UCLA’s Season Ends With A Thud

UCLA’s season ends with a thud
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Instead of ending with any sense of finality and satisfaction, UCLA’s season ends with a thud. The Bruins cancelled their appearance in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego after a week of battling Covid issues. The story broke about five hours before kickoff, via Fox Sports, which was there to broadcast the game. UCLA fans have spent a lot of time and energy in the “what if” and “if only” categories this season, trying to tamp down the disappointment of the four losses in an 8-4 season. But now that the season is over, there is a requirement to look at some of what has happened.

The Cancellation

The only surprise here was that it took all the way up until just hours before kickoff to cancel UCLA’s appearance. The Bruins have been on a greased downward slide for a week now. Last Wednesday head coach Chip Kelly said his team was seemingly in good health, while also acknowledging that everything was day to day. Ten minutes later as the media entered practice, Qwuantrezz Knight was inexplicably absent from practice. On Thursday Knight issued a statement saying he was going to miss the game for Covid issues.

Friday, Kelly said he believed Knight was the only Covid issue but that they team was continuing to test. Kelly noted that things could change all the way until they got on the bus that day to go to San Diego. Ten minutes later, as the media entered practice Ethan Fernea and defensive lineman Tyler Manoa were absent from practice. Players who are injured still attend practices even while working with trainers. These guys were flat out nowhere to be seen.

It was later revealed on social media that offensive lineman Atonio Mafi had tested positive and would not be on the trip. Then on Monday, after both coaches met with the media, UCLA tried to discreetly isolate another player who had presumably tested positive.

If discretion is important in these matters, this failed. When a football player is brought in through the lobby of a hotel that is not the team hotel, wearing his UCLA clothes, carrying a UCLA bag and walking with someone wearing a UCLA medical staff shirt…it doesn’t take Woodward and Bernstein to get to the bottom of this. Five hours later defensive lineman Jay Toia announced he would not be able to play. Whether UCLA told the hotel they were stashing away a Covid positive player in a room there is another issue to be asked at another time. Surely the housekeeping crew would like to know.

The Explanation

The statement issued by UCLA shortly after the news broke Tuesday afternoon read, “The UCLA football team is unable to participate in tonight’s San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl due to Covid-19 protocols within the Bruins’ program.” Covid protocols. Not Covid cases. It is unclear how many more positive cases there are on the team. But in the absence of NCAA governance over the DI postseason, schools have been left to follow their own, or their conference’s, guidelines.

It was reported that UCLA could not field the mandated number of scholarship defensive linemen for the game. Otitio Ogbonnia was not playing, needing to heal injuries before his NFL workouts. Toia and Manoa were presumably out. Quentin Sommerville has been injured all season. Martin Andrus has only been able to play sparingly at the end of the season due to two years’ worth of injuries. Was it the defensive line numbers? Or was there a greater outbreak on the team?

Athletic Director Martin Jarmond issued a statement on his twitter account. It read in part, “With today’s COVID results, our medical staff deemed it unsafe for us to compete this evening. While we had isolated COVID challenges, we were still in a position to compete up until today.” Translation: the snowball that started rolling downhill last week at practice picked up a full head of steam and knocked out many more players than we likely are aware of.

The Optics You Can’t Unsee

Jarmond was addressing a brunch full of donors and supporters who were given the chance to pay $150 to hear guest speakers prior to the game. He then took the stage, sans mask, to announce the news of the cancellation.

It was one in a series of missteps by UCLA during its bowl prep. Kelly likes to talk about protecting the team eco-system. Nothing could have been further than that over the last several days.

The UCLA Football twitter feed inexplicably posted a video of the Bruins having bowl week fun at Sea World. Such outings are tradition for bowl games over the decades. But these are unusual circumstances with Covid. While it was an unknown number at the time, there were clearly members of the team who were carrying the virus at the time of the video. It makes the video, and the trip in general, all the more questionable, particularly in light of UCLA choosing to post a video where most of the players are not following mask protocols. While the term gets overused for large scale events, UCLA’s trip to Sea World, and the lack of precautions taken by the players and staff, quite possibly turned this into its own “Super Spreader” event.

