The Cal State San Bernardino campus, where UCLA will hold a two-week football training camp starting Saturday, sits near historic Route 66, where some of the motels are relics from an age that predates the interstates, the Internet and the insanity of the Bowl Championship Series.
Jim Mora, UCLA’s first-year coach, has devised a 1950s-style black-and-white camp to match, saying, “It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be tough. Yeah, it’s going to be hot. Yeah, we’re going to push them.”
Most teams settle for throwback uniforms.
Mora says he’s “not re-creating the Junction Boys,” a reference to Bear Bryant’s first Texas A&M; team that spent 10 days in sunstroke heat preparing for the 1954 season. But his intent seems similar.
“Coach Bryant was trying to figure out what kind of team he had,” former Texas A&M; lineman Dennis Goehring said. “He was trying to get the best out of us, even if it meant doing things we didn’t want to do.”
Bryant’s camp ended when lineman Billy Schroeder nearly died in the heat.
San Bernardino is expected to be less extreme, both in temperature and treatment. But Mora, like Bryant, is trying to figure out his team.
The Bruins are 81-80 since the 1998 season, when they last appeared in the Rose Bowl. Change seems overdue. A change of scenery was a start.
San Bernardino may not be the outpost Junction, Texas, was in 1954, but any town Wyatt Earp once called home is far from the comfy, cosmopolitan Westwood scene.
San Bernardino’s third-ranked restaurant, according to TripAdvisor.com, is Souplantation. But at least it’s ranked. UCLA’s football team hasn’t been since 2007, a 78-week absence from the polls that is the longest stretch in program history.
“Coach Mora wants us out of our comfort zone,” running back Johnathan Franklin said. “I hear it’s going to be 105 degrees every day.”
Not so, said linebacker Damien Holmes, who played at nearby Colton High. Still, he said, “I don’t know how many degrees more it is than Westwood, but it’s that and much, much more.”
Challenging camp sites seem to be a trend with first-year coaches around the Pac-12 Conference. Washington State’s Mike Leach is keeping the Cougars home, but Pullman is already a patch in the middle of nowhere. Others are hitting the back roads.
Arizona, under Rich Rodriguez, is off to Cochise College, a map dot just north of the Mexican border that makes San Bernardino look like Las Vegas. Arizona State Coach Todd Graham is taking the Sun Devils back to Tontozona, an isolated mountain retreat north of Phoenix where teams guided by the legendary Frank Kush were toughened up.
Said Graham: “Cellphones don’t work there, what a blessing for me.”
Back in ’54, Bryant also sought isolation. The result: Two buses went in; one came out.
“It was kind of like boot camp,” Goehring recalled. “You went through it trying not to get your butt shot off.”
Players were carted off on stretchers. Only 35 came back. More than 50 quit, some slipping away in the middle of the night.
Others dreamed about alternatives.
On the bus ride down the hill to the practice field, Gene Stallings said he thought, “If the brakes would just fail.” That, he said, “would be a way out without having to quit.”
The only relief from the dry, dusty triple-digit heat came one Sunday.
“One of the guys told Coach Bryant that we all wanted to go to church,” Goehring said. “Well, the preacher was up there speaking and we were all in the first three rows snoring like hound dogs on a porch.”
The Aggies finished 1-9 in 1954, 7-2-1 in 1955 and 9-0-1 in 1956, winning the conference. The Junction camp forged that success, players said.
“Coach Bryant was always messing with us,” Goehring said. “I ran into him on campus one time and he grabbed my shirt, tearing off all the buttons, and said, ‘When are you going to start hitting someone?’ I grabbed his shirt, tore it, and said, ‘Right now.’ He said, ‘OK,’ and walked away.”
Mora is also seeking toughness. A year ago, during a 6-8 season, the Bruins were not only blistered by USC, 50-0, but were demolished by those further down the college football evolutionary scale — by Arizona, 48-12, and Utah, 31-6, for example.
“There is no guy in our locker room who questions whether he’s tough,” Holmes said. But Mora acknowledges that the outside opinion he heard before taking the job was that the Bruins were soft.
Soft or not, Mora ran a tougher spring practice. Injured players no longer gathered, coffee klatch-style, on the sideline, but did cardio workouts under the scowl of new strength coach Sal Alosi.
“The first day, all these coaches were yelling and screaming,” safety Tevin McDonald said. “We were used to it being more laid-back. All of a sudden, we’ve got these coaches who are high-energy. It took a couple days to get used to it.”
Mora provided a soundtrack for change, barking at players, sometimes colorfully. Frustrated with the focus one day, he sarcastically barked, “Let’s just be a 6-8 team!”
The idea of a training camp away from Westwood began to form.
“It will be an environment where they have to depend on each other,” Mora said. “I want them to be isolated.”