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On Trek to UCLA, He Learns to Bear With It

I did not wear my USC cap to UCLA Coach Karl Dullard’s Monday afternoon news conference.

Did not mention my Uncle Pete, or laugh at the frustrated Bruin students who were sledgehammering an old wreck sitting in front of the “Student Health & Wellness Center.” It must be tough these days to be a Bruin student.

I did not purchase one of those little cute Bruin bears in the UCLA bookstore for $6.50. You know the ones: You can attach a string to its neck and then drag it behind you while you tailgate before yet another USC win.

Obviously, I was on my best behavior. I even called the UCLA sports information director before I arrived, and I don’t usually warn folks when I’m coming because I don’t like to give them a chance to cancel a news conference or go into hiding. I learned that from my days as a reporter covering the San Diego Chargers.

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I noticed right away that Dullard appeared to be in a good mood. Maybe he heard Norm Chow might be leaving USC for Stanford.

Someone asked about USC, and Knute Dullard said, “We’re going to have to play football.” (Hold me back, coach.)

He said, “Our players are excited about playing the No. 1 team in the country,” like it’s a good thing to play the school across town, ranked No. 1 in the nation and favored by three touchdowns. In fact, he seemed so excited about it, I wondered whether he’d like that opportunity every year. And he laughed. You have to admire a UCLA football coach who can still laugh the week his team is scheduled to be slaughtered by USC.

“The team that makes the most plays will win the game,” he said, and like every other reporter in the room, I wrote it down because it might not get any better than this.

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A FEW weeks ago, after defeating Stanford, Dullard told me, “We’re going to surprise you.” He was right. The Bruins surprisingly -- if not shockingly -- fell flat to Washington State and then surprisingly -- if not shockingly -- recovered in Oregon.

I could tell by the excitement in his voice Monday -- and you have to really listen closely to pick that up -- he thinks he has one more surprise remaining, and I don’t think it’s beating Notre Dame in a bowl game because everyone does that.

“We feel really good about this as a team,” he said when we chatted privately. “We’ve been waiting for this.”

You know what, I think he really believes his team is going to knock off the Trojans. Now wouldn’t that be something -- the biggest win in school history coming under the command of Karl Dullard? What next, Jose Lima pitching the Dodgers to their first playoff win in 16 years? Oh.

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THE INCREDIBLE job that Dorrell did in rallying his team to defeat Oregon -- and a dull man in command couldn’t have pulled that off -- provides a glimmer of hope for Bruin fans who have been told to wait while he grows into the job as coach.

Give Dorrell credit, and I can’t believe I just typed that -- somehow he convinced his players they still had a chance to be bowl-eligible despite the fact everyone else knew they were going to lose to Oregon and USC.

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“It was a defining moment,” Dorrell said. “But when we lost to Washington State, it wasn’t like, ‘Oh shoot, I’m a failure.’ I was mad, but I had to get it behind us. We had to get up and go. I’m still ticked about that game; I stayed away from the papers because I knew what was going to be said, but no matter what anyone said, it never crossed my mind that I couldn’t do this job.”

Take a look at the 6-4 record, and he’s done a better job than most would’ve expected after last year’s collapse -- but just as well as he should’ve done against the likes of Illinois, Washington, San Diego State, Arizona and Stanford.

More than that, he seems to have grown on the job, refusing to buckle under intense criticism, while on occasion flashing more personality, and even a hint of charisma. He remains the optimist, full of happy talk and promising success sooner than later even though the No. 1 team in the nation is across town.

But if he’s right, and he has one more surprise in store for everyone, Dorrell has a chance of becoming a household name -- at least in Oklahoma and on the Auburn campus.

Another lopsided loss to USC, or worse yet, two more defeats to finish off the season, and Dullard will get his due, all right, on Page 2.

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FORMER USC receiver Lonnie White, who now covers UCLA for The Times -- and the Bruins have a problem with me! -- will sign his new USC-UCLA book, “75 Years of the Greatest Rivalry in Sports” on Friday at the Level One Supper Club (6311 Wilshire Blvd.).

It’s probably your best chance to ever be No. 1 in line at a book signing. The book is available at uclausc.com, although shouldn’t it be uscucla.com?

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I’M GUESSING the Dodgers are going to point to all the anger-management progress Milton Bradley has made after his run-in with the police during a friend’s traffic stop in Ohio, noting the fact that he now places his hands behind his back and volunteers to get arrested -- without putting up a fight.

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ON RADIO station 1540, Fred Roggin was ranting about his 6-year-old son and the people who have urged his kid to kick the ball out of bounds and stop scoring because he’s dominating soccer play.

This led Roggin to conclude that Uncle Pete did nothing wrong in calling for the fake punt against Notre Dame, or he would have to tell his own kid to stop beating the brains out of the other little tykes who aren’t any good.

T.J. Simers can be reached at t.j.simers@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Simers, go to latimes.com/simers.


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