fully on board the #ChunTrain.

Next up is current UNLV athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois. Reed-Francois has a UCLA connection, having been a rower at the school, and has experience running a football program when she was was the associate AD at Virginia Tech. Recently, she had to replace UNLV’s football coach and she went with Oregon offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo. Arroyo as a hire makes sense. He’s a great recruiter coming off a great season with the Ducks, but reports are that Reed-Francois had a choice between Arroyo and LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and, ultimately, went with Arroyo. That choice is at least defensible, considering Aranda probably would have cost much more than Arroyo while having less West Coast recruiting connections, but it’s an interesting point to consider. Still, this was a solid hire for being her first ever football hire as an AD and it definitely helps her case for the UCLA job going forward.

Finally, there’s Terry Tumey, the current Fresno State athletic director. Tumey, like Reed-Francois, has UCLA ties, as he was a former UCLA football player and assistant coach, and combined with his work with NFL teams would probably signify the best chance at hiring a UCLA AD with strong football expertise. I’m not in love with his hiring of Indiana offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer to replace the suddenly retired Jeff Tedford, but it makes a ton of sense with DeBoer being a former Fresno State assistant. He was the offensive coordinator during the Bulldogs’ blowout of UCLA in the Rose Bowl a few years ago. I think Tumey would be an excellent candidate for the job and I can’t fault him too much for making a pretty standard choice for his first football hire, but it’s a bit uninspiring compared to the other two candidates here.

Finally, let’s talk about something more positive: basketball!

Obviously, I am referring to the UCLA women’s basketball team, which now sits at #7 in the nation following a road sweep of the Mountain teams. More impressively, the women sit atop the college basketball landscape as the last unbeaten team in the country at 16-0.

I think that’s a bit deceptive. UCLA’s schedule is not nearly as tough as some of the other top teams in the country, with their toughest games so far being against #15 Indiana and #21 Arizona, but they’ve still beaten every opponent they’ve faced without tripping up and once-again look poised to make a deep postseason run.

I think my favorite part about this team is how uninterested they are in still being undefeated. Take for instance head coach Cori Close:

This is just such a good quote. Being the last undefeated team in the country, a first for the UCLA women’s program, is undoubtedly a cool moment, but it was never the goal. Rather, the focus on continued growth and improvement was and continues to be the mantra of the team. Coach Close has been fantastic in the job and this year may go down as one of her finest yet.

Go see this team play. You won’t be disappointed.

Go Bruins!