Dan Guerrero has navigated a career’s worth of upheaval the last few months. The veteran UCLA athletic director has fired and hired a football coach, helped resolve an international shoplifting incident and dealt with the departure of a high-profile player and comments from his higher-profile father.
If things work out, the Bruins could make some long-awaited noise in college football after last appearing in the Rose Bowl game after the 1998 season. The trajectory of men’s basketball seems less certain because the season-long suspensions of three players was a blow to the team’s depth.
Guerrero, 66, recently spoke with The Times about the hiring of football coach Chip Kelly, his vision for the football and basketball programs, and his own plans. Guerrero, who has spent the last 16 years guiding the sports programs at his alma mater, faces a decision when his contract expires in December 2019. The following interview has been edited for brevity.
Is it true that athletic directors keep a wish list of coaching candidates in case the need arises to make a change?
I would venture to say that most do. I can’t say that all do, but in this case, I would say that I do and always do because you don’t know what you may be confronted with in any type of a situation, whether you have to make the decision to make the change, whether a coach makes the decision to move on to another position or something else, some unforeseen thing that might occur that requires you to make the change.
I think it was pretty common knowledge across the country that Chip Kelly might be available to go back to college, and if that were the case, certainly he was at the top of most lists.
Was there a certain game or loss that triggered the change in football coaches?
It was more of an evaluation of what the future looked like when you looked at the program. We weren’t clicking on all cylinders on all facets of the game, and by year five [of Jim Mora’s contract] you’re anticipating that that’s going to happen. When it didn’t, it became clear that there was going to be a significant sea change in order that was required for us to get back on track. I just felt that it was going to be difficult with Jim and so [we] made the move after the USC loss and then aggressively went after our next hire.
What was your confidence level at the time you made the move that you would be able to secure Kelly?
We needed to aggressively engage his representation to see if there was an interest, and that’s what precipitated the move after the USC game. There was no question that he was the most coveted coach out there, and for us to be able to have an opportunity to have the conversation we needed to do so with the timing that we did.
How did it unfold from there? There was a meeting in San Francisco?
I was expected to be in San Francisco that evening with the Chancellor [Gene Block]. We had athletic directors and CEO meetings, Pac-12 meetings at the Pac-12 office. I had reached out to make contact with Chip’s representation to ascertain whether there would be an interest. As soon as it was evident there would be interest, we mobilized and made the effort to get Chip out to California the next day and we spent that entire day dealing with talking to Chip to ascertain if there was an appropriate fit for both of us and that led the discussions that continued throughout the rest of the week.
He has a reputation for being headstrong. What made you think he would be a good fit for UCLA?
The crux of our conversation dealt more with off-field issues than on-the-field issues and it became very evident to me early on that Chip had done his homework about UCLA.… We didn’t have to sell him on what UCLA is and all those kinds of things. We really needed to talk about those things that were important to him and whether there was a mutuality of interest and alignment of vision as to what was important for our program. Three things stood out for me when I talked to Chip: one is the importance for him in the development of the young men in our program. That was No. 1 for him; it wasn’t about facilities, it wasn’t about travel, it wasn’t about money and resources. It was about leadership development. It was about the importance of nutrition and what our commitment was to that. It was about sports science and how we might be able to add value to that, which was important to him, what we had in place in all of those areas.
When we ultimately did talk about football, there was clear alignment in terms of how we would move forward and things of that nature. We’re in a much different place now as we recruited a Chip Kelly than we were many years ago, and so we believed that we had a chance to get him because of those factors.
It’s a unique clause to the University of California, not necessarily germane to Chip Kelly. But the issue that comes into play as it relates to all three of those factors is, it was important for him to understand what our level of commitment was to those three things. When you talk about nutrition and sports science, we have one of the world-class medical centers in America and the opportunity to take advantage of that in support of any initiative he might have in those particular areas is pretty good, so that was important to the whole equation.
What has been the reaction among fans and donors as far as increased contributions to the athletic department and ticket sales?
I can’t give you specifics; I can tell you there was a spike in both donations and ticket sales coming out of the gate and obviously we anticipate as we go through the spring as he begins to show our community what our program could look like that there will be more interest as we move along.
