Last week the UCLA Bruins escaped the glaring spotlights of Los Angeles only to find themselves in the starring role playing the patsy to a 1-5 Arizona team that had just fired its coach.
Ticking off all the things that went wrong for the Bruins that Thursday night would be akin to listening to Linday Lohan’s defense attorney lay out another excuse.
Just. Make. It. Stop.
The UCLA Bruins lost 48-12 to the Wildcats in a Thursday night game that featured a streaker dressed up as a referee, a bench-clearing brawl and player ejections.
There was no way the Bruins could camouflage the ineptitude that engulfed their team — most football fans saw this nationally televised game. Or heard about it. Some saw the endless replays of the streaking ref on late night sports highlight reels, others just saw the fight. The Internet took care of the rest. The damage was done, the backlash from alumni and season ticket holders was inevitable.
"We’re not even mediocre," said Sam Andress, whose family has had season tickets for 30 years. "It’s mind-numbing. It becomes difficult to want to go see that on a weekly basis."
"They embarrassed the entire university with that fight that had occurred at the end of the second quarter," season-ticket holder Joe Piechowski said.
Piechowski channeled his frustrations into starting OccupyUCLAAthletics.com, a grassroots campaign to rid UCLA of what he and other season-ticket holders and alumni perceive as a lack of leadership from the Bruins’ athletic department. Within two days, his site’s petition to remove UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero had over 1,200 signatures.
"The entire athletic department under his [Guerrero’s] leadership is an absolute mess," Piechowski lamented. "Our No. 1 stated goal is the removal of Dan Guerrero as athletic director because we don’t want him picking our next football coach."
Piechowski wants fans to wear brown paper bags over their heads at the next game on Saturday, which happens to be Homecoming vs. Cal at the Rose Bowl.
Instead of making tailgating plans, many will protest via empty Rose Bowl seats, silently telling the story of those who are tired of vocalizing their disappointment. Others will wear paper bags over their faces instead of waving pom poms. There will be strangers sitting in Bruins alumni sections, a result of season-ticket holders waving the white flag rather than watching a bad product on the field.
But despite all the gloom and doom surrounding this year’s team, some fans can’t completely throw their program under the bus.
At least the football program could hang its helmet on the strong academic tradition — apologists always seem to find that somewhat comforting during times of duress. On Tuesday, the NCAA announced the graduation success rate for its member schools as of 2004.
Overall, UCLA did very well with an 83 percent graduation success rate — the football team came in with 59 percent.
"To turn around and hide behind the veil of academic integrity and have a football graduation rate of 59 percent since 2004, is … ridiculous," said Piechowski, searching for words. "We’re not getting the job done on the field and we’re not getting the job done for the players in the classroom either. We’re not getting them the help they need to graduate. What are we doing?"
"We finished behind USC, we finished behind Arizona State, we finished seventh out of what was the Pac-10, ninth out of what’s now the Pac-12," Piechowski said.
The numbers game is exactly what is plaguing UCLA football.
Too many coordinators to count and two coaches with mediocre records have breezed through the doors of Morgan Center in roughly four years.
The Rose Bowl can hold 92,542 people, according to the Tournament of Roses. Against San Jose State, the announced attendance at the Rose Bowl was 42,685. The attendance at the UCLA-Texas game? 54,583. Blaming the bad economy for lackluster attendance is easy, but the folks from Austin showed up in droves.
"At the Texas game, we got there about a half-hour ahead of the game, and I could tell, on the freeway, we were going to have real low attendance," said season-ticket holder Andrew de Sosa. "We just drove right up, no crowds … no crowds for parking. It was noticeable. I was surprised there were that many people that were still coming actually after the past few years."
It’s hard to support a team that has been floundering for a decade. Allen Gershenson, an attorney from Orange County who’s been a season ticket holder for 10 years, says that he hasn’t had much to celebrate after spending fall Saturdays in the Rose Bowl.
"I haven’t had that feeling in a long time," he said. "It’s more of an emotional rollercoaster. It’s not like you go to the game and expect to win. The last time I had that feeling was in ’01, when DeShaun Foster was there.
