If you’ve ever dreamed of spending December in balmy San Diego, it turns out you and the UCLA football team have something in common. That’s where an absurd event called the Poinsettia Bowl is played, and as we approach the start of a new season, most anyone paying attention to Bruin football agrees that the Poinsettia is about the best we can hope for this year. How feeble is the Poinsettia, as bowl games go? Well, it’s existed for only four years, it comes before Christmas on the calendar and it’s sponsored by a credit union. If it just went away, no one would much notice or care, except for maybe the credit union and people who have to write season previews for UCLA football.
But that’s the consensus prediction: six or seven wins and a trip to a bowl so lacking in rep that I, someone who stays in on Saturday nights to watch the late Pac-10 game, had to look up where it’s played. College Football News says seven wins. The Los Angeles Times says six or seven. ESPN’s Pac-10 correspondent likewise likewise says six or seven.
(What’s with these “six or seven” predictions? Just pick a number, fellas. We’re not asking you to call the Fed’s interest-rate policy. No one’s about to sue if you get it wrong.)
That’s three whole websites I looked at in my journalistic rigor, but honestly, it’s about three more than was necessary. Expectations for Bruin football are essentially static from year to year, the only point of uncertainty being whether the season ahead will be mediocre or slightly worse. It’s not like you’re going to pick up a preview mag and find someone predicting back-to-back national titles, so feel free to stick with Crochet Today on that upcoming flight.
Those Resources Aren’t Gonna Waste Themselves!
This is not a sexy state of affairs. It bespeaks a ratio of resources deployed to outcomes achieved in line with that of Pets.com or the U.S. public school system. Consider: no city, save perhaps Miami, rivals Los Angeles in the production of high-school football prospects. UCLA is among the premier brands in college sports, with an unmatched 104 championships on its curriculum vitae. The Rose Bowl, of all places, is our home stadium. The athletic program takes in over $60 million a year, exceeding the annual GDPs of over half the world’s sovereign nations, including a few that you wouldn’t be terrified to visit. (Unlike Miami, which I am very much terrified to visit.)
In light of these vast institutional advantages, how many of the 104 national titles do you think belong to the football program? Go ahead, give me your best guess. OK, fine, I’ll make it easier for you: the correct answer is either zero or… let’s say 17. If you guessed 17, go stand in the corner. Your mother and I are deeply disappointed.
The Curious Case of 1954
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?
Curious to know how often Donahue’s teams at least danced around the national-title picture, I looked at week-by-week AP poll data for all 20 years of his coaching tenure. For purposes of this exercise, I decided a team qualified as a national-title contender whenever it appeared in the top seven of an AP poll published November or later. These cutoffs were meant to identify those teams that, as a given season proceeded from the homestretch to the finish line, had a reasonable shot at finishing atop the rankings and winning the whole magilla.
In all, my research covered 124 weeks of AP polls, and over that period Donahue’s Bruin teams made only 15 appearances in the top seven. That is to say, he fielded a national-championship contender only 12% of the time. And for this he gets canonized? It’s not an awful performance record or anything (at least not until you get to Donahue’s last seven years of coaching, when his teams went a cool oh-for-43 in my poll survey), but if these were your program’s halcyon days, you might fairly feel a bit unsatisfied.
The Future Will Be Better Tomorrow
Mediocrity clings to Bruin football like it’s a chewed-up piece of gum we stepped on decades ago and have been too lazy to scrape off. Is our ambulation about to become any less sticky in the near future? It looks like it might. The latest recruiting class was excellent, and for the first time in 10 years the coaching staff seems to know what it’s doing. Los Angeles will always churn out plenty of quick-twitchy athletes who will be delighted to attend UCLA if given a half-decent reason. It shouldn’t be that hard to get on, say, an Alamo Bowl trajectory in the next couple years.
For now, though, the official Bru Velvet prediction is for six wins. Or maybe seven. I don’t like being pinned down.