UCLA still has not learned that messaging is everything in this day and age, and careful review is in order before hitting the publish button. The messaging now is being taken as the players having fun with no attention to safety.

The behavior is not without precedent. There are lighted signs as you enter UCLA’s campus that there is a mask mandate regardless of vaccination status. Yet some of the school’s most senior athletic department officials routinely shun the rule, as well as at the Rose Bowl stadium, which also has a mask mandate.

Doeren Out Of Line

Clearly the North Carolina State contingency was upset. Thousands of fans spent their money to travel cross country for their first ever appearance in San Diego’s bowl game. It is about more than ticket refunds. It is the time, effort, and general expense that comes with that kind of commitment.

But the message from the Wolfpack, officially, and unofficially, went from disappointment to nonsense pretty quickly. NC State wide receiver Thayer Thomas alleged that UCLA players took a vote and opted not to play. There was zero evidence of this. Yet it gained steam and NC State let it roll, despite refutation from UCLA.

 

Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren went in a different direction. In an interview at the team hotel, he claimed UCLA left NC State in the dark about the Covid issues.

“Felt lied to, to be honest,” Doeren said. “We felt like UCLA probably knew something was going on with their team and didn’t tell anyone on our side. We had no clue they were up against that. I don’t think it was very well handled from their university,” Doeren said. “Our team has done everything right. We’re 100% vaccinated … we were prepared to play this game. Our opponent wasn’t apparently.”

Doeren is a likeable guy. We have spoken to him on multiple occasions. Maybe it was just the emotions of the moment speaking. Because frankly, how could you not know what UCLA was dealing with? Every publication that covers the Bruins has been writing about it for a week. It has been everywhere. This publication got blasted on social media last week for suggesting the game might be precarious. If Doeren is serious that he did not know, then he needs to have a sit down with his advance staff. The homework was there for the doing. We suggest starting by adding this publication to his regular reading for such guidance. We have lots of ads, but no subscription fee. The only way to have not known was to not have been paying attention.

The Fallout

It is unclear at this point if UCLA will get its $3.2 million that is the payout for each Holiday Bowl team. A bowl representative said it is going to take some time to sort through. Per Pac-12 policy, UCLA get would get a majority share of the money before the rest goes into the post season pot to distribute across all conference teams. For an athletic department that has been in financial red for three years now, the money is not insignificant. The game, by its rules, is a no contest and not a forfeit after UCLA withdrew for Covid reasons. NC State is claiming a 10th victory. The NCAA will not be acknowledging it. The bowl committee delivered the championship trophy to NC State Wednesday.

The Holiday Bowl also takes a big hit. This is the second year in a row that the game has been cancelled. For a city that thrives on the tourism dollars, this is painful. The game averages just over 51,000 over the last decade in attendance. A bowl spokesperson told Ben Bolch of the LA Times earlier this week, that this was expected to be one of the lowest attended Holiday Bowls in history, with an estimated 32,000 in ticket sales. The spokesperson told Bolch that Covid, a week of poor weather, and a team travelling from the other side of the country were what was holding down ticket sales.

If that last point matters, the team travelling from the other coast, is an issue, then one has to suspect the bowl needs to drop its alliance with the ACC, since the acronym stands for Atlantic Coast Conference…and they really do come from out there.

So, the UCLA season ends with a thud. The coming days and weeks will be spent looking at which players are coming back, and which are leaving early. There will be the constant following of Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s own version of social media whack-a-mole as fans try to read the tea leaves on his future. There is another signing day ahead with little to offer in terms of elite talent. And there is the 24/7 watch that is the transfer portal.

Last Word will be taking an in-depth look at the team and its future in the days to come.