"I think it’s a Morgan Center issue," Gershenson continued. "Look at the facilities at UCLA compared to the rest of the Pac-12. I’m talking about practice fields. I think that’s one of the things that is holding the program back."
Cal Berkeley, UCLA’s northern California rival, is undergoing a $321 million renovation at its Memorial Stadium, which includes a 142,000 square foot Student-Athlete High Performance Center. UCLA also is doing some on-campus renovating, but it’s for basketball.
"The athletic department has a very insular culture," says Dustin Beckley, an attorney who’s been a season-ticket holder for 15 years. "I think … it’s living in about 1988, when Troy Aikman and Terry Donahue were there, and Notre Dame won a national championship with Lou Holtz where they weren’t paying him more than the highest paid professor on campus.
"That mindset is what got UCLA in the position that they are in now," Beckley continued. "I think the mindset there is that, ‘We’re great, we’ve never paid our head football coaches market rate and we’ve had success in the 1980’s, so why should we start doing that now’ and ignoring the fact that Cal and USC and Oregon and Washington have all made major commitment to their football programs and facilities."
"I will still watch them on TV, as much as I can bear," said Andress. "If there is no change from the current situation, I can’t in good conscious give out a chunk of money for season tickets. It’s just not fun to watch, sitting at the Rose Bowl."
Do the fans blame Neuheisel? Yes, but they believe his hands are somewhat tied, and thus, there isn’t much vitriol spewed in his direction.
"I was a huge supporter of Rick Neuheisel," said de Sosa, "but he’s not getting the job done. I think part of that is due to probably not getting the support he needs from Morgan Center. I suspect that he doesn’t have a large budget for hiring coaches, for top-notch quality coaches that you need to be competitive."
It’s hard to be angry at coaches who bleed blue and gold but have had horrible luck when skill position players — especially quarterbacks and linemen— go down with serious injuries.
It’s hard to get upset at coaches who have to compete with that other team across town, a team still managing to enjoy football despite playing under heavy NCAA sanctions.
"There’s never that fire in the belly," Gershenson said."Having seen USC practice and watching spring practices on television … UCLA is much more laid back and relaxed. There’s no fire."
Gershenson isn’t the only Bruins fan who believes there is a lack of intensity at practices.
"At the practices that I’ve observed the last two years, there’s not a lot of discipline, not a lot of focus," said Andress. "Everyone’s doing their own little thing in their stretches. In my mind, it really has translated from the practice field on to the game field."
Most of the season-ticket holders had a list of who they would like to see coaching UCLA if Neuheisel is out. The one name on almost everyone’s lips was Mike Leach.
Several fans mentioned what they believe is a policy that would prevent UCLA from hiring a big-time coach — the athletic department will not accept booster donations that are specifically targeted for a coach’s salary.
"An outside source is prohibited from paying or regularly supplementing an athletics department staff member’s annual salary and from arranging to supplement that salary for an unspecified achievement. This includes the donation of cash from outside sources to the institution earmarked for the staff member’s salary or supplemental income. It would be permissible for an outside source to donate funds to the institution to be used as determined by the institution, and it would be permissible for the institution, at its sole discretion, to use such funds to pay or supplement a staff member’s salary," said UCLA Director of Executive Relations Marc Dellins, citing NCAA rule 22.214.171.124 on supplemental pay.
If Neuheisel is not retained for next season, the fans are adamant that a different man must be in charge to make the hire.
Beckley says UCLA’s last two hires have remarkable similarities: Both Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel had ties to the UCLA football program and both were "not really on anyone’s list of hot coaches."
Despite the fans’ high regard for Rick Neuheisel the Bruin and Rick Neuheisel "everybody’s friend," they say this is likely his last season as head coach.
"It looks like Neuheisel has really lost the team," said Beckley. "I wish things were different, but it doesn’t look good."
In one respect, the school is different. While most schools have encouraged their fans to do a black-out or wear complimentary T-shirts to show unity in a big game, UCLA announcers at the Washington State game encouraged the crowd to dress up in Halloween costumes for their upcoming game hosting Cal.