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Bruins Have a True Friend in Bieniemy

This time, Eric Bieniemy got a taste of what it’s like, being on the receiving end of those notes he writes at 3 a.m. or the text messages he sends when traffic comes to a halt on the 405.

This time, the recruiter was being recruited, experiencing the same rush as a 17-year-old with a mailbox full of college brochures.

“It always feels good to be wanted,” Bieniemy said.

Last winter, Texas Coach Mack Brown tried to add Bieniemy to his staff in Austin. It was an early challenge in Karl Dorrell’s shaky start at UCLA. The steps to prominence don’t always come on signing day, when blue-chip recruits commit to your school. Sometimes its about retaining what you have, keeping a core group in place long enough to establish success.

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Dorrell had already replaced his offensive coordinator after his first year. He couldn’t afford to lose another offensive coach and a key recruiting component after a second season that left him with a record of 12-13.

“We wanted to keep continuity with our staff,” Dorrell said. “Given that we had some tough times the first couple of years, I didn’t feel that that was the right opportunity for him. For me, personally, I wanted to keep our staff here, to keep the foundation that we built, keep it intact.”

The first step to recruiting is finding a soft spot and UCLA zeroed in on Bieniemy’s: his 10-year-old son, Eric III. The elder of Bieniemy’s two sons has cerebral palsy, a chronic disorder impairing control of movement.

“My son can’t walk,” Bieniemy said. “He can’t talk. He can’t even turn himself over in the bed like he would want to. But every day he just wants to be treated with love. To me, that’s inspirational.

“He doesn’t complain. He gets up every morning, he’s excited to go to school, he’s excited to see his family, he’s excited about all those little things. There’s nothing I need to worry about, nothing I need to complain about.

“Here’s a kid that really can’t do what a lot of other kids can do. But all the little things he can do, he loves doing.

“You take him outside, he smiles. You walk inside, you see him just burst, a big smile, because he’s happy to see you. And those are inspirational to me.”

UCLA made the person Bieniemy calls “the backbone of the family” a central part of its pitch. Not only would Bieniemy receive a substantial raise and the new title of recruiting coordinator, Eric III would receive assistance from the UCLA/Orthopaedic Hospital Center for Cerebral Palsy.

“UCLA was a resource that was being untapped,” Athletic Director Dan Guerrero said. “Services that his son needs are provided on this campus. He was not utilizing that.”

It all worked. It was a small step in the program’s return to prominence. Perhaps the 3-0 Bruins have yet to truly accomplish anything, what with victories against overwhelmed San Diego State and Rice and devalued Oklahoma. But they have been prepared to take advantage of every opportunity and have done so. They’ve scored 148 points in the process. There’s the feel of a program on the rise, which is always a compilation of small steps, such as efforts to retain Bieniemy.

“They did something that I really wasn’t expecting to be done,” Bieniemy said. “And you never walk away from that. In return, I have to work my tail off.”

That means getting to the office at 5 a.m. It means immersing himself in the grind of recruiting, the phone calls, the travel, the constant correspondence. He might wake up in the middle of the night with a recruit on his mind, wander to the kitchen and write a quick letter. Or spend a weekend off, such as the last one, watching high school football.

Dorrell describes him as “a bulldog.”

The tenacity is showing dividends. Bieniemy is credited with making UCLA a viable option to inner-city players again, including three members of this year’s freshman class from Crenshaw High.

The recruiting websites that ranked UCLA’s classes in the mid-30s two years ago had them in the mid-20s this year. In its early rankings for the 2006 class based on oral commitments, Scout.com has UCLA 12th, 14 spots ahead of -- dah, dahhh, DAHHHHH -- USC.

“It’s all about building the personal relationships,” Bieniemy said. “It’s all about being aggressive throughout that recruiting process. It’s all about being seen, also. If we’re doing those things in the right way, any kid in his right mind, if they have the opportunity to go to school here, they wouldn’t turn down that opportunity.

“We know we’re going to lose some battles. But you know what, we’re going to win more battles than we’re going to lose.”

For every player his intense style might discourage -- running back Tyler Ebell cited frustration with Bieniemy as a reason for transferring -- Bieniemy will recruit two more and make those already at UCLA better.

“He wants us to be the best backfield in the country,” tailback Chris Markey said. “He demands a lot from us.

“He wants us to try for perfection. We try to do everything right.”

And Bieniemy doesn’t limit his demands to the running backs.

He might tell wide receiver Brandon Breazell, “I still don’t see the Brandon Breazell we recruited. I want to see you smile more. I still expect more out of you. There’s always more.”

It’s an approach the undersized Bieniemy adopted as a rookie in an NFL career he somehow stretched to nine years.

“You never know what opportunity is going to come about,” Bieniemy said. “You never know who’s looking. You never know who’s taking notes and watching how you work. So it’s best that you come out here and do it the right way.

“I was always taught: In order to achieve excellence, you have to chase perfection.”

UCLA still is chasing USC and perfection, in that order. There probably will be more attempts to raid the coaching staff, which Guerrero calls “the byproduct of success.” But first they must build a foundation of success, which starts with keeping the right people in place.

Sometimes it’s simply a matter of putting a smile on a child’s face.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.


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