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Saturday, December 6, 2008

A four-point plan for UCLA's football future

Program should be stronger than it is and certain issues need to be addressed before that can happen.

Bruins fans, don't go thinking this ugly season is an anomaly. It has happened before. A sampling: two wins in 1971, three wins in '58, '68 and '89, four in 1999, five in 1979.

Interspersed among these dog seasons are some really fine ones and some very average ones -- but almost never a season that pushes itself toward the upper levels of the NCAA annals. Those levels appear to be reserved for the USC Trojans.

Remember, we're talking Bruins football here, not Bruins hoops.

Still, UCLA fans deserve better than they've had recently. They deserve a consistently good team, a team that makes bowls and weathers up and downs. A team that consistently gives the best Trojans teams hell.

How to get there from this sorry state? Having witnessed up close my share of UCLA games this season, what follows are four kindly suggestions.

1) The coaches should take full responsibility for the product.

Too often, when asked after games whether the talent is there to really compete, I've seen Bruins coaches say the right things yet also communicate through subtle mannerisms -- e.g., the rolling of eyes, and/or looks to the floor and heavy sighs -- that they've chalked up this year as a lost one because the players are too god awful to be turned around.

The players are to blame. So are their leaders. This is college ball. The way I see it, the coaches, being educators and mature adults, should take all of the heat and in this case take it with much greater conviction.

Consider quarterback Kevin Craft -- a.k.a., Scapegoat No. 1. Granted, overall, he has stunk. But it's not as if UCLA got Craft from the frat-guy intramural league. In 2006, Craft was a starter at San Diego State as a redshirt freshman (20 for 32 and 216 yards in his first start, at BYU). In one season of junior college ball, he passed for 44 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. With the Bruins he has had a small share of nice moments.

If Craft can play well once, he can be coached to do it again.

Same tune for the offensive line -- a.k.a., Scapegoat No. 2. Sure, they're easy to pick on. But remember that many of them came to college among the most highly recruited linemen in the country. It's hard for me to believe the athletes on the line of scrimmage for any Pacific 10 Conference school outside the state of Washington would be so bad that they can't improve. It's way too easy to pitch these kids under the bus.

2) That first point aside, the raw athleticism in Westwood must improve. We can all see that. There's no area where it can't get better and I hardly see need to belabor this point.

3) Maybe most important, change the team's overall culture -- because it won't matter what kind of talent comes to campus if this doesn't change.

You go to a USC football practice and, aside from the stunning size and strength, what strikes you most is the frothy intensity. There's no standing around or lolling about. There's a sense that Pete Carroll is orchestrating a very violent dance that could break out into all-out warfare at any minute.

UCLA practice is different. There, you are also struck by the size and strength, only not in a terribly positive way. The overall vibe at UCLA practice is friendly. Yes, it buzzes more than during the solemn days of Karl Dorrell, but you still see plenty of guys lolling and lagging, standing and strolling. You watch them practice and often feel sleepy.

Remember this: In large part, UCLA's football players are students in a way many college football players are not (distraction No. 1, albeit a very good and honorable one). More, a sunny beach full of bikinis sits a few miles from their campus (distraction No. 2, good, but only in moderation.) My take: Given these two facts alone, the only way for Bruins players to be focused in the way they must to compete at the highest of levels is to create a hard-edged, highly charged, ready-to-bleed-for-football-at-any-moment kind of culture.

Sort of like a Ben Howland basketball practice. Roar like lions and punch everything that moves in the mouth. Hit the books hard. Save the beach for summer.

Without a cultural shift, the Bruins will remain softies.

4) Finally, UCLA needs to keep the current coaching staff happy. Neuheisel and Co. haven't been perfect this year, but they are talented and wise. Given more talent, they will also automatically be less burdened. It would be great to see the bulk of this crew get plenty of patience and time enough to run, let's say, eight years of freshmen through campus and tattoo them with a harder edge than exists now.

But make no mistake, during those eight years I'm not expecting the Bruins to start consistently whipping USC. After all, we're talking UCLA, a great basketball school whose best hope in football is to be consistently good and occasionally almost great.

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