If you’re a UCLA football fan, the heart likely says this is the season for which you’ve been waiting so long.
An accomplished veteran quarterback in Dorian Thompson-Robinson. A stud running back in Zach Charbonnet. A re-energized defense bolstered through the transfer portal – three starters and four backups on the latest depth chart – and some changes on the defensive staff.
All of that, plus a soft runway because of an easy early schedule, could launch a season that nets … what, 10 victories? Maybe 11? A berth in the Pac-12 championship game? More??
At some point, hopefully, the brain interrupts and says, “Easy, now. Don’t get carried away.”
Few, even among the faithful, have gotten carried away with championship dreams around UCLA football for most of the last decade. The program itself makes it hard to get excited. There is no buzz, and little with which to generate sustained enthusiasm.
This is the story of UCLA football: A step forward, a step (or more) back.
It seemed like a signature victory last Sept. 4, when LSU brought the banner of the Southeastern Conference to the Rose Bowl and was rudely swatted away, in a rollicking 38-27 victory before 68,123. (Among the highlights: LSU and former USC coach Ed Orgeron responding to a UCLA heckler by referring to his “sissy blue shirt,” and that enterprising fan turning it into not only a T-shirt message but an NIL initiative.)
Was that – the entrepreneurship, even more than the on-field victory actually – the highlight of UCLA’s 2021 football season? As we know now, that LSU team finished 6-7 and got Orgeron fired. UCLA would finish 8-4, but not one of those victories was against a team with a winning record.
The reckoning came two weeks after the LSU victory, again in Pasadena, when the UCLA defense – about as dependable as Angels pitching in recent seasons – gave up a 40-second drive in the final minute for the winning points of Fresno State’s 40-37 victory. (Fresno State’s coach then, Kalen DeBoer, is now Washington’s coach. UCLA will see him in Week 5.)
Even the 62-33 victory over USC at the Coliseum last November requires perspective. That was a really bad and seemingly dispirited USC team, which led to Lincoln Riley’s hiring, the mass rebuild through the portal and the disproportionate amount of attention going to the Trojans these days.
OK, I get it, 8-4 is 8-4. And UCLA never got that last opportunity to change the narrative when its Holiday Bowl matchup against North Carolina State was canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak among the Bruins.
But this has become a pattern, going back to the final two years of Jim Mora’s tenure. UCLA is 28-40 since 2016 and 18-25 in four seasons under Kelly. You can make a case, as we did at the time, that beating USC saved the university from spending $9 million to buy out the final year of Kelly’s contract.
Instead, the university doubled down in January, giving Kelly a new four-year contract two days before the deadline to buy out the old one. Do they know something we don’t, or are they really rolling the dice on that 8-4 season?
At the time he was hired in November of 2017, UCLA administrators probably thought they were getting the Oregon Chip Kelly – you know, the one who was 46-7 (and 33-3 in conference play) in five seasons and had the Ducks playing for a national title at the end of the 2012 season.
Instead, they got the NFL Chip Kelly, in which expectations weren’t matched by results: 28-35 with one playoff appearance, a wild-card loss in his first season with Philly. He was fired by the Eagles after a 6-9 third season, and lasted one season in San Francisco, went 2-14 and got fired.
All things considered, four more years at UCLA seems like a reach, particularly for a program with no buzz in the most diverse and competitive sports market in North America.
Kelly seems to prefer minimal attention before the games start, so he’s likely enjoying the relative anonymity while the media focus is on Riley’s Rapid Rebuild across town. But that anonymity doesn’t work when you’re trying to sell tickets here.
Athletic director Martin Jarmond has to know, and those above him in the UCLA administration should be aware, that averaging 45,818 for seven home games last season, including three crowds under 40,000, just doesn’t cut it. In Kelly’s first season, 2018, the average was 51.164, and it’s gone down from there. What’s more embarrassing? Empty seats or tarps in empty sections?
While the parade of pastries on UCLA’s early-season schedule was necessitated in part by Michigan pulling out of a scheduled game, playing Bowling Green, Alabama State and South Alabama the first three weeks is not going to get people excited.
Can you imagine the reaction should there be an upset? If it turns out to be yawns rather than anger, that may be an even bigger danger sign.
Even with UCLA’s academic reputation, administrative red tape, and historic reluctance to spend money, you can’t say there have been any roadblocks in Kelly’s path. The $75 million on-campus Wasserman Football Center was in place when Kelly arrived. The university signed off on gourmet fare at the training table at Kelly’s request in the face of a whopping athletic department deficit. And it was revealed recently that the line item for UCLA’s football coaching staff, including Kelly’s $5.6 million for 2022, comes to more than $10 million, a university first.
When will that investment pay off?
It wasn’t always like this at UCLA. Terry Donahue’s teams won or shared five conference titles from 1982-93 and won three Rose Bowls in four seasons. And Bob Toledo’s 1998 Bruins had a 20-game winning streak, were No. 2 in the first BCS standings and could have clinched a spot in the championship game.
But those Bruins blew a 38-21 lead in the regular season finale at Miami, and Edgerrin James’ winning touchdown with 50 seconds knocked UCLA out, 49-45. Then the Bruins barely showed up on New Year’s Day and lost to Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
I’m not sure if that was a turning point, but it hasn’t been that good since. You can hope it will get better, Bruin fan, but be ready if it doesn’t.