The 2014 football season is now behind us, with our eyes now focused on the final weeks of recruiting season, and later how our graduating seniors perform in the NFL combine and workouts before seeing a few of them go off and start professional careers. After a rough beginning at the end of the Neuheisel regime, our graduating Senior class had a nice run under Jim Mora - a 29-11 record (.725 win pct) over his first 3 years leading the UCLA football program with a south division title in 2012. As we have noted throughout the past year, the coaches did not appear to get quite the ultimate results that the team appeared capable of achieving, but nevertheless, a good 3 years led by one of the great UCLA QB's in Brett Hundley.
Yes, the last 3 years has been a good run, at least in the recent history of UCLA football.But some people seem to be taking the team's 3-year record a bit out of proportion to, or out of the context of our program's history. Some folks (UCLA fans and outsiders alike) have gone so far as to call Mora's 2012-14 Rose Bowl-less the best run in UCLA Football history. There are many things that can go into a great college football season or run of multiple seasons. The team's win total is certainly one important factor - but when comparing teams from different eras, one must keep in mind the varying lengths of the schedule throughout CFB history - as is having a core of great players (admittedly hard to quantify), success in conference, and national honors/rankings.
With this in mind, I decided to look at a few of the other leading 3-year periods of UCLA's football history, to see how the current run fares in comparison, This is not a ranking of the teams or eras, but an attempt at identifying some of the other great Bruin runs and sparking some informed conversation of how the current squad compares, and hopefully giving some of you a better idea of UCLA's historical place in college football. Records cited can be found in the UCLA media guide, or in an easier to read format, in UCLA Football's Wiki page.
1934-36: 21-8-1 (.717 win pct), 1935 PCC co-champion.
The early years of UCLA Football were a rough spell. As the university took several years to find a permanent home, the newly created football team also required several years to rise into a minimally competitive squad. In 1928, UCLA was granted entry to the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC - early ancestor of the Pac-12) including the football team lead by William Spaulding (who as best I can tell did not use an 80-yard field to train his players).
This adjustment to major college football was rough, going 14-17-2 (2-14 PCC) in the first 4 years in the conference before the team pulled off 5 straight winning seasons from 1932-36, peaking with an 8-2 season in 1935, finishing in a 3-way tie with Stanford and Cal for the PCC championship. It is really not feasible to rate this as one of the great UCLA periods in a
1953-55: 26-4 (.867 win pct), 1953, 1954 and 1955 PCC champion, 1954 national champion (UPI) and consensus top-5 in 1953 and 55.
You could really take any 3 years of UCLA football under Red Saunders to fit into a discussion of 'best UCLA Football runs', but this mid-50's run remains the peak of Bruin football success. After coming to UCLA from Vanderbilt in 1949, Sanders started out with a 25-10-1 record in his first 4 years, finishing 2nd in the conference 3 times and leading the Bruins to back-to-back ranked seasons for the first time in 1951-52. He built upon that foundation with this incredible run into the middle of the decade - winning the conference three straight years, losing just one game against PCC opponents - finishing in the top-5 all 3 years (including 1952, the Bruins had 4 straight seasons finishing in the top-6 nationally).
The Bruins split the 1954 national championship with Ohio State, but were prevented from playing the Buckeyes in a #1 v. #2 Rose Bowl for the ages by a then-conference rule barring teams from playing in the Rose Bowl in consecutive years. Since UCLA had won the conference and played in the Rose Bowl in 1963, they could not go back in '54.
1965-67: 24-5-2 (.806 win pct), 1965 Pac-8 champion, 1966* and 1967 runner-up. Consensus top-10 in all 3 seasons.
Being a fan of UCLA Football means that inevitably you have some indelible moment stuck into your mind, a turning point which shows the potential inherent in the program but an execution which shows why so many have long seen the giant in Westwood as sleeping. What could have been... We all can point to one point where the Bruins were on the verge of achieving greatness, but could not make it over the hump. For many of the front pagers, Miami 1998 is that point; for me, as a slightly younger Bruin, the 4th quarter of Jim Mora's first trip to Palo Alto comprises my moment. But looking back into the history of Bruin football, this period really stands out. These 3 years were highly successful in their own right, but the team was on the verge of greatness, nearly able to get level with the team across town while Coach Wooden's success on the court confirmed that UCLA owned LA.
Tommy Prothro came to Westwood from Oregon State at the start of 1965, replacing Bill Barnes (arguably the worst UCLA football coach of the pre Dorrell/Neuheisel era, but still having led the Bruins to a Rose Bowl ) following that coach's 10-20 run during his final 3 seasons leading the program. The Bruins lost the season opener to Michigan State before going on a 2 month winning streak capped off by a come from behind win over Southern Cal to secure the conference title and Rose Bowl bid, where UCLA got revenge for the season-opening loss to the Spartans - as some of the older community members have noted, the team's performance in that game led to the "Gutty Little Bruins'" moniker, the celebration of a seemingly overmatched team achieving greatness, not the description of a sad sack team as many in the media (and even our fanbase) have used the phrase in recent years.
1966 Had the makings of a transformative season for UCLA football. The team finished the regular season 9-1 with backup QB Norm Dow leading the Bruin victory over Southern Cal. Due to scheduling issues caused by the integration of the Oregon schools into what would become the Pac-8 Conference, UCLA played fewer conference games than USC that year, but the operating assumption was that the Rose Bowl spot would be determined by the fewest losses in conference and head-to-head results, which favored the Bruins. Despite that, the conference voted to give USC the Rose Bowl berth, following which they ended their regular season with a 51-0 beat down at the hands of Notre Dame and a loss to Purdue on New Years Day.