What are your short- and long-term expectations for the program under Kelly?
My expectations are going to be very similar to what Chip’s are. Chip had an extraordinary career at Oregon. My gosh, 46-7 I believe was his record; went to major bowl games in each of the four years he was there; played for a national championship. We expect to accomplish things at UCLA that we haven’t done in many years, and whether that happens tomorrow or whether that happens over the course of a year or two or whatever the case may be, the most important thing is that the trajectory is where we want it to go.
How one deals with that incident isn’t found in the athletic director’s manual.
Three UCLA basketball players were caught shoplifting on a team trip to China. Where does that incident rank among the crises that you’ve had to navigate as athletic director at UCLA?
How one deals with that incident isn’t found in the athletic director’s manual. Certainly, it was a very difficult situation for, first and foremost, the student-athletes and their families and also for the university, for our athletic department, for our fans. Everyone became very emotional about that situation, so it was hard. As it relates to the circumstances, this was a tough one because it actually dealt with student-athletes who made a decision that ultimately became an international incident and that made it a different kind of a crisis, if you will.
What was the hardest part of that situation for you?
They were in a foreign country and we didn’t know, and didn’t have the confidence at any point and time, how this might work out in the end. And so for a period of time there we were laser-focused on simply doing everything that we could to abide by the rules, abide by the expectations of the Chinese government, so that it put our students in the best position possible to be released.
No. There’s no clarity.
In November, you mentioned that there would be a determination of reimbursement for expenses paid to keep the three players in China after the team had moved on. Is that process complete?
That still needs to be resolved.
With respect to what Lonzo Ball accomplished at UCLA and the way he has represented the university, are you relieved to be free of any connection to the rest of the Ball family?
I’ve been in college athletics for over 30 years, and over the course of those 30 years we’ve had thousands of student-athletes, and also, commensurate with that, you’ve had thousands of parents that are involved with your program in some way, shape or form. In many respects, those parents are advocates for their children and have a voice relative to their experience at the university.
Mostly, the feedback you get from parents is generally of gratitude and thankfulness for the experience their son or daughter had either because of the athletic exploits or also because of the education that they received. But occasionally you’re going to have parents that may have other viewpoints about the experience, and I think what we have always done and what I have always done in either case is to deal with each of those situations with respect and integrity and dignity and so that’s sort of been the rule of thumb.
As it relates to any parent that is involved with the program and specifically the parents — LaVar [Ball] — that you’re talking about, Lonzo was a great student-athlete in our program, a great teammate, a very good student, and obviously we’re very happy that he’s been able to move on and into professional ranks. As it relates to the rest of the family, they’ve made the decision to move on and we just hope nothing but the best for all of them.
Do the suspensions factor into your evaluation of the job that coach Steve Alford does this season as far as maybe lowering expectations?
The rule of thumb generally from a formulaic perspective is you win all your games at home, you split on the road. We’ve done that, and we’ve done that with a very young team that’s been depleted by the China experience — and when I say depleted, we certainly don’t have the depth that we thought that we were going to have in the program.
Our goals don’t change; we still want to win the conference championship, we still want to get in the tournament and go deep to the extent that we can, but we have to evaluate and see how things work out. I mean, Thomas [Welsh] has taken a couple of shots in the nose. If Thomas can’t play or if Aaron [Holiday] can’t play, or whatever the case may be for whatever reason, then obviously you have a completely different scenario in terms of what the makeup of your team will be. … This is not the team that we thought we were going to have at the beginning of the year and we’ll see how it plays out.
Alford has talked about UCLA being one of only a handful of teams to go to three Sweet 16s in his four seasons here. What is your benchmark for a successful basketball season?
Our goal in every one of our programs is to play to the best of our abilities and to take our programs as far as we can take them. At UCLA, by and large because of who we are and the access to talent that we’re able to recruit and things of that nature, very often the best you can be is to wind up winning national championships. So that’s always our goal. And that’s Steve’s goal as well.
