UCLA receiver Shaquelle Evans said he got to San Diego on Friday and “walked around town to see some things.”
This is where UCLA’s season ends, with the Bruins staying in a swank hotel and preparing to play Baylor in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl on Thursday.
Where the season began, there was no walking around.
“We were in lockdown,” Evans said.
It has been more than four months since the Bruins were bused to Cal State San Bernardino for a training camp/survival test. Players say that the two weeks of 100-plus-degree heat during August were the foundation of the Bruins’ most successful season since 2005.
UCLA (9-4) would have its seventh 10-victory season in the program’s history with a win over Baylor. A couple of weeks away from laid-back Westwood in August were a big contributing factor.
“There was a lot of hard work out there,” defensive end Datone Jones said. “That built our foundation.”
Jones can look out his San Diego hotel window and see a seaside city. In San Bernardino he could see “114-degree heat.”
Coach Jim Mora decided to take the Bruins to an isolated spot for his first training camp. There were jokes referencing Bear Bryant’s Texas A&M; “Junction Boys” and concerns about players’ health.
But, Mora said, “The idea of going up there was to build cohesiveness and also give us the ability to grind it out in some uncomfortable situations.”
It wasn’t pretty, with 13 consecutive days with triple-digit heat. At one point, the Bruins were down to eight offensive linemen. The rest were out because of heat issues and concussions.
“There was camaraderie that developed,” Mora said. “This is probably one of the closest teams I have ever been involved with.”
More than becoming buddies, UCLA’s players were hardened.
“Enduring the harsh conditions and the tough practices and the adversity and the uncomfortableness gave them a certain sense of toughness,” Mora said. “I think we drew upon on that at times.”
Mora points to the Bruins’ trip to play Arizona State at Tempe as Exhibit A.
UCLA fell behind, 14-0, in the first quarter on a warm Saturday afternoon. The Bruins rallied to take the lead, then had to put together a last-minute field-goal drive in a 45-43 victory.
“Our guys were not fazed at all,” Mora said.
Evans said that the grit developed in the Inland Empire was evident late in games. “We played better in the second half,” Evans said.
UCLA was outscored in the second half in only four of its 13 games.
“San Bernardino brought the team closer and gave us mental toughness,” Jones said.
Which got the Bruins to San Diego.
“This is our reward for San Bernardino,” Evans said.
Mora has not decided whether the Bruins will leave Westwood for training camp next August.
UCLA players, coaches and staff will spend Christmas Day in San Diego. It will be a different holiday experience.
After practice the team will go to SeaWorld and then back to the hotel.
“We’re going to have a Christmas dinner with players and staff and families,” Mora said. “We’ll have Santa Claus, sing some holiday carols. We have a little talent show planned. It should be really fun.”
Talent show? UCLA fans should keep a close eye on YouTube.com on Christmas night.