Wednesday November 28th, 2007

This is the time of year that college football renews all of its richest traditions -- rivals are re-acquainted, bowl bids are extended and boosters are mobilized so they can raise millions of dollars to help buy out their head coach's existing contract.

It is hard to mourn the recent departure of Dennis Franchione, a mercenary who wound up at Texas A&M only after he jilted Alabama; or Bill Callahan, an NFL retread who practically turned Nebraska into the Raiders; or Ed Orgeron, who had 20 players go on probation this season at Ole Miss for stealing various items from hotel rooms.

But UCLA's Karl Dorrell has always been different. If UCLA loses to USC on Saturday afternoon at the Coliseum, which is widely anticipated, and Dorrell is fired shortly thereafter, which is widely speculated, it will mark a sad end to a noble journey.

Dorrell was hired five years ago, on his 39th birthday. At the time, he was the wide receivers coach for the Denver Broncos. He had never been a head coach at any level. The most devoted fans knew only a few biographical details about him: He played receiver at UCLA, he worked as a graduate assistant there, and he was African-American.

He signed a contract for $600,000 a year, modest by major college football standards. "We could have brought in a big name for $2 million," UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said at the time. "But there are no guarantees. So I went with my gut."

Dorrell was under-qualified, but that was part of his appeal. In a sport where the same coaches keep getting rehired -- most of them middle-aged and white -- Dorrell was the ultimate sleeper. He stood for all those minority candidates who never get a chance.

On the day he was introduced, Dorrell walked through UCLA's Hall of Fame, past photographs of fellow alumni, fellow pioneers. There was Jackie Robinson in his baseball jersey, Arthur Ashe with his tennis racket, Rafer Johnson holding a torch.

"My voice is cracking right now because I'm telling you how important this is," Dorrell said. "It's obviously very dear to me. And I promise you that I will work my tail off to be the best coach I can be. I am proud to be a Bruin, proud to be back."

Administrators beamed. Former teammates burst into applause. No one had a clue if the guy could win, but he could at least restore a little hope. In many ways, Dorrell's inaugural address still ranks among the finest moments of his time at UCLA.

The more fans saw Dorrell, the less compelling he seemed. He implemented the West Coast offense, which confused his players. He ran off assistant coaches he had just hired. And all the while, he showed little emotion in public. Across town, USC coach Pete Carroll was more charismatic than Dorrell and much more successful.

UCLA improved, though it was hard to notice in Carroll's shadow. Dorrell cleaned up a program that had been stained by scandals. He recruited inner-city areas that had been forsaken for the suburbs. Two years ago, the Bruins went 10-2. Last year, they finally beat USC, costing the Trojans a spot in the national championship game.

During a television timeout late in the fourth quarter in that USC game, Dorrell started jumping up and down on the sideline, rousing his players to jump higher and higher. It was a side of him few had seen since the day he was introduced five years ago.

This season was supposed to signal his breakthrough. UCLA had 20 returning starters, a favorable schedule, legitimate Rose Bowl hopes. But under Dorrell, the Bruins have lost to too many teams they should have blown out. This year's list includes Utah, Arizona, Washington State, and most embarrassing of all, Notre Dame.

"It hasn't been the prettiest of circumstances," Dorrell said.

UCLA's top two quarterbacks, Ben Olson and Patrick Cowan, were both injured. So were the top two tailbacks, Chris Markey and Kahlil Bell. Dorrell has basically been trying to save his job with a wide receiver at quarterback and a walk-on at running back.

The Bruins limped to 6-5, which most seasons would probably guarantee them a berth in the Las Vegas Bowl. But in this oddball year, they can still make the Rose Bowl with a victory over USC and an Arizona victory over Arizona State on Saturday night. "It's an unusual opportunity," Dorrell said. "But it's also a great opportunity."

Olson and Cowan should both be available this weekend. Markey should also be able to play. Dorrell does not believe one win can save a season, but it might be enough to save a job. It is hard to imagine UCLA ever firing a coach who is in the Rose Bowl.

"It's all about this game," Dorrell said. "It all comes down to this game."

He was talking about his team, but he might as well have been talking about his tenure. Guerrero indicated weeks ago that he would evaluate Dorrell partly on how the Bruins finish. And how they finish is largely predicated on how they play against USC.

Odds are that UCLA will lose, Arizona will lose, and Dorrell will wind up in yet another sub-standard bowl game, his fifth in a row. That will make it easier for Guerrero to fire him, but no easier to watch. College football needs coaches who are young, principled and African-American. To dismiss one is a defeat for the sport.

This is not to say that Dorrell should stay at UCLA. But if Franchione and Callahan are able to land other jobs in the coming year, Dorrell deserves to land one, too.

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