Does Anyone Know What UCLA Football is Anymore?
Taking a look at how national media has discussed the Bruins in recent months.
As a general rule, I tend to believe most fans get too bogged down in the granular details of their specific teams to take the wide-lens view of a program and its place in the world. I am no exception - hell, I write about those granular details - but it does become problematic after a while. For UCLA fans, this should be familiar territory. We can point out all of the benefits that UCLA has, from its location to top-flight education, while lamenting all the small things that have caused UCLA to slip as a football power.
That said, I do think it is important to gauge the perception of the program from national media because perception is the name of the game at this level. To wit, last April two pieces examining the UCLA football program came out, one from the Athletic, and one a Patreon-only episode of college football podcast Split Zone Duo. Their proximity to each other, and the underlying messages they contained, were fascinating and something I wanted to discuss.
First, let’s start with the Atheltic piece, written by Antonio Morales. Morales serves as Southern Cal beat writer for The Athletic, but don’t hold that against him - Morales taps into both the Pac-12 and SoCal high school scenes in order to tell a story of the perception UCLA has outside of the Bruin Bubble. Morales points out a lot of the problems that have plagued the program over the past decade, including the hits like:
An administration that does not see athletics as a driving force, combined with a governing structure that has the university answering to the entire UC system.
The Rose Bowl, specifically its location an hour away from campus, diminishing the crowds and gameday atmosphere.
Recruiting and the failure to build a strong brand in the minds of premier athletes.
But it’s some of the quotes given that stand out to me here. Take this one:
“There’s no reason why they can’t win all those games against the Pac-12 South to play USC at the end of the season to see who plays in the Pac-12 title game,” said a successful Southern California high school football coach. “There is zero excuse for that, in my opinion.”
I think high school coaches, especially those in southern California, have a better handle on what UCLA’s place in the conference should be compared to the administration for the past decade. They believe that UCLA should be competing for the conference title each year, especially with all of the football talent that is in their backyard. The fact that they have failed to do so is more of an indictment of everything UCLA has been for 20 years than anything else.
Here’s another one:
“It’s a huge thing for perception. UCLA is simply attached to boring,” said Malik “Fig” James, who runs the highest-profile seven-on-seven team in Southern California, Premium. “Their brand in football is boring.”
This….feels right. That is to say, UCLA has truly lacked the engagement and brand awareness that winning programs have. This is something we have talked about in the past, such as how the move to Under Armour was supposed to reignite the brand which had become stale under Adidas and has had more recent problems in how Chip Kelly has marketed the program. Give athletic director Martin Jarmond credit for trying some new things, but the perception game boils down to the coach, and Kelly has not been a good program salesman by any stretch of the imagination.
What I really wanted to talk about is the Patreon episode from Split Zone Duo. You can sign up for their Patreon to listen to the episode here (and I highly recommend it, the guys at SZD are former colleagues of ours from SB Nation and are some of the best college football writers out there), but I’ll try to condense it down for you.
Steven Godfrey, Richard Johnson, and Alex Kirschner are not from Los Angeles. They’re not from the west coast at all. Godfrey and Johnson hail from SEC territory, while Kirschner is a Pennsylvania kid. But they do their research and brought up excellent points about the UCLA program both historically and in the near term. They too point out the governance issue with the state of California, but they also show some evidence that UCLA’s historical success at basketball has held them back as well. According to the database at Sportico (behind a paywall) UCLA spends the 5th most money on football among the public schools (which likely puts them 7th in the conference as Southern Cal and Stanford do not have to report those numbers but likely spend more) but leads the conference on spending in men’s and women’s basketball. This is not to say UCLA does not spend money on football, but I think you can reasonably assume Oregon and Washington are ahead of the Bruins on that front, and likely the Arizona schools as well.
