This actually implicates an interpretive historical issue, involving what counts as a national championship in college football. In 1954 the Bruins finished the year undefeated and ranked atop the United Press poll. In the final Associated Press poll, however, they were ranked second behind undefeated Ohio State. Some say this means UCLA has shared a national championship; I say the UP is owned by Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church and therefore looking to it for validation of your football program is lame and a little embarrassing. To its credit, the UCLA athletics department does not include the 1954 UP crown in the 104 national titles, although that might be simply in keeping with the NCAA’s policy of not recognizing an official national title in Division I-A football.
By the way, if you’re wondering why UCLA didn’t play Ohio State in the Rose Bowl for the national championship that year, rest assured it’s because then as now, the hacks who ran the sport were incapable of making sensible decisions about postseason matchups. UCLA had played in the Rose Bowl the prior season, and Pacific Coast Conference rules provided that the same team couldn’t attend two years in a row. That’s seriously what the rules said. At the time Congress was too busy censuring Joe McCarthy to investigate this ridiculousness.
You Call This a Golden Age?
The culture of low expectations surrounding Bruin football is embodied in Terry Donahue. He coached UCLA from 1976 through 1995 and is generally regarded as the best football coach in Bruin history. The USA Today College Football Encyclopedia describes him as “the face of the program for 20 mostly glorious years” and declaims that he “earns the accolades as having done the greatest job in Westwood.” He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2000 before five years of inept service as general-manager of the 49ers.
There’s a large and difficult-to-explain gap between Donahue’s status among Bruin observers and his actual coaching record. Donahue’s 20-year tenure as coach is viewed by many as a belle époque of UCLA football. Evidence commonly cited includes five conference championships, three Rose Bowl victories and a 10-9-1 record against USC. There’s some fine work there, no question, and his credentials certainly dwarf those of successors Bob Toledo and Karl Dorrell.
But please don’t start thinking Donahue was some sort of West Coast Tom Osborne. He was more like a West Coast Frank Solich with better job security. His teams never once played for a national title. They won less than two-thirds of their games, for an overall winning percentage of .665. In today’s 13-game seasons, that would mean you post eight or nine wins – pretty decent but well short of dazzling. Last year’s final AP poll, for instance, included eight nine-win teams but none with only eight wins. So the archetypal Donohue-coached squad finishes on the edge of the national rankings. May I color you impressed yet?