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As UCLA football hits big time on field, it walks through muck off it

You wanted the big time, UCLA football fans? Welcome to the big time, sports columnist Bill Plaschke writes

When Jim Mora was introduced as the new UCLA football coach in December of 2011, he vowed to take the Bruins to the big time.

"I'd say that it's a sleeping giant in college football," he said.

Well, yeah, the UCLA program has since awakened, but with such an unholy ruckus that old-timers could be forgiven for wishing it would just go back to bed. In the last six months, the Bruins have emerged from a longtime slumber, loudly slammed both feet on to the floor, and stomped up to that exclusive corner of the college football landscape filled with titillating controversies and tabloid headlines.

You wanted the big time, UCLA football fans? Welcome to the big time.

An assistant coach is publicly accused of lying by a top recruit who eventually goes elsewhere. An assistant coach is suspended for allegedly violating NCAA rules. The top incoming freshman running back spends prom night in jail. And now, this week, the famous father of a marginal player is arrested on suspicion of assaulting a member of the coaching staff for shouting at his son.

Remember those quaint days when you thought a sideline tussle between the UCLA head coach and one of his assistants was as awkward as it was going to get? Little did anyone know that last October's heated encounter between Mora and Jeff Ulbrich was just going to be round one.

True to Mora's word, the UCLA program has become an elite college football machine, but with all the dangers that entails, its allegiance to the late BCS replaced by an addiction to TMZ, its controversies loud enough to drown out an eight clap.

The kettlebell-swinging incident this week involving Sean "Diddy" Combs and UCLA strength coach Sal Alosi that resulted in Combs' arrest is the latest in a string of publicized Bruins embarrassments since the end of Mora's third season. While a rapper storming a weight room is scandalous in any setting, these problems can generally be categorized as the price of running a big-time college football program. The Bruins are simply pushing the envelope like everyone else.

But as USC fans know, if you push hard enough and long enough, eventually the NCAA is going to start paying attention and push back.

It is not in the best interest of a Bruins program that has always prided itself on "gutty" to suddenly be viewed as "grimy."

While Bruins officials declined comment on this story because of the ongoing Combs investigation, they are surely concerned.

The Bruins off-season started in the muck when, on February's national signing day, Roquan Smith, one of the nation's top high school linebackers from Macon, Ga., committed to UCLA on national TV in the morning yet backed out by nightfall because he said he could no longer trust the Bruins. Smith claimed the then-Bruins defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich told him he was not leaving UCLA even while Ulbrich was negotiating with the Atlanta Falcons, where Ulbrich eventually moved to coach linebackers. Mora, however, claims Ulbrich had not yet made up his mind.

In a sport in which coaches will say anything to coerce a recruit, lying is sadly part of the game, and college athletes should never attend a school based on the presence of a coach who could be gone the next day. But, still, to have a top recruit blatantly call out UCLA for such alleged tactics — and then confirm his distrust by signing elsewhere, with Georgia — was a black eye for Mora's program.

Just as one wound healed, another one appeared in March when offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, one of the Bruins' most influential recruiters, was suspended by UCLA for alleged NCAA rules violations. Klemm was recently reinstated by the Bruins after missing more than three months, but that doesn't mean the NCAA is finished with him, and he could be suspended during the regular season depending on the results of an ongoing review. It's just one coach but, still, it was one crack in the Bruins institutional armor.

In April, the turmoil shifted to a future Bruin, highly touted running back Soso Jamabo from Plano, Texas, after he was arrested on prom night on suspicion of evading arrest with a vehicle, consumption of alcohol by a minor, speeding, driving without a license and disregarding a stop sign.

All charges were eventually dropped and this week he enrolled with other recruits for summer school at UCLA. The incident was probably just a dumb mistake by an immature kid, but UCLA now must worry that it's not more.

All these crooked roads led to Monday's events in the school's weight room, where the Bruins suffered through the perfect storm of an overbearing parent, a marginal athlete, and a law-and-order coaching staff. While the legal system will decide the fault here — a yet-unreleased surveillance tape is key — there will remain larger questions that only Mora can answer.

How can a parent, even one as rich and influential as Sean "Diddy" Combs, feel so empowered he would bypass the head coach's office and enter one of the team's sanctums and demand to talk to an assistant coach? Are the monetary and recruiting benefits of a parent such as Combs really worth the roster spot that his undersized son Justin requires and the access that Combs demands? If Mora truly wants to build a championship program with hard work, commitment and discipline, are these really the kind of glamour deals he wants to be making?

Justin Combs was recruited by former Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel and verbally committed before Mora was hired. But he didn't sign until after Mora was hired, meaning Mora wasn't required to keep this arrangement, but for some reason he did, and now it has almost literally blown up in his strength coach's face.

This season, the Bruins will welcome another rap star's child, Cordell Broadus, son of Snoop Dogg, but he was an elite high school receiver, so the arrangement is not questionable. But one can imagine folks in the UCLA administration now questioning it, which is the shame in all this, that suddenly a football coach with 29 wins in 40 games and three consecutive wins over USC is being possibly viewed with as many raised eyebrows as expectations.

Mora has done a brilliant job of reshaping the Bruins on the field. For this growth to continue, that's where the excitement needs to remain, not in some weight room.

Back in December of 2011, at the Mora introductory news conference, Athletic Director Dan Guerrero said, "He was the right person for us to hire, to move our program to [a] Pac-12 and obviously BCS championship caliber program."

Mission accomplished. Sort of.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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