The group also brings up the long-discussed issue of not having an on-campus stadium. Godfrey shows his hand by showing an intimate understanding of the distance between the main campus and the Rose Bowl, and how that distance tends to kill the gameday atmosphere compared to other schools. I do agree with their read on the situation; the distance is enough to kill student involvement if the team is not exceptional, no matter how hard the athletic department tries to sell the team to students. A move to SoFi Stadium might make more sense in the near term, especially as it is a smaller venue that can better hide attendance issues, but the stadium already has two tenants during football season, and adding a third does not seem like a choice the stadium would want to make. Building an on-campus (or next-to-campus) stadium is still the best long-term choice, but the number of hoops and hurdles to jump through for that to happen gets seemingly bigger every year.
Finally, the group turns to Chip Kelly, and the discussion the group has is fascinating. Godfrey comes out and says that he doesn’t know if Kelly deserves to continue to be the coach, and pointed out that his best coaching comp among former Pac-12 coaches at the moment is former UC Berkeley and now-TCU head coach Sonny Dykes. It’s not an unfair comparison to make; Dykes’s four-year record of 19-30 compares fairly closely to Chip Kelly’s mark of 18-25, and both coaches had their best seasons top out at eight wins. Godfrey remarks that Kelly has not gotten close to the same level of success as other former coaches in the conference, which is especially damning since Godfrey believes Kelly is a better coach than many of them. Jim Mora makes an appearance here, but so does former Arizona State head coach Todd Graham, who was able to put up two 10-win seasons and a division championship in his first three years, and only failed to make a bowl game once in his six years at the helm of the program. I think Graham is an especially interesting comparison to make because it’s hard to say Kelly inherited a worse situation than Graham did at Arizona State - that program was coming off years of poor play under Dennis Erickson - but he was able to implement a winning program quickly. He also did so in a much-more competitive Pac-12 South that had UCLA and Arizona putting up impressive showings at the same time, while Southern Cal was just starting to feel the effects of the sanctions, unlike in Kelly’s time when the Pac-12 was much worse and Kelly was able to beat down the worst Trojan team in decades.
It is that last point that Godfrey and Johnson repeatedly come back to. Johnson is much closer to the “Kelly should stay” side of the fence, but he admits that last year could have been fool’s gold thanks to the ultimate state of the LSU and Southern Cal teams that UCLA beat. The group in general did not seem confident in UCLA’s prospects going forward under Kelly, with a rejuvenated Southern Cal now on the scene.
It all begs the question: what even is UCLA football anymore?
Going through these more outside perspectives, the common thread I took away was that people felt UCLA was just going through the motions of having a football program. The lack of urgency, especially in the presence of a rebirthed Southern Cal, was especially noticeable. In fact, just this week the Athletic had a deep dive into the first few days at Southern Cal following the hiring of Lincoln Riley, and you get a pretty good idea that, for as much as we hate them, that is a program that understands how important football actually is to an athletic department and is doing the right things at the moment. UCLA does not get anywhere near that level of focus - if anything, many of the beat writers seem done with Chip Kelly and his lack of production on the field.
Maybe the question should be: does UCLA actually want to be competitive at football? Richard Johnson pointed out that UCLA should be one of the few teams in the conference that should reasonably expect to compete for a division title every year just due to their location and name brand, and Steven Godfrey backed that up by saying that UCLA is a job that will always get good coaches at smaller schools to consider it strongly just because the underlying bones are so good. And as Antonio Morales pointed out in his piece, that seems to line up with the prevailing sentiment from coaches and administrators around the conference, especially at the high school level. But it’s hard to square these beliefs with how UCLA has run the program, especially in recent years. Chip Kelly has been given all the leash in the world, but if the best results he can put up are an eight-win season where the best team he beat ended up 6-7 on the year, then it’s hard to really believe things are going to improve. You can talk all about how you’re giving someone a “Harbaugh Extension” (and I absolutely have), but you’re still giving it to someone who has not shown that the program is at a point where it can realistically compete for conference championships.
No one really knows what is going on at UCLA anymore. With how the college football landscape has changed this past offseason, that’s a major problem.