CALIFORNIA BLUES

Despite obvious advantages, UCLA hasn't been good since the 1990s. Here's why
September 18, 2011

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UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel has said his team has been unable to get over "the hump of this mediocrity," which is a creative way of saying that the Bruins have stunk for a long time.

A former UCLA quarterback who coached Colorado and Washington to seven bowl games in eight seasons, Neuheisel proclaimed when he arrived in 2008 that he would take Los Angeles back from USC. But the Bruins are 16--23 since then, and a program that was a Pac-10 power throughout the 1980s, has spiraled toward irrelevancy. UCLA has gone a school-record 65 weeks without appearing in the AP Top 25, failed to earn a conference title in 12 seasons and dropped 11 of 12 to the rival Trojans. Athletic director Dan Guerrero has raised the specter of yet another coaching change—the fourth in 16 seasons—if the Bruins don't land a bowl bid.

"There have been some rough years, and the program is not where Rick or anyone at UCLA wants it to be," says Terry Donahue, the Bruins' coach from 1976 to '95. "But I still believe Rick is the guy to get it there. I know it can be hard to see, but the team has made progress."

Why the struggles? First, consider the macro issues, including facilities that are arguably the worst in the Pac-12. Then there's the inconvenience of playing almost 30 miles from campus at the Rose Bowl: Last season the Bruins drew 60,376 fans per game but played to 66.3% of capacity, which ranked 89th in the country. Finally, there's ever-increasing apathy toward football. UCLA is often labeled a potential powerhouse because of the fertile Southern California recruiting ground, but the program has more in common with Indiana, Maryland and other schools where basketball is the priority. Look no further than the $135 million renovation under way at Pauley Pavilion and the absence of any plans to upgrade the football facilities.

The micro issues relate mainly to Neuheisel. His hiring of Norm Chow as his offensive coordinator in 2008 was a splashy move—USC's former offensive architect orchestrating UCLA's attack—but was a poor match with a head coach with his own offensive ideas. Chow departed last January, a year after Neuheisel diminished his authority by switching to the Pistol offense and following years of what Neuheisel called "chemistry" problems.

Before Neuheisel's arrival, the Bruins had not had an offensive lineman or quarterback drafted by the NFL since 1999—a streak his regime has kept intact. The 2009 recruiting class was ranked fifth nationally by Scout.com (four spots above USC's) and included a number of touted offensive linemen. Then tackle Xavier Su'a-Filo decided to go on a two-year Mormon mission (he could return next season), tackle Nik Abele retired because of a recurring neck injury and guard Stanley Hasiak left the team after being ruled academically ineligible. Subsequent classes haven't filled the voids.

Once considered a quarterback guru, Neuheisel has also been unable to turn Richard Brehaut (another member of the ballyhooed 2009 class), Kevin Craft or Kevin Prince into a quality signal-caller. It is Neuheisel's most glaring failure, particularly when contrasted with how well Jim Harbaugh (hired at Stanford only a year before Neuheisel) developed Andrew Luck. "You look at Stanford's recent success, and it begins with having gotten the quarterback position right," says Donahue.

There is hope that freshman Brett Hundley will be special, but it is likely he is at least a year away, which means the fate of UCLA and Neuheisel will be decided by the oft-injured Prince and the error-prone Brehaut, who struggled (12 of 23) in last Saturday's lackluster 27--17 victory over San Jose State. Asked if such a performance against a mediocre team—the Spartans fell to Stanford 57--3 a week earlier—was a sign that the Bruins were headed in the wrong direction, Neuheisel said, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I'm sure many [people] will say that, but I look at it like we had a chance to blink and we didn't." He added, "The psychology of football is something that is very difficult to put your finger on."

That is true, as is this: That hump of mediocrity is taller than ever.

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PHOTOROBERT BECK (BREHAUT)NOTHIN' BRUIN The program hasn't had a quarterback drafted since 1999, and the inconsistent Brehaut (12) is unlikely to end that streak.
PHOTOROBERT BECKNOT SO SLICK RICK Misses in recruiting and changing offensive philosophy have contributed to the woes of Neuheisel, who is squarely on the hot seat.
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