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UCLA Sports

Column: Dan Guerrero and UCLA need to stop playing favorites with athletics admissions

UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero during a news conference at Pauley Pavilion on April 10.
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero during a news conference at Pauley Pavilion on April 10.
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)

In the wake of this spring’s college admissions bribery scandal, one local administrator rushed to the altar of outrage and shook his fist.

It was UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, who issued a strong statement espousing his department’s ideals.

He preached so loudly, one barely noticed the pulpit slowly crumbling beneath him.

“As an athletic department, we pride ourselves on conducting our business with the utmost integrity.”

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His venerable former soccer coach, Jorge Salcedo, has been indicted on charges of racketeering conspiracy after allegedly accepting $200,000 in bribes to help enroll two students using fake athletic profiles.

This resulted in the outrageous presence of a player on UCLA’s 2017 national runner-up women’s soccer team, Lauren Isackson, who allegedly had never played competitive soccer.

“As I have said throughout my career, how we do things is just as important as the results we produce.”

A UCLA internal investigation completed in July 2014 uncovered allegations of parents paving the way for their children’s admission as athletic recruits by pledging donations to the Bruins’ athletic department.

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This included confirmation of a $100,000 donation that led to the admission of a track athlete who was so unqualified, her name was unknown to the UCLA track and field director.

“Representing this university with character and integrity is paramount, not just for me, but for every coach, staff member and student athlete.”

In a Los Angeles Times story Sunday by Nathan Fenno and Richard Winton, it was revealed that popular former gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field admitted a close friend’s niece Maria Caire as a member of the nationally acclaimed gymnastics team even though Caire has no record of a competitive career.

The story also detailed how, in recent years, UCLA has admitted at least 18 students as athletic recruits who were either children of coaches or administrators or had close connections. Some had strong athletic credentials, but others did not.

These alleged cronyism admissions include children of baseball coach John Savage, former gymnastics coach Jerry Tomlinson, and Guerrero himself.

“UCLA Athletics take pride in what it means to be a Bruin, and we owe it to all students to ensure that fairness and integrity in the admissions process is maintained.”

This is a debt that has not been fully paid by the Bruins’ athletic department, and the overdue notice has finally landed squarely on the biggest desk in the room.

It is time to hold Guerrero accountable for running a program that has not practiced what he has preached.

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Certainly, he has accomplished much in his 17 years there, including overseeing teams that have won an amazing 32 NCAA team titles. He has achieved just as much off the field, directing the renovation of Pauley Pavilion and the Rose Bowl as well the building of new football and basketball training centers and the planned construction of a student-athlete academic center.

Even though he’s struggled to find consistency in the two biggest revenue sports — the football program hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl game in his tenure, and the once-vaunted basketball program has done little outside of three consecutive Final Four appearances more than a decade ago — Guerrero’s legacy will be that he has won more than he’s lost.

But are all of his victories worth the exclusion of even one qualified student from a university sought by so many? Do all of those new and shiny buildings compensate for one worthy applicant crushed by a system of favoritism and nepotism that seemed to spin itself out of Guerrero’s control?

His defenders will note that many athletic admissions are wildly subjective by nature. His defenders say that if a coach wants to admit a walk-on to strictly catch in the bullpen or play on the scout team, chances are the coach will take someone he o she already knows, even if that person is lacking in talent.

But with UCLA admitting only 14% of 110,000 applicants last year, Guerrero should have instilled a culture where coaches never play favorites with anyone. Also, while the athletic department is largely self-sustaining, UCLA is a state school, and Guerrero is a state employee, and every side-door athletic admission is a slap in the face of California taxpayers.

In that way, this situation is almost as insulting as what happened under Lynn Swann at USC, a private school without the same public accountability. While the recent scandals led some — including me — to call for an end to Swann’s tenure across town, Guerrero has now joined him on the hot seat.

The latest revelation involving Kondos Field is particularly appalling. Known affectionately as “Miss Val,” she was a gymnastics reincarnation of John Wooden, a seven-time national championship coach with a floor bearing her name and huge crowds embracing her presence.

When she retired this spring after 29 years, her athletes’ videos were going viral and fans were in tears. She was the supposed embodiment of everything good about the UCLA athletic department under Guerrero.

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And yet even Miss Val appeared to usher a student in through a side door, which makes you wonder how many other coaches have done it and just not gotten caught. At least not yet.

Guerrero, who was contacted for this story and politely declined to speak on the record, has a contract that expires at the end of this year.

In April, he told The Times’ Dylan Hernandez that he and Chancellor Gene Block have discussed an extension. In the wake of recent revelations, it is impossible to imagine they are still having those discussions. Guerrero is 67, and it only makes sense that his next step would eventually be retirement.

While his distinguished UCLA career has been tarnished by the recent revelations of events under his watch, Guerrero still deserves to go out on his own terms. But only when those side doors are bolted shut will he be able to walk out the front.


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