The UCLA that youngsters used to dream about playing for and coaches used to dread playing against died last week. The Bruins lost once, and then they lost again—and suddenly the basketball world knew for sure what it had only suspected: the reign of terror is finally over. Now UCLA is just a team, Pauley Pavilion is just a building and the song girls are just cheerleaders. Gone are the awe, the mystique, the glamour. UCLA, R.I.P.
The first indication of mortality came early last week, when UCLA gave away a game to Notre Dame by the score of 77-74. Conclusive evidence was presented on Saturday afternoon, when the Bruins lost to DePaul 99-94 in a game more one-sided than the margin indicates. Until last week UCLA had not lost two consecutive non-conference games in 14 seasons, or two in a row in any form since 1974. All four of those defeats had come on the road; DePaul beat the Bruins in Pauley, where UCLA had lost only seven times in 228 games since the grand opening in December 1965.
UCLA began last week with a 3-0 record and a No. 7 national ranking. But the victories had come against undistinguished competition, and the ranking was more the result of voting habit than expert appraisal. Under John Wooden, UCLA won 10 national championships from 1964 to 1975. Under Wooden's successors, Gene Bartow and Gary Cunningham, the Bruins won 85.7% of their games, the best percentage in the nation. Now Larry Brown, the fourth coach in five years, has inherited a team that doesn't have enough talent among its veteran players or experience among its young ones to compare with the glory clubs. "We aren't a Top 10 team," says Brown, "and I doubt if we even belong in the Top 20."
The decline wasn't altogether unexpected. When the stylish, 39-year-old Brown took the job last March, J. D. Morgan, the outgoing director of athletics, gave him a bleak status report. "I told Larry he was coming in at a time when UCLA basketball was lower than it had been in many, many years," Morgan said last week. "Since John Wooden retired, we had lacked the continuity of recruiting we had come to expect. I knew this might be a difficult year."
Last week's games proved that UCLA has lost more than just physical superiority. There has been a dramatic psychological deterioration as well. "Pauley Pavilion used to be a lion's den," says Mike Warren, a guard on the national championship teams of 1967 and '68. "Now it's just a place to play. Opponents aren't in awe of UCLA anymore, and the UCLA players don't have the feeling that they're representing something special."
The truth of that assessment was all too evident last week. The Irish, who have now beaten the Bruins in six of their last eight games, no longer bother to celebrate a victory over UCLA by cutting down the nets. And it was two straight over the Bruins for DePaul, Saturday's win being the first for the Blue Demons at Pauley. DePaul lost to UCLA 108-85 last year at Pauley but then beat the Bruins 95-91 in the NCAA West Regional finals in Provo, Utah. "When I played them the first time last year I was scared," said Blue Demon Forward Mark Aguirre. "This time I was excited because I knew we could beat them. It's going to take them a while before they're UCLA again."
The real UCLA, or at least the old monster UCLA, wouldn't have lost either of last week's games. Offensive quickness and defensive aggressiveness enabled the Bruins to lead Notre Dame by six at the half and by seven with 3:41 remaining. Then they tossed the game away in a sorry display of carelessness, inefficiency and atrocious foul shooting. Notre Dame won in the last five seconds when freshman Guard John Paxson sank two free throws, picked up a stray in-bounds pass, was fouled and sank two more free throws.
Although UCLA's overall performance against Notre Dame was encouraging, Morgan wisely cautioned, "We do know now we can play with the big boys, but this young team may not be capable of back-to-back inspired performances." He was absolutely correct. After leading DePaul by 10 early, UCLA trailed at the half 52-51. In the second half the Blue Demons built a 13-point lead with 1:43 left to win easily, with Aguirre getting 27 points, 17 rebounds and six assists. The Bruins showed none of the spark and tenacity against DePaul that had taken them so far against Notre Dame. "We played without any emotion," said Forward Kiki Vandeweghe. "We weren't thinking and we weren't hustling."
Salvaging the remainder of UCLA's season may require drastic measures. The only starter who scored in double figures in either game last week was Vandeweghe, who had 17 points against Notre Dame and 29 against DePaul. Vandeweghe is easily the team's best player, but he lacks the assertiveness and dominance that a young team needs from a leader. "Let's face it," one college coach said last week, "would you rather go up against Vandeweghe or Marques Johnson?"
Brown said he was considering wholesale lineup changes, with emphasis on more floor time for young players like the quick freshman Guard Rod Foster, who scored 15 points in both games on 14-for-17 shooting. "I've got to get guys in there we can win with and not worry about trying to build character," Brown said. "Except for Vandeweghe, our seniors [Forward James Wilkes and alternating Centers Darrell Allums and Gig Sims] lack confidence and self-esteem. They played supporting roles last year, and they're still playing that way this year."
Brown is under no immediate pressure to produce a champion, but he knows that the understanding and patience of the UCLA fans and Los Angeles media can last only so long. Thus far everyone has been remarkably kind. Morgan feels "warm and good" about Brown's performance to date. Wilkes says UCLA would have been national champion the last few years if Brown had been coach, and Wooden himself wrote Brown a note before the Notre Dame trip, saying it would be nice if Brown could develop some backcourt players like Walt Hazzard, Mike Warren or even Larry Brown, North Carolina 1960-1963, ABA 1968-1972.
UCLA needs more than that, however. A forward like Sidney Wicks and a center like Bill Walton are more like it. At present, Brown believes it will be at least two more years before UCLA will again be a serious challenger for the national title. He thinks he will be given the opportunity to do the job, not because his contract is for three years, but because "the people who support the program probably feel they should take it easy on the new guy since they don't want to lose another coach."
Brown realizes, though, that big success—the national championship or at least making the final four—is the only kind that will satisfy most Bruin fans. Sitting in his office last week, he pointed to four of the 17 conference trophies UCLA has won in the last 18 years. "When I moved in I saw these under a table," he said. "At most schools even one of these is important. I wanted to put them out where people could see them."
At UCLA, the conference championship has been an incidental trinket and national prominence a way of life. Now, for the first time in 14 years, the Bruins could lose the Pac-10 title—although their chief competition, Oregon State, showed in losing to Portland that it might not be quite up to plucking the prize.
Ten national championship banners hang overhead in Pauley Pavilion, but the wild fan enthusiasm is absent. Brown may sit where Wooden sat, but he must share a secretary with several other coaches. When Brown resigned as coach of the Denver Nuggets last Feb. 1, he had a five-year, $980,000 contract that was loaded with extras. At UCLA he makes $40,000 a year, has to trade four season tickets for the use of a Cadillac and can afford a home close to campus only because a group of UCLA boosters agreed to buy it and lease it back to him with the understanding he could buy it next year.
But Brown came to UCLA for love, not money. Even though he won five division championships in six seasons as an ABA and NBA coach, he resigned after a frustrating 28-25 start in 1978-79. "When I left I was crushed," he says. "I didn't feel good about myself. I knew I wanted to get back into coaching, but I was scared to death to go back to being a professional coach. I didn't like what I saw happening to the pro game—the long season and the 24-second clock. Now when I'm on the court teaching, I feel like I've got the greatest job in the world. I can say anything, and the players don't question my motives. They want to get better and they respect my intent."
They had better. Because this year, more than ever before, the UCLA players are going to need all the coaching they can get.