UCLA’s Rebuilding Process Is 22 Years In The Making

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No real UCLA football fan needs to be reminded of the dark day in December 1998 in Miami. We won’t revisit it here. Brad Melsby’s knee was down, UCLA belonged in the inaugural BCS championship game, period, full stop. UCLA’s rebuilding process is 22 years in the making.

UCLA’s Rebuilding Process

Ask most real UCLA football fan and they will take that day in Miami over where the program is now. The game was painful, and the hurt lingers decades later. But the program was nationally relevant. Sure, head coach Bob Toledo could not hold his locker room together in those closing weeks of the season. And yes, there was some behind-the-curtain ugliness. But that paled in comparison to the transgressions of many schools across the country. What was real was that UCLA football was a top story on college gameday shows and throughout the country. Quarterback Cade McNown was leading a high wire offense and it was fun.

Post Miami Meltdown

Now if UCLA makes it on ESPN, it is as part of someone else’s highlights. The last time the program was a headline was three years ago this month when they hired one Charles Edward Kelly as its head coach. It’s been a long three years, speckled with some highlights, but inundated mostly with malaise.

After Toledo was dismissed, UCLA settled for Karl Dorrell. He was a Bruin through and through. And he was average a head coach in Westwood. Turns out he is better now than he was then. That provides all the proof you need that UCLA athletics should not be on-the-job training for anyone.

From Dorrell, we went to Rick Neuheisel. This was never going to work. Sure, he was a Bruin here and Rose Bowl legend. But as a coach his teams at Colorado and Washington got worse the longer he stayed. He was a fixer of other coaches’ mistakes, but not a creator of his own success. What happened at Colorado and Washington predictably happened in Westwood, and he had to go.

That gets us to the curious hiring of Jim Mora with a significant lack of college football coaching experience. His hiring/firing is still a hot button topic with too many UCLA fans, and thus we are not going to hyper-analyze here. It needs two columns of its own. He has gone on to a career as a mediocre tv analyst and is fine where he is.

The Chip Kelly Era

Mora transitions to Kelly, which was supposed to be a landmark hire for the program. It was the first time in anyone’s memory that UCLA went after a big-name target and got their coach. They were allegedly in competition with Florida for Kelly’s services, but that was smoke and mirrors. Florida had sent their biggest and most influential boosters up to New Hampshire up to seven times, with no other school even making a bid, and they still had no commitment from Kelly. Seven times and not hearing, “yes,” is like taking your dad’s car to go see the same girl of your desires time and time again, and always leaving by yourself.

It took only a couple of weeks for UCLA and its posse of Rebholz, Wasserman, and Aikman to seal the deal with Kelly. The promise was in what could be at UCLA.

We are still waiting for it, three years later. When, exactly, does “the process” kick in?

In three years of the Kelly era, UCLA is 3-9, 4-8, and 3-4. A combined 10-21 is not exactly what the excited contingency had in mind at Kelly’s introductory press conference three years ago. The Bruins have, in order, finished fifth, third, and fifth in the six team Pac 12 South. The high-water mark so far is finishing one game under .500 in conference play last year, but with the Pac 12 being so bad, it was good enough for third place in the division. UCLA is fighting to improve enough to get to middling in an increasingly bad college football conference. Was this part of “the process?”

UCLA = Vandy….Sort Of

Before readers start to misconstrue this column, this is not a call for the dismissal of Kelly. Nor is it an endorsement of his tenure. More, it is an advocating of UCLA fans learning the phrase, “It is what it is,” and accept that it has been 22 years with only intermittent flashes of promise.

There was a recent blog post in which we said UCLA had become Vanderbilt but with better facilities. That created a lot of pushback, but it is accurate. Both schools are academically elite; they both succeed in non-revenue sports; they both have new, young, forward-thinking athletic directors; and they both are crippled by a lack of commitment to competitive college football at the top of the university.

Vanderbilt’s Candice Lee is flummoxed by having to exist like that in the all-or-nothing SEC. UCLA’s Martin Jarmond is handcuffed by inheriting an $18 million budget deficit and then going into the revenue losses created by the COVID era of college sports. He undoubtedly smiles on the outside while being puzzled on the inside as conference commissioner Larry Scott talks about non-existent investment money that will help the schools. The Pac 12 now falls far below even the American Athletic Conference when it comes to quality football.

Some of the latter trickles down to the fan base. Oh, sure there is grumbling after yet another bad season. Heck, Vandy even fired a good man who is a good position coach/coordinator, but not ready to be a major head coach. But mostly from the fan bases it is, “We were close in this game or that game. The guys never quit. They fought hard to the end. If only it weren’t for those turnovers, we would be undefeated.”

Excuses For And From The Fans

Now I have been covering college football across the country for a long time. I have never seen a stat line that include, “If only…..” Or one that says, “They lost but did not quit.” The two-sided coin of that argument for UCLA fans is, yeah they gave up an 18 point lead and lost to USC, and they gave up a two-touchdown lead to Stanford and lost. But hey, at least they had the leads to give up at all. Like it or not, college football is big business. It is about statistics that lead to wins and losses. Everything is flim flam. There are no points given in a game for effort. Even Kelly said there no excuses, like the above. “One thing about this program — we don’t make excuses, we let others make excuses for us,” Kelly said after the Stanford loss Saturday.

In the coming years, UCLA has home-and-home series with LSU, Georgia, Auburn, and other powerhouses. Kudos for the great scheduling job. But the program is nowhere near ready to play with the big boys of college football.

You Are What Your Record Says You Are

There is no visible improvement over the last three years. And frankly, there is no sustained improvement over the last two decades. Re-read that before you start to respond….sustained improvement. The turnovers are still there on offense. The meltdowns in critical times are still there on defense. Sure, you can point out that the defense went from one of the worst in the country to top 60 this year. But isn’t that just accepting our premise? When did top 60 become the acceptable benchmark? Many are excited about Kelly’s 2021 recruiting class. Indeed, he landed some big, high-end targets. What was the end result? UCLA moved from 11th in the Pac 12 when the day started to 6th, when it was over. What do we call that? Middle of the pack.

Invariably, when training camp starts, all of us who cover UCLA on a regular basis, will get a quote from a player who will say the defense is faster than at any time he has been there. Or the offense is clicking better than before. Or they all “Get it” now. We all take those quotes every year and print them. And UCLA fans are led to optimism only to wind up with another three or four win season.

Next Year?

UCLA receiver Kyle Philips took to Twitter over the weekend, urging the faithful to hang in there.

It was a good effort by a quality offensive player. He was a little over a year old for the Meltdown in Miami. He may not be fully versed on what Bruins fans have lived through the last two decades.

The most perfect message of the season came from UCLA Athletics itself, as someone put out this tweet with a picture they felt was good enough for social media, visual flaws aside.

It led to the obvious jokes that it was a symbolic picture, “Because the W’s have been missing from UCLA football for quite some time.”

UCLA fans have gotten into the routine of not having to worry about bowl games and the postseason. December means the end of the regular season, the season as a whole. It’s time to shop, while much the rest of us tune in to every bowl game, admiring how fun it looks. The Bruins are closing in on the middle of a conference that is mired in mediocrity. Give it a few more years and a third-tier bowl game might be within reach. In the meantime, we encourage you to embrace, “It is what it is.” It will make your Decembers as UCLA fans much easier to take.