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Amid a swirl of uncertainty for UCLA’s Martin Jarmond, a terrible loss

Shortly after accepting a position as UCLA's athletic director, Martin Jarmond learned his mother had suffered a stroke.
(Jesus Ramirez / UCLA Athletics)

It was supposed to be a leisurely few hours amid the ceaseless bustle that had become Martin Jarmond’s life.

A magazine photo shoot would serve as his introduction to the UCLA campus after he had been hired as the school’s athletic director two months earlier without setting foot in Westwood because traveling from his home in Boston had been a harrowing risk during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The moment would allow him to marinate in the scenic beauty of his new work environment on a warm midsummer’s day, pushing aside the worries that awaited. The Bruins faced the uncertainty of whether there would be a football season and concerns about how that might affect their massive budget deficit at a time when their nine-figure apparel deal with Under Armour was falling apart.

Jarmond was also in the midst of finding a new home in the San Fernando Valley while making arrangements to move his wife and three daughters across the country at a moment when some people were afraid to take a walk down the block.

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On the way to campus, Jarmond answered his cellphone and heard his father’s warm, familiar voice. Only this time it was oddly strained.

“Your mom’s had a stroke,” Matt Jarmond told his son. “She should be OK, but I’m a little concerned.”

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Mom? A stroke? None of it made any sense to Martin as he contemplated the vibrant 72-year-old woman who walked five miles a day.

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In some ways, Virginia Jarmond was the very reason her son had taken the UCLA job. When Boston College president William Leahy informed Jarmond that he had to decide whether to accept the Bruins’ offer by that night, his first call was to his mother, the family’s steadying matriarch.

She relayed a story about how when Martin was in kindergarten, his teacher had told her and her husband that there was not a challenge he felt he couldn’t overcome, that he was a boy who thought he could do anything.

“Marty,” Virginia Jarmond told her son, “this is your next challenge. You need to do this.”

His mother never left his thoughts as he forced the requisite smiles during the blur of a photo shoot. He made arrangements to take a red-eye flight to his parents’ home in Raleigh, N.C., after connecting through New York.

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By the time Jarmond arrived at the hospital the next morning, his mother’s eyes were open but she wasn’t responsive. Martin held her hand and felt her rubbing his fingers before her condition deteriorated.

You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.

UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond

Doctors had given her a clot-busting drug, warning that 3% of stroke victims who took the medication suffered an adverse reaction.

“She was part of that 3%,” Jarmond said.

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As he sat in her hospital room, terrified that his mother might not survive, he felt his resolve being tested in a way that no budget shortfall or crushing football loss could. “You never know how strong you are,” Jarmond tweeted, “until being strong is the only choice you have.”

He continued to speak to his mother over the next few days as she worsened, unsure if she was understanding anything he said. She quietly slipped away on July 22, a week after her stroke.

“I’m still in shock a little bit; I’m still in disbelief,” Jarmond said last week. “I can’t believe she’s gone.”

The loss remained deeply embedded in him as he returned to work after the funeral to complete his first month on the job, confronted by a series of challenges far less sympathetic than the flood of condolences that poured in from both sides of the country.

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Jarmond still had not met his boss, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, or football coach Chip Kelly in person. He was trying to balance the number of online meetings he took per day to avoid fatigue with the virtual medium.

Martin Jarmond, UCLA’s new athletic director, was 16 years old when he had a gun placed against his head after being pulled over for speeding.

Getting to speak with some Bruins legends helped. Jarmond talked to retired football coach Terry Donahue for more than an hour and also spoke with former star athletes Rafer Johnson, Gary Beban and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, leaving the 40-year-old feeling like a wide-eyed kid who had just enjoyed a brush with an idol.

“That was like, I can’t believe this,” Jarmond said. “I’m going to tell my family I Zoomed with Kareem.”

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Several themes emerged from his talks with current and former players and coaches. Jarmond repeatedly heard about the power of coach John Wooden’s legacy more than a decade after his death. That Westwood was a natural magnet for elite athletes. That nobody wanted to leave once they got to campus.

Jarmond repeatedly called quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson to introduce himself, if only he could get through.

“He actually blew my phone up and I was not answering because I didn’t know his number,” Thompson-Robinson said with a laugh. “He finally texted me one day and I called him immediately and said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so sorry.’ ”

Thompson-Robinson said his takeaway from his early interactions with Jarmond was his willingness to listen and help in any way he could.

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When a group of Pac-12 football players that included several Bruins issued a list of demands to conference officials, threatening to boycott practices and games if their ultimatum was not granted, Jarmond and Kelly set up an online meeting with the UCLA team to discuss the issues.

Bru McCoy was in a bad frame of mind as he battled a mysterious illness. It took a one-on-one meeting with USC coach Clay Helton to help McCoy turn a corner.

Jarmond emphasized the need to respect others’ opinions even if they don’t align with your own because everybody comes from a different place and has different priorities. A few players said that even though they didn’t agree with certain teammates, it was important for everyone to stay united, expressing what Jarmond described as “true leadership.”

“You want to see that from the students and not from me or Chip or somebody else,” Jarmond said of the players’ sentiment. “That was really cool.”

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One topic that has universal support is UCLA’s need to find a new apparel sponsor. Under Armour informed the Bruins earlier this summer that it wanted to back out of a record $280-million contract, compounding the financial difficulties the athletic department already faced before the pandemic.

Jarmond wouldn’t comment on the Under Armour situation except to say he’s spending a lot of time working to resolve the issue, but one person close to the situation said that UCLA is aggressively pursuing its options and has spoken with four other apparel companies, realizing the market has weakened amid the pandemic and the Bruins may be left with a less-than-comparable deal.

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UCLA’s most pressing need is to get athletic gear for the upcoming school year because nobody else could outfit its teams in time. That means the Bruins will continue wearing Under Armour this fall, should sports be played. According to one person close to the situation, the apparel giant has supplied only some of the gear it is contractually bound to provide for next season and if it doesn’t complete the shipments the Bruins will be forced to cobble together outfits from their existing supplies.

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As if that wasn’t enough of a worry, Jarmond also needs to find a home. He’s targeting two areas in the San Fernando Valley and expects to move at the end of the month, living in an apartment temporarily until everything gets settled.

He only wishes his mother could come see everything. He got goosebumps telling the story about her nudging him toward UCLA and said he was grateful she got to see him take the job and spend as much time as she did with his three daughters.

“We’re hanging in there, I just still can’t believe it,” Jarmond said. “I could not imagine life without my mom.”


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