When you look at that group and the composition of that group, I think it’s formidable. You have Tom Jernstedt, who in my mind was one of the architects of the Final Four and March Madness. Tom’s retired, a former vice president of the NCAA; he’s on the committee, he’s an Oregon grad. You have Steve Lavin, who both coached at this level and certainly as an analyst, so he sees it from a different filter; Brevin Knight, a Stanford grad and analyst with the Memphis Grizzlies; Charles Davis, a Stanford grad who can also see things through his perspective; Mike Montgomery, who coached both at Cal and Stanford. I mean, it’s a really good group of individuals who can see it through a different vantage point and a different filter but can all add value as you look at identifying the problems and then possible solutions.
Do you foresee a years-long process to enact changes?
I don’t believe it’s going to be a year-long process because it will probably need to coincide with whatever the NCAA commission established by Mark Emmert is doing, because if you want to provide any kind of recommendations — certainly to that group — you’ll want to do it before they issue whatever recommendations they might have.
The FBI has said that its investigation into college basketball is ongoing. Has UCLA been asked to provide any information or been contacted?
What are your thoughts on the Pac-12 television contracts in light of the criticisms over things such as midweek games, basketball trips that can last five days, 8 p.m. start times and revenues that lag behind those generated by the other Power Five conferences?
The business model has been one that has been questioned by many, and we’re living within the confines and the construct of the deal points that exist. … We’re going to live with these deal points for the next six years, and … not going to be able to do anything relative to the negatives at this point and time, so the positives is really where you need to focus on — the exposure, the quality of the network, the content and what that meant from a positive standpoint for the institutions. The negatives … the most important thing that one can say is to be poised to deal with the next negotiating cycle to be able to optimize not only those things that are good about the network but also to shore up those elements as you’ve described that need to be remedied.
How will the new Mo Ostin and Wasserman centers for basketball and football impact the future?
The feedback has been unparalleled. I think for our program to be able to finalize and construct these buildings has meant a great deal for those programs. I mean, all you need to do is ask Chip as he’s gone through the initial weeks of recruiting what that has meant to some of those recruits. From a basketball standpoint, you talk to Cori [Close, women’s basketball coach] and you talk to Steve, same thing. From a logistical, practical standpoint, the ability to have their own facility has been a godsend for them and the fact that we’ve had so many of our former athletes come back to see the facility, whether it’s Russell [Westbrook] or Luc [Mbah a Moute] or some of those guys, I mean they’re absolutely stunned by it, so [it’s] something that was greatly needed.
I wish we could have done it sooner but you can’t just push the button and go straight to the penthouse and the reason I say that is, it takes resources to accomplish some of the things that you would like to do, but it takes time for you to build a resource base that allows for you to do that. So the renovation of Pauley was $136 million and we received no money from the university to do that; we had to generate those dollars. Immediately from that we went to the Rose Bowl and now you have a $190-million project of which we were a participant, one of the three entities, the tri-party agreement in that, and then we went immediately from that to another $105 million worth of projects and you have your constituent base being supportive of that and you can’t just do this and then immediately expect something else to happen; it takes time for them to continue to support you in the manner in which you need. So very, very optimistic about what will happen for those programs as a result of that.
Your contract runs through 2019. Do you have an idea of how much longer you would like to be the athletic director at UCLA?
I haven’t made any decisions about my future.… There are still a lot of things that we would like to accomplish both from winning championships to graduating student-athletes and enhancing and building more facilities.
I would say that the most memorable achievement for me personally was to be able to retire Jackie Robinson’s jersey in all sports because of what he meant to me and to my dad when I was younger. In part, I grew a love for UCLA as a young boy because Jackie went to school here and my dad used to tell me that UCLA was a university for the people, and what he meant was a person that was an African American, a person that was Hispanic or someone that was a minority would be welcome at a place like this. And that resonated with me. So I was always a UCLA fan when I was a young boy. So the opportunity to get a scholarship to come here and to play here was special. I can remember the first time I put the UCLA jersey on, I mean, that’s what I thought of. I said, ‘I’m wearing the jersey that Jackie Robinson wore.’ And he was a second baseman and I was a second baseman. So to do that, to be in the chair and to have the opportunity to do that, it was very special to me and I’ll never forget that.
What would it mean if you could get a national championship in football or basketball before leaving?
It would be a dream come true.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch