First, before we go further, we want to state that this is NOT about the Stanford game, and not a knee jerk reaction to it. It plays a part of course, but this story is about the bigger picture of the program. We have been accumulating these thoughts all season and this seems the right time to air them.
We have always felt that being a successful college football coach at a major D-1 program is one of the most difficult jobs, period. You have to be relevant and able to relate to 16 and 17 year old recruits. You have to be affable and a decent schmoozer to relate to powerful alumni. You have to manage high strung and ambitious assistant coaches as well as 100 ego driven, and sometimes immature 18-22 year old athletes. You have to be able to negotiate with an administration that has other obligations such as a major basketball program and is influenced by campus forces that look at the football program as the enemy (particularly in the powerful faculty arena). Being responsible for a multi-million dollar enterprise, you have to have some of the skills of a large company CEO. In college football, you will be challenged by a different offense and defense every week, so you have to really understand the game, make decisions quickly, and get complicated concepts across to young players with limited experience. You have to understand media relations, how to spin, and be diplomatic in your responses to journalists. And most importantly, you have to win to drive ticket sales and donations. Failing in any of these areas can cost you your job as well as many others in the program. And being wildly successful in some, can overcome failures in others.
We had a talk with a major donor of Indiana University and we asked about Bobby Knight. Here was a public state university like UCLA, with a brash, occasionally obnoxious, and sometimes embarrassing head basketball coach. Can anyone imagine the UCLA brass putting up with that for 29 years? We asked how did that happen. Their reply was interesting – Knight knew who the powers were and took care of them. He was one of the biggest fundraisers for the University library and for academic research. In fact, he attended just about every academic fundraiser. And in spite of his reputation, he actually made an effort to get along with all the high level University employees, from the athletic director to the president, to the dean of faculty. The normal academic adversaries of athletics at a university put up with his behavior because he brought in substantial money to their departments, and the fans and donors tolerated it because he won. Some will say he only kept his job because he won. That is largely true but not entirely. Tell that to Jim Harrick. He won a national championship in basketball at UCLA and was fired a couple years later. In spite of winning, he didn’t understand the importance of some of the other points, and we are not talking about breaking NCAA rules.
And what about Terry Donahue? Over 19 years, Donahue averaged 7.9 wins a year. There were some good years and some not so good years. In the 1980’s he had several very good years (including all three of his Rose Bowl wins), which cemented his ability to keep his job for another decade. Donahue was considered a darling of the Morgan Center and we suspect Donahue won and beat USC just enough to keep his job, even during the poor seasons. Also, UCLA was a different place then than now. We think the UCLA administration and the media was still consumed with basketball residual from the Wooden years. Football was the “second” sport and if we were just competitive, that was good enough. And the world was different then than now. There were few if any sports forums, blogs, or message boards during his time. No pay sites stirring the pot and trying to influence the program. There were no options outside of sending a letter to the Los Angeles Times (which we did) for fans to galvanize and express their discontent, or support. Also, UCLA, being a public educational institution was always concerned about budgets, salaries, and expenses for the athletic programs. With the exception of basketball, those often were prioritized over winning (we still remember the days when USC’s offensive coordinator was making almost the same as UCLA’s head coach).
Jump to today, and again, the world has changed so much. In a way, everything has flipped. UCLA pays its football coaches now. The staff is one of the highest paid staffs in the PAC-12. Investment in the athletic infrastructure has exploded. Winning in football is equally as important as winning in basketball. Money is dropping into the athletic department by the boatloads. The football program even has a mental conditioning coach. We credit the controversial Dan Guerrero for much of this, but that topic is for another day. On the flip side, the sports forums and pay sites have changed the entire experience for the UCLA football fan. In the past the fan experience was reading a story in the newspaper once a day and watching the game on Saturday…no recruiting news, no daily practice reports, no spring practice coverage. Today, the experience is 24/7. All the news, all the time. And with the message boards, the fans can now interact with, and get information from other fans. They have become empowered, and in some cases, feel that they have taken on an ownership role.
Just as the change has affected fans, it has also affected coaches. Because of social media and the pay sites, Coach Mora and his staff are under heavy scrutiny 24/7. The fans are far more in tune with the program than they ever were under Donahue. Every play is analyzed, every hire is scrutinized, every statement from Mora is psycho-analyzed. It is a new day, and an increasingly harder one to be a head coach in. It even affects the players. Case in point, Mique Juarez needs some time off and it becomes a pay site circus. An interesting question might be how would Donahue have handled today’s social media world? How would today’s fans have felt about Donahue?
We don’t take a position whether any of this is good or bad, it just is. However, we think it is important to understanding where the program is and how as fans these influences affect us and our perception of the program. Do our actions as a fan base help or hurt the program?
So where is the program? Compared to the past, we are light years ahead of Donahue, Dorrell, Toledo, and Neuheisel. Mora has almost willed the program to a higher level. He has fought for higher coaching salaries, a bigger recruiting budget, better facilities, and more. In terms of program building, we are becoming one of the Big Boys now. Neuheisel has often said that while he was coach, he kept asking for these things, but was always denied. Mora was not to be denied. One small example is that we were astonished when Mora was able to add the color black to the UCLA marketing palette of recommended colors. Anyone that has worked for a university knows this is like moving a mountain. Yet he did it.
Mora has also changed the mentality of the team. No more over-the-wall antics – these players are serious and want to win. They are bigger, stronger, faster, and higher ranked recruits than we have seen under past coaches.
