UCLA Football; Blue, Gold and Divided, Part 2

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From Last Word on College Football, Tony Siracusa

In Part 1, we looked back at the UCLA football program’s brief brush with championship level status, and why they have not been able to get remotely close in the 18 years since. We reviewed Jim Mora’s hiring in 2012, as the third head coach in 10 years. The beginning showed glimpses of promise, but why has the program started spinning its wheels again in a way that seems typical of UCLA, and where does the fan base sit with regards to Mora? In Part 2, we look at the current status of the program.

New Season, Same Story?

The 2016 season was to be a telltale indicator on the Jim Mora era. The team had 16 returning starters and a presumably more mature Josh Rosen at quarterback. Changes were also made to the offensive coaching staff. Noel Mazzone, who had been the offensive coordinator during Mora’s entire tenure was now at Texas A&M. Mazzone had taken a lot of heat from UCLA faithful, for while he had a successful run with Bret Hundley as his quarterback, but the same offense did not seem a good fit for Rosen. UCLA, in all likelihood, was not bringing him back, so the move to College Station should have been fortuitous for all concerned. But in a move that was very “UCLA-esque,” instead of getting the big name, proven offensive coordinator, (there were unconfirmed rumors they called Lane Kiffin before the national championship game), Mora promoted running backs Kennedy Polamalu to offensive coordinator and brought Marques Tuiasosopo over from USC to be the quarterbacks coach. Polamalu had never been an offensive coordinator at the college level, but he was given the keys to a new pro-style offense, and all the immediate expectations that came with it.

The results from this veteran team with a new offensive coach? They fell behind early in the season opener at College Station and lost in overtime to Texas A&M on network television. Still with hopes of being more mature and physically capable of competing with Stanford, they stayed close to the Cardinal, but a complete lack of offense resulted in a 22-13 loss with the country watching. Last week, an offensive line that has yet to be competent this season got Rosen battered, and he left the game twice with separate injuries, the latter being a significant shoulder injury. The result was a three point loss to Arizona State, thankfully with very few people watching.

A Fan Base Divided

So how does this sit with the Bruin loyalists? Another season filled with promise that is destined to wind up in a second tier bowl game, or worse, even if the Bruins win their six remaining games. As one would expect, you will find caterwauling and a disconnect about whom is to blame for the latest episode in an 18 year long run of over promise and under deliver. There are those on the blogs sites that critique every play, and react with a fervor you hope they do not impose in their everyday lives. Whatever optimism they have is washed out with the first loss of a season, and it has been a long, dark run for them.

On the other side are Bruin fan boards which exist not so much for discussion of game specifics but for rooting interests in the team. They go so far as to drop anyone who calls out a coach or a player by name because, as they declare, the fans posting are nothing but armchair coaches and the actual coaches have the real answers. To these folks, the critics are not real Bruins because they lash out when things go wrong, and as long as USC is a bigger dumpster fire, they can live with whatever happens to UCLA. To the critics, these fan board folks are what’s wrong with UCLA because they are too passive and don’t demand more from the program, the coaches, and the athletic administration. Thus it goes every season for UCLA now, a mix only of unwarranted blind optimism and over-the-top cynicism in a digital age where a world class athletic department that has 114 NCAA championships can’t put together a nationally competitive football program.

As is the case with most teams, the head coach takes bulk of the hits. Mora has more wins through four years than any other UCLA coach. However, he has continued the long string of losing the games that matter the most in terms of national relevance. He has changed coordinators on both sides of the ball and overhauled schemes, but the results are the same.

Mora called UCLA’s offensive performance in the ASU loss, “putrid.” That is one way of putting it. The Bruins had a net one yard rushing Saturday. That is not a typo. They are near last in the country in rushing yards per game. And this is the new offense with all the weapons?

The faithful say it is a new, inexperienced coordinator, and more time is needed. The critics say that is what training camp was for, and other teams are succeeding with less talent. At some point this is going to fall on Mora. It’s been nearly five years. The coordinators and coaches who under perform are his hires. The players are all his. Every one of Mora’s recruiting classes has been top 20 in the country, but then it is also his responsibility when the players do not live up to their potential, as is the personnel management. The team has had at least one player quietly and secretly suspended for every game this season, not for violation of NCAA rules or school rules, but for violation of Mora rules. They are just left behind on road trips or not suited up for home games with Mora’s only explanation being, “they did not play.” The receiving corps has dropped four touchdown passes, while the most touted of them all sits on the bench most of the time, with the coach refusing to answer why. Mora has always had a chippy relationship with the media, but has become more acerbic as the season goes on.  It was bound to happen as this is the fourth time in his five year tenure the team has started 1-2 in conference play.

Mora’s Future

The loyalists swear he is the guy, while the critics gave up on him after last season’s flame out. He is making just over $3.7 million per year in what his contract calls his “base package and talent fee,” and that amount moves to $million in the coming years. That makes him the highest paid state employee in California. He recently got new incentive clauses added into his deal which extend the terms of his contract through the 2021 season. Any buyout before the 2017 season would be at about $1.4 million. Any after the 2019 season would be more than double that. The money is there thanks to UCLA recently signing the richest apparel deal in college sports history with Under Armour, that begins next year, but should it be spent on yet another coaching change? The Bruin fan base is divided.

There is one source of consternation that is agreed upon by both the faithful myopic and the harsh critics. Replacing Mora is a tenuous proposition because the job would fall to Athletic Director Dan Guerrero. Few in the public Bruin community have faith in his ability to manage the search. After all, in his 14 year tenure, he was the one who picked Dorrell, Neuheisel and Mora, as well as the highly unpopular hire of basketball coach Steve Alford. It is Guerrero who took the bait in 2013, when Mora’s agent allowed the rumor to float for two days that his client was going to take the Washington head coaching job when Steve Sarkisian left for USC and gave Mora an immediate, if not unwarranted, raise and extension.

The UCLA job is not an easy one to fill. While $4 million per year for a head coach may sound competitive, the cost of living in Los Angeles makes it less so compared to other major programs. It is not uncommon for other schools to provide housing for the head coach and richly reward top assistants. That does not happen at UCLA. Without the homespun local car dealer endorsements or the like that happen in smaller college towns, there is a real cap to the financial benefits of coaching at UCLA.

The debate goes on as such. Is this the best UCLA can do? Is it enough to compete for national relevance once every 20 years and just hang in there the rest of the time? The critics demand more and they wanted it yesterday. Shouldn’t a major university that is elite in most other athletic endeavors be allowed to expect more? The loyalists insist UCLA does the best it can and the players try hard and that is good enough. How long is too long to wait for real answers so the two sides can exist as one.

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