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On Optimism, Fandom, and a New Season of UCLA Football

Time is a flat circle and hope for UCLA Football springs eternal.

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

Truthfully, the first opening weekend I can truly remember was 1996 and it wasn’t because of UCLA, but, rather, the opponent. See, in 1996 UCLA opened the season on the road against Tennessee, which was being led by a quarterback who would turn out to be pretty good. Tennessee was a favorite to win the national championship that year, while UCLA was getting ready for its first season under new head coach Bob Toledo. Cade McNown was entering his second year and though UCLA was losing some talent, the team was expected to continue Terry Donahue’s record of being competitive in the PAC 10.

Unfortunately for UCLA, the story didn’t play out as we hoped. UCLA never achieved a level of consistency in 1996, as they limped to a 5-6 finish. Yet the next year, optimism returned to Westwood and that faith would be rewarded with the best 2-year stretch UCLA would see for the next 20 years. Optimism, at times, can be rewarded.

Maybe I should backtrack and start with a formal introduction, since we’ve yet to be properly introduced.

Hello, my name is Nirya. You can also call me Dimitri, I’m fine with either. Truth be told, I got that username thanks to a randomized name generator in a video game and I liked it so much I’ve used it ever since.

I’ve been going to UCLA football games since I was 2. I’ve been in the Rose Bowl for some of UCLA’s biggest triumphs and tragic defeats. Basketball, just due to the start times and time commitment necessary, remained a sport I would have to support from afar (though I was lucky enough to be at the 2008 regular season finale where Josh Shipp hit a horse shot over the backboard to beat Cal).

Perhaps the biggest thing you should know about me is that, unlike the majority of readers here, I am not a UCLA alumni. Fate chose a different path for me, specifically to UCI for computer science, a major I stuck with for a grand total of one quarter before switching to history. UCI doesn’t have a football team, which made it very easy to continue rooting for UCLA during the fall, though I will admit to cheering for the Anteaters whenever the two schools match up for basketball (also, I fully believe UCI would have beaten UCLA last year).

Fandom is interesting in that regard, specifically at the college level. We obviously gain an attachment to the school we attend, but many gain an attachment to the college teams at a younger age. Certainly we see this in recruiting, where a whole generation of football recruits talk about being enamored with USC because they grew up watching Reggie Bush and the Trojans dominate football for the better part of a decade. Even with an alumni for a mother, there’s probably a good chance I would have ended up a UCLA fan, growing up watching McNown and Skip Hicks and Deshaun Foster and eventually watching Maurice Jones-Drew do more than Bush with less spotlight. Even through the Dark Ages of UCLA Football, I stayed with the team, hoping against hope that brighter days were ahead.

1999 represented the dawning of a bright new age for UCLA football. The Bruins had just come off one of their most successful seasons in recent memory and had just brought in the top recruiting class in the nation. Optimism was overflowing in Westwood.

As you all may be painfully aware at this point, none of that optimism came to pass. The 1999 season ended with a 4-7 record and UCLA would enter a period of mediocrity that would see Toledo fired, Karl Dorrell brought in and then let go once it finally became obvious that he was in over his head and then Rick Neuheisel fail to right the ship.

Of course, if there was a year for hope in a new season, it was 2000. UCLA would start the year with two matchups against top 5 teams at home, beginning with #3 Alabama. Coming off the previous year’s debacle, nothing was truly expected of the team, yet fans could hold hope that 1999 was just a blip and that 2000 was going to be better. And for those fans, the opening upset of Alabama felt like the universe agreeing with them. Two weeks later, the new #3, Michigan, rolled into town and in one of the hottest home games in recent memory, UCLA again prevailed. The rest of the season did not play out as well as those opening three games, but for a brief moment, UCLA fans could believe that things would be ok.

The opening of a new season is a chance for optimism for every college football fan, before the crushing weight of reality arrives. Yet that brand of optimism is different for different fanbases. Consider:

  • Fans of a powerhouse like Alabama look forward to competing for a national championship.
  • For UCLA fans and fans of similar teams, their optimism tends to lean towards a jump into that upper echelon of college football.
  • Even fans of perennial also-rans like Colorado look forward to the season, hoping for progress and an outside shot at a miracle season.

