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On the Clock

Times Staff Writer

At first glance, not much has changed with UCLA’s football program since Athletic Director Dan Guerrero hired Karl Dorrell to replace Bob Toledo as head coach.

The Bruins finished 7-5 after interim coach Ed Kezirian guided them to a victory in the 2002 Las Vegas Bowl. Two years later, they were 6-6 after a defeat in the same bowl game.

And most experts are forecasting a similar middle-of-the-Pacific 10 Conference finish this year.

So where’s the improvement?

That’s what some impatient UCLA supporters would like to know. Whispers of discontent heard toward the end of last season could become a call for another change at the top if the Bruins have another mediocre season.

“Karl has done a good job getting better players in the program, but he has to win this season,” said a player from UCLA teams in the 1970s. “Losing games like they did last season against Washington State, Arizona State and Wyoming just can’t keep happening.”

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Said the parent of a recent Bruin: “The coaching staff should be feeling some heat. There’s really no excuse for them not to win with so much talent and experienced players.”

There has even been a Fire Karl Dorrell blog that began last October, one entry pointing to the coach’s 1-10 record against teams above .500. Another reads: “KD must win at a minimum nine games next year, or be immediately fired.”

“I’m disappointed whenever I hear that type of talk,” said Terry Donahue, who coached Dorrell at UCLA in the 1980s and supported him for the job three years ago. “People saying things like that really don’t understand. I don’t think it is an informed opinion.

“That mentality comes from people who want that instant gratification. ... You have to be patient and give a coach opportunity to establish his program, and I think Karl is doing a good job.”

Most important, Dorrell seems to have the support of his boss, Guerrero, who said: “One has to look at what the situation was when Karl came in. He didn’t inherit necessarily a pat hand. ... He inherited a program that had some really talented players but also had some gaping holes in spots.”

Although UCLA had plenty of success under Toledo, who had a 49-32 record in seven seasons, the Bruins’ program suffered through several off-the-field incidents before he was let go.

Rebuilding UCLA’s image a certain way was a key reason why Dorrell was hired over current Oregon State Coach Mike Riley and current Syracuse Coach Greg Robinson.

After he was hired, Dorrell tried to blend old with new. It didn’t turn out well for him.

For his first season, he kept three assistants from Toledo’s staff -- Gary Bernardi, Mark Weber and Don Johnson -- and brought back Steve Axman, who coached Dorrell when he played for UCLA.

After a 6-7 season in 2003, Bernardi, Weber and Axman were gone. Then, after last season, Johnson left, giving Dorrell a staff handpicked by him.

“I expected him to come in and build a new foundation,” Guerrero said. “You have to work hard to find the right coaches for the right fit. He’s done that now.”

Dorrell has also expanded his imprint on the program. Out of 19 players of his first recruiting class, 16 are still in school and on pace to graduate on time. Guerrero said that’s another reason why he’s confident Dorrell has the program on the right track.

“Karl has provided the type of leadership I knew that he would coming in the door,” Guerrero said. “The expectation for all of us, including Karl, is to continue to improve on the foundation that has been built over the last couple of years.”

Andrew Jackson, a former all-city running back at Manual Arts High and president of AthruZ Recruiting, said Dorrell’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.

“You will find generally that colleges across the country that have athletic programs that win consistently also have strong performance in the classroom,” Jackson said. “They also have coaching staffs willing to find players from areas normally ignored who can contribute as student athletes. UCLA is starting to be known as a program that does that.”

The Bruins’ 2004 recruiting class included three current starters on the offensive line. This year’s crop of first-year players might be even better. It includes three players from Crenshaw High, one of a growing number of Los Angeles City schools opening up to Dorrell and the Bruins.

“UCLA has always been thought of as a university with a terrific academic reputation,” Jackson said. “They are now selecting good athletes who are good students with character.”

Dorrell, one of only three African American head coaches in NCAA Division I football, said he knows better than anyone that it’s time for the Bruins to produce on the field.

“I know that no one is going to take us seriously until we come out there and perform,” he said. “That’s really our goal, to play our best each week and hopefully outperform people week after week.”

With of a bevy of returning starters, Dorrell is confident that his team is ready to compete for the conference championship. “We want to be in the thick of it at the end of the year ... that’s where we’ll gauge success,” he said. “But that’s a long way away from now and there are a lot of games to be played before that time.

“Things are really coming together, we almost have the complete puzzle now,” he added. “We do have depth on both sides. We do have experience on both sides. Our defense is young, but it has some talent with speed and athleticism. And the same thing offensively, where our core is on pretty much on solid ground. ... Things are definitely on the upswing in the program.”

For Donahue, who recently spent time at a UCLA practice after spending the last four years working in the San Francisco 49ers’ front office, it’s easy to be optimistic with the direction of the program.

Two seasons ago, Donahue spent two days watching the Bruins’ practice at the 49ers’ facility in preparation for the Silicon Valley Classic.

“I was very surprised to see what the team looked like physically; they just did not have the type of players we had in prior years, our glory years,” said Donahue, who coached the Bruins for 20 seasons with a 151-74-8 record, including a 10-9-1 mark against USC.

“I can’t tell why or how it happened, but you could clearly notice a difference. ... But after watching what Karl has done the last two years and looking at this year’s team, I was very encouraged with the direction of the program.

“But I still caution people to be patient.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Karl Dorrell’s UCLA record

*--* 2003

*--*

* Overall: 6-7

* Pacific 10: 4-4

* Bowl: Lost to Fresno State, 17-9, in Silicon Valley Classic.

*--* 2004

*--*

* Overall: 6-6

* Pacific 10: 4-4

* Bowl: Lost to Wyoming, 24-21, in Las Vegas Bowl.


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