So it can be argued that we have better players, better paid coaches, better facilities, and perhaps (in a general sense) better teams under Mora, but are we where we should be? One might argue that Mora is a victim of his own success. With his force of personality, we as fans thought he was the man to bring us to the promised land. Hundley and Rosen were not the saviors, Mora was. But now in his fifth year, we are wondering if this is all there is. He has brought us to the next level, but does he have what it takes to move UCLA to the blue blood level? Can he beat the Texas A&Ms and the Stanfords of college football on a regular basis?
Our own opinion is that yes, Mora can. He has shown flexibility in changing offensive and defensive schemes. He has shown that he is a force for change regarding the program at the University. We believe a coach like that is a perquisite to becoming a consistent top 15 program.
But from our seats, the barriers lie with recruiting and the staff. For the pay UCLA is offering coordinators and assistants now, the school should be able to bring in some heavy hitters. Starting with recruiting. USC is always going to self recruit well, but after the meltdowns with the sanctions, player issues, Kiffin, Sark, Orgeron, and now Helton, UCLA should be recruiting toe-to-toe, if not out-recruiting USC. But we are not. Looking at the Rivals recruiting rankings, UCLA has one 5-star, two 4-stars, four 3-stars, and one 2-star high school commitments. USC on the other hand with all their drama, and an unproven head coach is sitting at eight 4-stars already. This doesn’t make sense. UCLA, with a stable competitive program in a great location, should be able to capitalize on the meltdown that has been going on for several years across town. Neither team has received a high school verbal in September so maybe things will change, but we suspect not. We believe that come signing day, USC, no matter what their record is or who their coach is, will have a higher rated class (by star average) than UCLA. We hope we are wrong, but our gut and experience tells us otherwise right now. By this point in the Mora era, our coaches should be able to sell UCLA over USC to the family of every impartial 2017 recruit based on the current state of each program. But it is not happening.
Recruiting is hard, real hard and it is not for everyone.
Very successful programs have very successful recruiters. Why did Alabama hire Tosh Lupoi in spite of his trouble with the NCAA? Because he is a great coach? No, because he is a great recruiter. Even Alabama, a school with a name that will get them into the home of any recruit in the country, hires great recruiters. And those that follow UCLA recruiting may remember the case of 5-star Malachi Dupre. Dupre and two other UCLA recruits from Louisiana (including current UCLA linebacker Kenny Young) traveled to UCLA for their official visit. On the same plane was LSU coach Cam Cameron. He also took the same flight with the recruits back to Louisiana. There were even rumors that he actually sat next to Dupre on the plane and stayed at the same hotel in Los Angeles as the recruits. Did it work? Maybe. LSU got two of the three recruits. But it doesn’t really matter. The point is, when it comes to recruiting LSU was willing to go the extra mile. Not every school or coach is willing to do that. Are UCLA’s recruiters like that? We don’t know – we are not in their office when they are making their calls or on the road on their visits. What we do know is that UCLA should not have two 4-star committed recruits while USC has eight. By the way, we do know that stars are not everything and sometimes a 2-star finds his way to the NFL, and teams loaded with 5-stars like USC look lost, but for right now, the star system is the best indicator of a team’s talent. Overall, teams that recruit 4-star and 5-star talent regularly win most of the games against teams that recruit 2-star and 3-star talent.
“The program is at the crossroads between being a good team every season, and being a blue blood killer that strikes fear and awe into opposing teams”
As we said earlier, UCLA’s talent level is higher and better then it has been in recent years, but it still needs to get to that next level. Mora, like Donahue did, may be winning enough to keep his job forever, but the program is at the crossroads between being a good team every season, and being a blue blood killer that strikes fear and awe into opposing teams. We believe Mora can get over that hump, but he needs to take a good hard look at his assistants, take the personal relationships and loyalty he has with them out of the equation, and ask himself if each is the best he can surround himself with. Is each of his coaches an outstanding schemer, and excellent at making in-game decisions and adjustments? Is each of his coaches getting their players in each group fundamentally sound and playing to their ability? Is each of his coaches putting every player into position to be successful? Are the players for each group signed in each recruiting class (regardless of stars) better than the last class, and are actually making the program better each year? If not, where is the breakdown? Is each of his coaches considered to be among the best recruiters in the country? If he answers no to any of these questions, he needs to ask himself, can another high quality coach turn it to a yes.
We want to be clear that we actually like each and every one of our coaches personally. We have no ill will against any of them or want to see them out of a job, and our statements do not apply equally to all the coaches (some are very good recruiters and game planners). But these men are being paid a lot of money. A tremendous and very competitive amount of money. With that paycheck, comes the responsibility to prove they deserve it. These are no longer the Dorrell days when UCLA brought in the cheapest guys, and we as fans threw our hands up in the air and said “of course we are losing, what do you expect?” We have said this before, and hopefully never have to say it again, but after the season, Mora needs to evaluate his staff without emotion, and make changes where improvements can be made. He cannot wait until coaches leave on their own accord. We suspect Mora is loyal to a fault and we respect that, but that quality can get you into trouble as a head coach.
We still support Coach Mora and have told him so. He is the only coach to give UCLA a taste of what could be. However, his future, his legacy at UCLA, and his record are all in his hands if he is willing to look introspectively, and ask himself tough questions about his staff, and more importantly, make some impartial, non-emotional, tough decisions after the season.