The team bounced back in a big way in 1967, starting the season 7-0-1 and ranked #1 in the nation, heading into the crosstown game against #2 Southern Cal in one of the Games of the (20th) Century to decide the conference champion and the AP poll's national champion. Missed kicks and a late O.J. Simpson TD run gave USC a 21-20 win, followed by a home loss to Syracuse to close the season and then a 3-7 season in 1968. The team bounced back in 1969, going 8-1-1. But the momentum - nationally as well as in the battle for Los Angeles - that the Bruins were on the verge of taking in 1967 and 1968 was gone.
1973-75: 24-7-3 (.750 win pct), 1975 Pac-8 champion, 1973 runner-up, 1974 3rd place. Top-10 in 1973 and 1975.
Prothro left UCLA after the 1970 season to take over the LA Rams, replaced by Pepper Rodgers. The Rodgers era started off with a 2-7-1 whimper before leading his team to an 8-3 record and 2nd place finish in the Pac-8. Just when he seemed to have found his footing in Westwood, he left to take over at his alma mater, Georgia Tech, after a 9-2 Bruin season and 2nd runner-up finish in the conference that saw UCLA return to the postseason top-10 after a 4 year absence. LA Rams assistant Dick Vermeil was given his first head coaching opportunity to replace him, and took full advantage. After going 6-3-2 in his first season, Vermeil led the Bruins to a conference title, Rose Bowl victory and a #5 national ranking in 1975, after which he too jumped to the NFL, to be replaced by Terry Donahue.
1982-84: 26-8-2 (.750 win pct), 1982 and 1983 Pac-10 champion, 1984 3rd place. 2-0 in the Rose Bowl, top-10 in 1982 and 1984.
1985-87: 27-7-2 (.778 win pct), 1985 Pac-10 champion, 1987 co-champion, 1986 runner-up. top-10 in 1985 and 1987.
The two 3-year periods above are part of an overall 7 year period (1982-88) in which UCLA Football went 63-17-4 under Terry Donahue. In that period, UCLA won the Pac-10 outright or as co-champion four times, with two 2nd place finishes and 'bottoming out' with 1984's 9-3 Fiesta Bowl champions, who had finished tied for 3rd in conference. The Bruins finished in the top-15 in one or both major polls in all 7 seasons, top-10 in 5 of those years.
UCLA won the Rose Bowl 3 times (1982, 83 and 85) in that span and won bowl games after all 7 of those seasons. Donahue has faced criticism here and elsewhere in part for the mediocre end to his tenure and a gradual decline in the aims of the program, but those critiques are rooted in the idea that Donahue could have done better. His mid-80's run, while maybe not optimized to the fullest of the team's talent, was a pretty damn good run of football. Four Pac-10 titles and 5 top-10 finishes in 7 years is a run that any of his successors can only dream of having.
College football was getting closer to the modern schedule by the 80's, with 11 regular season games and a slowly growing slate of bowl games. But factoring in the current 12th game and conference championship games, those UCLA teams would have played at least 10, and as many as 14 extra games in those 7 years under the current NCAA framework. Even a conservative guess as to how those extra games would have played out would place the mid-80's Bruins on an extended run of 10-win average seasons.
1996-98: 25-10 (.714 win pct), 1998 Pac-10 champion, 1997 co-champion, 20 game win streak, top-10 in 1997 and 1998.
The mid-late 90's Bruins are an excuse to ask whether - as a fan - you prefer a consistently good team that is nonetheless never close to achieving greatness, or a Boom-or-Bust team that comes so close to winning it all, but can also hit some deep lows. Unlike most of the other Bruin periods discussed here, Bob Toledo's first 3 years were by overall winning percentage not as good as the current run under Coach Mora, even failing to make a bowl game one year. On the other hand, the 1997-98 team pulled off the longest win streak in team history - including 15 straight wins in conference play - reached the Rose Bowl and was a few minutes from playing for the National Championship.
Looking back, that is seven different periods in UCLA's football history where the program has had a similar or better record than the current run AND at least a share of our conference's championship. Depending on how you how you view the loser of the P12 Championship Game, the best finish in the current regime is either 2nd or a 3rd place tie (2012). No question, college football is a different game today, with better prepared athletes, higher financial resources leading to better support and (ideally) better coaching and a wider spread of elite competition.
It is not enough to say that the Bruins of the 1960's and 70's had better winning percentages and therefore were better teams. But at the same time, the achievements of those teams - like conference titles and high national rankings - must also be part of the discussion. As I commented after the Alamo Bowl, I rate several of those periods above as better than the current Bruin run, That's not a knock on the current team or a claim that Coach Mora is not a welcome improvement to his predecessors, but looking at a history that includes 9 conference-winning coaches, several Rose Bowl championships and a national title, there is room to improve. I sincerely hope that Mora is able to do it.
One other note in regards to conference championships. In the 75 seasons between Coach Spaulding leading the Bruins into the PCC and the end of Bob Toledo's run in Westwood, UCLA had 10 head football coaches, all but one of whom won at least a split conference title (Pepper Rodgers' topped out at 2nd in the Pac-8), all but two led their teams to at least one Rose Bowl (Rodgers and Spaulding). In Dan Guererro's 12 years running UCLA Athletics, he has hired 3 football coaches, none of whom has finished a season better than 3rd in their conference.