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UCLA Football As English Soccer: Trying Not to Let the Games Pass Us By

What happens when traditional powers get comfortable and stagnate.

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Let me begin by noting that I don't know much about soccer, professional or otherwise. I'm not Ryan, who writes about the sport professionally, or Bellerephon, who follows the Premier League almost as closely as he does UCLA sports.

I do try to watch games when I can; NBC seems to be showing more games on channels I can actually find and I look at them if I'm not doing anything else. I'll watch the World Cup (the men or the women) but the extent of my knowledge and interest is much closer to the casual fan who just watches college basketball during the NCAA tournament or the person who doesn't start watching the NBA until the playoffs start.

For whatever reason, I found myself reading this Deadspin piece on England's national team. It is a very interesting discussion of how the English see their national team, that only "English men" can play for them because they possess some inherent qualities that have nothing to do with actually playing soccer. This part of the article discusses whether or not England should put Manchester United prospect Adnan Januzaj (from what I gather, a future star) on its national team. If you read the article (and if you already follow the sport closely you'll already know) many of the top national teams have players who were actually born in other countries.

There are several ways in which players can come to represent different countries from the ones in which they were born. Most countries use and exploit this rule to very best of their abilities. In the last World Cup, for instance, half the German team was made up of players eligible to play for multiple countries. Arsenal's Lukas Podolski, already one of Germany's most-capped players, was born in Poland. So was Miroslav Klose, Germany's all-time leading goalscorer.

Then there are the Dutch, who have pilfered seemingly every non-white player of note from the South American country of Suriname. Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf, and Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink were all born nearly 5,000 miles away from the country they were immortalized representing. And isn't there something noble in that? For a man to deny his own country, his own blood, for the privilege of wearing your flag on his chest? Is that not patriotic in its own way? Maybe even more patriotic than representing a country because that's where you happened to be born?

But the English, according to the article, have a particular viewpoint on this. Again, quoting Deadspin and an English soccer writer:

Oliver Kay, a soccer writer for The Times in England, asked Wilshere what he thought of England bringing on Januzaj. The young midfielder/possible smoker responded with this:

"No. For me if you are English, you are English and you play for England. The only people who should play for England are English people. If you live in England for five years it doesn't make you English. You shouldn't play-it doesn't mean you can play for a country. If I went to Spain and lived there for five years I am not going to play for Spain."

And also:

"We have to remember what we are. We are English. We tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat. We have great characters. You think of Spain and you think technical but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard. We have to remember that."

There are also some lines in the article that suggest that since the English invented the game (150 years ago), they had an historic head start at being good at it, but once other nations started taking the game seriously, they passed the English up. Just skim the story for more details.

Oh, and I need to point out that the main point of the story, right up at the top, is that England is a long shot to qualify for the next World Cup in Brazil. The game has passed them by. (Note: England defeated Poland yesterday and did qualify for the World Cup.)

When I read the piece, I immediately thought that there is an analogy here for UCLA sports. And I'll be the first to admit the analogy isn't perfectly aligned, but there is still a resonance, a similarity in attitude if not detail.

"We" also believed for a long time that the UCLA way of doing things was the best way, the only way we could succeed. Coach Wooden gave us a huge "head start" and we spent decades believing that the Wooden way was the only way. And that's why our fans were unsatisfied with Gene Bartow, never warmed to Larry Brown and why we hired Gary Cunningham, Larry Farmer, Walt Hazzard, Jim Harrick (a UCLA assistant before he was hired), Steve Lavin (another UCLA assistant) and probably even Ben Howland who never failed to mention his Wooden-worship. (Even Steve Alford has an Indiana-Wooden connection, though I wouldn't include him on a list of coaches who did things "the UCLA way.")

And we did the same with with Terry Donahue which is what led to all those football coaches with UCLA ties, including Bob Toledo (a Donahue assistant), Karl Dorrell (Donahue player and assistant) and Rick Neuheisel (Donahue player and assistant).

This insular belief system was not good for the various programs and I say that while acknowledging that Coaches Brown, Howland and, of course, Harrick had their successes. It's why we underpaid coaches - because Coach Wooden never asked for a raise. It's why we took so long to renovate Pauley Pavilion, because it was good enough for Coach. It's why we unilaterally kept the admissions standards slightly higher than everyone else's (though not as high as Stanford's), because "we are UCLA, dammit."

But while we were sure the UCLA way was the only way and that only UCLA people could coach UCLA teams and so forth -- other schools began to take things more seriously (in hoops - like the traditional football powers of the Big 12 and SEC) and in football as well, where programs like Oregon really upped their commitment. And we stayed stagnant, much like English soccer.

Now we have Mora who is battling the establishment to do things better. (Fighting to get the fences at Spaulding Field painted, anyone?) And with Alford, who knows? But the Deadspin article is more about culture, this resistance to using best practices wherever they come from and instead focusing on the way things were always done.

Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of how UCLA in general sees itself. Look at the Optimists campaign. UCLA actually celebrates its iconoclasts, the individuals associated with the school that broke new ground and sought to create new best practices.

Yet, for too long, the athletic department tried to stick to the tried and true, utterly lacking in the innovation this great school is known for. I don't know for sure why and I'll be interested to read your takes in the comments.

But I have a suspicion.

It was/is fear.

Fear of trying new things. Fear of breaking new ground.

By sticking to the tried and true, we had a built in excuse for our results. "Maybe we didn't win, but we didn't win ‘the right way.' We didn't win ‘the UCLA way.'" The problem is, our competition didn't see things that way. They didn't care about our way. They innovated and improved, tried new things. The brought in the latest technologies and techniques. They spared no expense. While we thought winning was our birthright, they went out and earned their victories. And in many ways, passed us by.

This is one reason I hope things work out with Jim Mora. He brings with him new ideas, new strategies, things that have been successful elsewhere. He respects UCLA tradition, but he adheres to them in spirit while at the same time bringing in new ideas and letting go of traditions best consigned to history.

Over the wall, anyone?