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Mandate For Change: UCLA

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The Catalyst: As late as Halloween 2001, Pete Carroll’s first season at USC and the next-to-last for Bob Toledo at UCLA, the Bruins were the class of the town. Seven-and-a-half years later, LA has lost more games by double digits to unranked teams since 2002 (11) than SC has lost, period. When the record is that lopsided, there are only two possible reactions: OMG U$C is teh cheaterz and Fire Karl Dorrell.

You'll get 'em next time, big guy.
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The drive for mediocrity is truly the stuff of legends, or at least of things in filing cabinets that keep for a really, really long time. Dorrell's first two seasons, the Bruins were 6-7, then 6-6, and came in 4-4 against the rest of the Pac Ten each season. The league's admirable move to a round robin format in 2006 allowed him to pick up an extra game to go 5-4 that year, and 7-6 overall, a mark balanced (of course) by the 6-7 record last year. It’s like chi. Bowl games included the Silicon Valley, Las Vegas, Sun, Emerald and Las Vegas again. Even the Bruins' lone interesting season under Dorrell, 2005, was one that veered to the middle in the balance of its extremes: fantastic on offense, horrible on defense, a consistent winner but almost always in close, skin-of-the-teeth fashion; a rare loser but in grisly blowouts each time, once to a team that finished 3-8 and once by 47 points to the hated Trojans, who gained a mere 679 yards.

The gap is too big. UCLA does not have a history of contending nationally, but it does expect Rose Bowls: it played in six of them between 1975 and 1998 – three in four years from 1982-85 – and in two Fiesta Bowls and two Cotton Bowls. It won eight of those ten games. Dorrell, though, never came close to a January game. He didn’t have the players. By Rivals’ count, from 2004-07, USC signed as many five-star recruits (23) as LA signed four-star recruits, when there are about nine times as many of the latter to be had. The only question is why it took another year to pull the plug.

The New Guy(s): Rick Neuheisel has a long way to go to escape the long shadow of charlatanism: he left Colorado with more than 50 rules violations and two years’ probation in 1998, was investigated for illegal recruiting visits, reprimanded by the board of the American Football Coaches’ Association and compared to Al Capone in Slate (the NCAA got him, but only for a technicality – gambling on basketball. like Capone got nailed for tax evasion – instead of the meat of his transgressions). Even Neuheisel’s record is hard to pin down:

These were both short stays, but the pattern was the same at both: fast start, second year peak, slight decline, resignation/termination under controversy. In years one and two at both stops, Neuheisel’s teams were 38-10, and a tremendous 25-6 in-conference; in years three and four, they were 28-20 and 17-15 in conference games. Colorado was 11-1 the year before Neuheisel took over and hadn’t lost a conference game to a team that wasn’t Nebraska since 1984; the Buffaloes lost to Kansas his first year and were quickly relegated to mediocrity within the Big 12. In relative terms, his term at Washington was more successful on the field – the team he inherited was not as strong as the one he took over at Colorado, and he won that elusive Rose Bowl – but ended the same way: with the Huskies at .500 in the Pac Ten and Slick Rick dodging accusations on his way out the door.

Pete doesn’t tuck his shirt in, and neither do we.
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But this is much too brief and too mixed of a record to draw any certain conclusions, other than that he can be good – three ten-plus-win seasons in eight years and a Rose Bowl is proof of that. And he has no record of producing a worse product than Dorrell. For his recruit-friendly charisma and Trojan-baiting chutzpah alone (hello, Norm Chow), Rick’s an upgrade. He’s more confident, he’s at a job he can make his own for a long time, and at least it looks like he’s trying.

Immediate Impact or Slow Burn?: Chow has the reputation of an ‘instant impact’ kind of coordinator, if he had any healthy players. Starting tackle Aleksey Lans left the team with knee injuries. Of the most experienced Bruin skill guys, Kahlil Bell missed the last five games last year, Marcus Everett missed the last nine, and the god, the quarterbacks: Ben Olson was the starter in 2006 until he was knocked out for the season; Patrick Cowan finished the year in underwhelming fashion. Olson started last year, got knocked out in the third game; Cowan started the next week and was knocked out for the following two weeks, during which Olson returned until he was knocked out of the game against Notre Dame and inept walk-on McLeod Bethel-Thompson came on to commit seven turnovers against the Irish. Cowan started the next three games, until he was knocked out against Arizona. Osaar Rashaan moved from wide receiver to start the next two weeks against Arizona State and Oregon, until he was pulled for extreme ineffectiveness in favor of a gimpy Olson. Cowan returned to start at USC until he was knocked out in the fourth quarter and replaced by Olson. Bethel-Thompson played the entire bowl game but left the team after the season. Cowan won the starting job in the spring, before he went down for the season with a non-contact ACL injury. Olson broke his foot the same day and will be out for most of the summer.

Got it? For brevity, with a little commentary from the O.C.:

Cowan missed eight games last season because of injuries to his left hamstring, right knee and left knee. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on the left knee in February. Olson missed six games because of headaches and a left knee injury.
"...The frailness of these two kids is crazy…All of a sudden you go from two senior quarterbacks to not knowing what the heck is going to happen."

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Welcome to UCLA! Fully healthy, Dorrell’s team were only about average by Pac Ten standards, maybe slightly above, and inconsistent at that. Banged-up, as they frequently were, and as they’ve started the new regime, it’s vulnerable to even the lowliest outfits in this parity-driven league, as it’s proven time and again.

That aspect – the regular, usually lopsided losses to seemingly inferior teams – Neuheisel should change. His first recruiting class was second in the Pac Ten according to Rivals and within a few spots of SC in the site’s national rankings. They’re years away from narrowing that chasm on the field, but Neuheisel gives them a chance -- a the illusion of a chance, anyway, which might be the same thing. Even if he’s more Tommy Bowden than Pete Carroll, the resemblance gives the stale cross-town bit teeth for the next few years.