Q&A: Terry Donahue on the state of UCLA football


Our interview with Terry Donahue is the latest in a series of Q&As with prominent sports figures.

Terry Donahue was at UCLA when the Bruins football team won.

Not just the everyday conference matchups, but the big games. He was 10-9-1 against USC in his tenure as coach from 1976 to 1995, and he won the Rose Bowl three times (1983, 1984, 1986).

Donahue remains plugged in to the UCLA athletics circle. Athletic Director Dan Guerrero called him in advance of the firings of two of his successors, former Donahue players Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel. Donahue discussed Neuheisel’s hiring with Guerrero before it happened.


Now UCLA needs another coach after a season in which it was routed by USC, 50-0, a decisive outcome that no true Bruin could stomach.

Donahue, a college football broadcaster who Saturday worked the Southeastern Conference championship game between Louisiana State and Georgia, discussed UCLA’s next move with The Times on Sunday.

What are your thoughts on the Neuheisel era?

“Rick really tried hard and gave UCLA his best effort. No one should minimize the work and energy he gave. Rick would say himself it was disappointing he didn’t win more and make more progress. There are a lot of reasons for that, but all of us expected more success, more wins. It wasn’t because he didn’t work or recruit hard, though. But we didn’t win enough and the losses were so lopsided. I’m convinced that if those losses were closer — if we could’ve said, ‘We played them tough’ — Rick might still be our coach. Just too many losses to USC.”

Did you counsel Neuheisel during his stay?

“I had discussions. We talked about the need of acquiring a top-notch quarterback. We talked about the frustrations of a coach, getting the program together, the difficulties that exist within the UCLA job and its strengths. How the team is or isn’t playing, what’s going well and what’s not. Coach stuff. I made it clear I was available. I wanted them to be successful. And I’ll be supportive of the next coach, even though I probably won’t know him as well.”


What are the difficulties of coaching at UCLA that you refer to?

“No coach can win without talent. The acquisition of talent is always a major challenge. It’s the most important thing. Are we getting the talent we need, the players we have to get? There are several factors: Can you get that player into school? How big is your [recruiting] pool? When you coach at UCLA, you just can’t get any NCAA qualifier. That’s not part of the deal. UCLA admits athletes who’ll be successful in the university and move to a degree. The UCLA coach has different challenges than other schools. So you need to create a big pool of athletes to win.”

What’s most obviously missing?

“Every good team I had at UCLA was led by a good quarterback. If you don’t have one, you’re not going to be real successful. You can get a quarterback into school. Generally speaking, they’re bright, they’re a leader. I don’t know everyone [Neuheisel] recruited. I do know you’ve got to get a quarterback to get you past USC. If you put Matt Barkley, Mark Sanchez, Carson Palmer in a blue jersey, you’d have a different outcome. Therein lies UCLA’s biggest problem. UCLA has got to address that.”

Why has that not happened?

“You make mistakes in recruiting, people get hurt, they lose interest in football. Over the last 13 years, since Cade McNown, there hasn’t been a great quarterback, and UCLA also began losing its recruiting base after Cade’s senior class.”


What needs to be done now?

“We’ve got to get a coach — and I don’t care if he’s offensive-minded or defensive-minded — who can get a quarterback. Things aren’t going to be any different without successfully landing a quarterback. We need to expand our recruiting base, go anywhere in the country to get a guy who can help. You have to have resources, the wherewithal to do that. I’m not inside the university, but if the pool is not big enough in California because of academic restrictions, you have to increase the pool size. Recruit good students nationally. You need money, access to an aircraft if possible. I’m not saying it’s on donors, but the university needs to provide the resources. If you don’t have those resources, you’re doomed to failure. I don’t know if UCLA has moved away from that, but we had success by creating that bigger pool. I went and got players from Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Hawaii, Texas, Oregon. We had to, and UCLA has to continue to do that. It costs money, but it’s a worthwhile investment. And it all starts with the quarterback position.”

Who’s the best person for the job?

“I’ve heard [Houston’s Kevin] Sumlin, [former Oregon coach] Mike Bellotti, [Miami’s] Al Golden and a number of others. They’ll get a good man. UCLA can win in football. We’ve done it before and we’ll win again. No question in my mind at all. We had a bad run — some of it was luck, some our own decisions and circumstances. Again, it starts with an emphasis on quarterback. Once we get that and develop that kid right, all of the problems will go away.”