For all of these fans, the new season represents a blank slate that dreams, expectations and hope can be heaped on. All offseason, fans survive on bits and pieces of news and information about practices and media sessions and recruiting visits that are all relatively meaningless in the grand scheme of things just for the off chance that it will gain meaning during the season.

Then again, the word fan derives from the longer fanatic; is it really that odd that we would all act this way?

Rick Neuheisel took over for the 2008 season and hope returned to Westwood. Neuheisel was a Bruin hero, a former Rose Bowl-winning quarterback who had enjoyed success at Colorado and Washington. It wasn’t a big deal that he had been out of coaching for a few years, just as it wasn’t a big deal that he had been plagued by scandal while at Washington. Neuheisel understood how to win as a college coach and he was just the man to bring UCLA back.

And, after the first game of the year, Neuheisel seemed like the right man for the job. UCLA was able to upset Tennessee on national television and UCLA fans were able to envision a bright future where UCLA was able to rise above the mediocrity of the previous regime, overthrow the football dynasty across town and become a football powerhouse again. We’d had a taste of this in 1998 and we wanted more.

You know how the story ends. Tennessee proved to be a mirage, the Bruins went 4-8 that year and the Neuheisel era would be defined by unfulfilled promise as much as anything else. Yet even until the end, there remained UCLA fans who believed Neuheisel could turn things around. Their hope endured.

Which brings us to the current era and where our stories merge.

Here’s a fun fact to think about: under Jim L. Mora, UCLA has started the season ranked in the AP poll 4 of the 5 years, with the lone exception being Mora’s first year. So, for the last 4 years, the media has believed that UCLA is one of the top 25 teams in the country.

The last 3 years, UCLA has been picked to at least tie for the PAC 12 South title by the media. Again, high expectations, with little tangible results.

You would think after so much unfulfilled promise that Coach Mora would be on the hot seat, but no. This may be partly because the teams have still been very good the entire time, just missing out on great. Or it may be because Coach Mora’s program has stayed relatively clean, especially compared to our crosstown rivals. Or it may be because, unlike the basketball program, the football program isn’t turning into a cratering hole.

Still, UCLA football again finds itself at a crossroads, but a new season offers hope. The schedule looks manageable, with most of the tough games coming at home. UCLA is one of only thirteen teams to contain a team with over half the players being 4 or 5 star recruits. UCLA has one of the best quarterbacks in the nation and potential stars spread throughout the offense and defense.

There are also warning signs. There is a new offensive scheme, being run by a coach who has never truly run an offense by himself. The defense is changing schemes as well, in an effort to fix what was one of the worst run defenses in the nation.

Yet with all of this uncertainty, I remain optimistic. Maybe those UCLA ads really do speak to who UCLA fans are at heart. We’re optimists. We believe we can be great, because we’ve been great before.

Still, it seems important to lay out expectations for the season and since this is as much about my personal opinions as anything, I feel I should. Please do note that these are not Bruins Nation’s official stance, but a personal one.

  • This team should win the Pac 12 South. There’s too much talent not to do so.
  • I don’t expect them to beat Stanford and I will continue to feel this way until shown it can be done.
  • That said, I do expect them to be competitive in that game and to be competitive in the Pac 12 Championship Game.

Now, it should be noted that there is some leeway in these expectations. For example, you can throw this all out the window if the defense is again decimated at the hands of an angry god, as happened last year. And of course, I don’t mean to dissuade anyone from their own expectations, because you are entitled to root for the team in any way you choose.

Which is maybe the whole point of fandom at all. See, we may argue over how the team is doing, over which strategy works best or who is or isn’t being utilized properly. Over whether the administration has screwed up royally or just normally. We even argue over uniforms (the original LA Nights alternates were the best and the Surrender Whites should be burned).

But no matter how different our opinions may be, at the beginning of a new season we’re able to gather together and dream on what can be. That’s the beauty of college football. It’s a sport where anything can happen and if you’re lucky, it can happen to your team.