The lobby of UCLA’s Wasserman Football Center this week revealed a blend of old and new, past and present.
Along a bank of windows sat a passel of Pac-10 Conference championship trophies, none more recent than 1998. Plastered on a nearby wall were pictures of legends from what felt like a long-lost era. They included Gary Beban, the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner, more than a half-century ago, and pre-civil rights movement racial pioneers Jackie Robinson, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington.
Overlooking it all above a receptionist’s desk was a massive video board flashing a series of images. Along with the day’s schedule featuring time allotted for eating, training and recovery were inspirational sayings and words such as kaizen, the Japanese art of making continuous improvement through small, ongoing changes.
Next came the question that new Bruins coach Chip Kelly continually asks his players: “Which are you?” The words were posted beneath an image of a zoo tiger slumbering on his back and a jungle tiger on the prowl near a stream.
Kelly’s bid to stir UCLA from its 20-year snooze officially kicks off Saturday when the Bruins open their season against Cincinnati at the Rose Bowl. It’s been two decades since the team made its last appearance in the Rose Bowl game.
The absence of substantial success in recent years hasn’t been for a lack of talent. No other Pac-12 school has produced more NFL draft picks than UCLA’s 21 in the College Football Playoff era, a haul that underscores the team’s underachieving ways.
Kelly signed a five-year, $23.3-million contract in November fully intending to change that. He brings an impeccable college record, having gone 46-7 during four seasons at Oregon that preceded four less distinguished seasons in the NFL and one year as an ESPN analyst.
The 54-year-old coach hardly seemed wistful on the eve of his return to the college game. Asked what he was most looking forward to about Saturday, Kelly said, “Just make sure I’m there for kickoff.”
What the Bruins will look like once the ball sails into the air remains something of a mystery. Graduate transfer Wilton Speight will be the starting quarterback in a move announced Thursday, but the team’s style of offense under a coach known for innovation has long been a subject of intense debate.
“Maybe Chip will reinvent himself,” said retired Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, Kelly’s boss with the Ducks when the team ran a blur offense. “It won’t be quite the same as when he came to Oregon because at that time, we became a unique preparation for most people. You had to get ready for us differently and you only saw it once a year, you didn’t see it every week. Now you see some fashion of it every week, which people are prepared for. It won’t be a shock to their system.”
Even those who follow the Bruins closely don’t know what to expect because practices were closed to reporters with the exception of a 20-minute window that involved stretching, individual drills and special teams work.
The only theme that emerged about the balance of practice in player interviews was that the Bruins were doing everything fast.
“We never stop moving,” defensive end Rick Wade said. “That’s just how we play and we’re going to use that to our advantage.”
The Bruins feature some high-end talent. Tight end Caleb Wilson, outside linebacker Jaelan Phillips and cornerback Darnay Holmes could join the Bruins’ tally of NFL players. Among the less heralded players, receiver Dymond Lee, tailback Joshua Kelley and safety Quentin Lake appear poised for breakthrough seasons.
The biggest questions involve the Bruins’ rushing offense and defense, both stuck in reverse last season while ranked among the worst in the nation. There’s also an exceedingly young roster and little established depth along the offensive and defensive lines and at inside linebacker, where a rash of injuries left a slew of players wearing yellow noncontact jerseys in practice.
Compounding UCLA’s personnel issues is a schedule that features games against five nationally ranked teams, including No. 7 Oklahoma on the road during the second week.
The hope is that Kelly’s inventive ways can help compensate for his team’s shortcomings before he fully restocks the roster. He’s implemented a sports science program that focuses on nutrition, hydration and recovery while closely monitoring players’ bodies. That helped lure Speight from Michigan, where he had spent his first three college seasons.
“It was clear they were doing things maybe a little bit differently than the rest,” Speight said of the Bruins’ cutting-edge approach, “and that was a big part of my decision” to come to the school.
Kelly said he was drawn to UCLA in part because of the school’s broad-based excellence that includes 116 NCAA championships.
After paying requisite respect at his introductory news conference to the legendary John Wooden, whose teams won an unprecedented 10 men’s basketball titles, Kelly spoke of what amounted to his own pyramid of success built upon relationships, friendships and championships.
“Hopefully through that process of relationships and friendships,” Kelly said, “that leads to championships and that’s what this place is all about.”