Why can’t UCLA hire a great football coach?
Somewhere in Southern California, seemingly every day of every football season for the last 15 years, somebody has asked that question.
Why can’t the largest college in America’s second-largest city hire a great coach for America’s most popular college sport?
Why can’t a leading institution in the entertainment capital of the world hire someone who can make the football team entertaining? Why can’t the winningest college athletic department in American sport find a football coach who can consistently win?
Why can’t UCLA hire a great football coach?
The answer today is, it can and it must.
This was the promise and perception Monday from a half-empty news conference announcing the firing of Rick Neuheisel from a completely empty program.
“The ingredients are there to have a very successful program,” claimed Dan Guerrero, UCLA’s athletic director. “We need to bring in a coach to get us there.”
He has said this before, but this time he has to mean it. This time his mandate is absolute because his ammunition is greater. The Bruins’ circumstances have changed since their last disillusioning football job search. The old excuses have disappeared. The time-worn rationalizations no longer work. The pity party is over.
First, there will soon be an infusion of millions from the new Pac-12 Conference television contract, money that can be used to lure a star head coach and his staff.
Second, the Rose Bowl is undergoing more than $160 million in renovations, shining up the old jewel and countering Neuheisel’s recent comments that UCLA officials care only about basketball.
Finally, with Stanford proving that tough academic standards can be hurdled by tough football players, the Bruins can no longer claim that coaches are afraid to come here and recruit.
The search committee has run out of reasons to fail. And after the dreadful hirings of Karl Dorrell and Neuheisel, the athletic director running his first college football program is nearly out of strikes.
Guerrero’s job could be at stake here. UCLA’s athletic reputation — battered beyond recognition with current football and basketball struggles — is surely at stake here.
No more apologies. No more leftovers. No more back slaps for beloved coordinators like Bob Toledo, or homecoming parties for popular former Bruins like Dorrell and Neuheisel.
The next Bruins coach has to be an accomplished coach, period. He cannot be somebody’s buddy. He cannot be somebody’s favorite former player. He cannot be some other school’s coaching search leftovers.
He cannot be the kind of guy who allows Rose Bowl attendance to drop 25%, as it did under Neuheisel. He cannot be the kind of guy whose team can win its first eight games and then lose to Arizona and USC by a combined score of 118-33, which happened to Dorrell. He cannot even be the kind of guy like Toledo, who won 20 consecutive games but quickly lost control of things off the field.
Guerrero said he has learned from his first two football mistakes — “very much so,” he said.
Guerrero said he knows exactly what he wants — “I want to bring in a coach who has demonstrated success, who has demonstrated he can come into a campus like UCLA and get it done for us.”
He wants to bring in somebody like Chris Petersen. This is Candidate No. 1. This is the guy by whom all successive candidates should be measured. With the fatter Bruins wallet and stated new Bruins priorities, this is a guy they can and should get.
Petersen transformed an unknown outpost like Boise State into a team that has lost six games in six years, won two Bowl Championship Series bowl games, and is two missed field-goal tries from potentially playing for the national title the last two seasons. Petersen also transformed unknown Kellen Moore into a Heisman Trophy candidate, which could answer the other pressing question: Why can’t UCLA ever have a great quarterback?
In the past, the Bruins couldn’t even afford to talk to a hot candidate like Petersen. Now, the increased money will at least get them in the front door of his Boise home, where Bruins officials will be traveling soon.
“We will have more resources at our disposal to be competitive in the marketplace … that’s the most important thing,” Guerrero said.
In the past, someone like Petersen might not even have looked at UCLA because football was also viewed in basketball’s shadow. Now, even though Pauley Pavilion is being even more extensively renovated than the Rose Bowl, Guerrero wants to make one thing clear:
“Football is the primary sport here from an economic standpoint; we all understand that,” he said. “Our commitment to football is solid.”
Then there is no reason for the next football coach to be anything less than solid. There is no reason for Guerrero to beg, bargain or settle.
Two days after the state of UCLA football program was defined by a beating of 50-0, the Bruins have a chance to end the humiliation.
They can, and they must.