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State of the Bruin

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LA is the city of stars. While there are a lot of nobodies in this city aspiring to be somebody, the fact is that once you’ve become somebody, you are idolized and lionized, or you become a paparazzi target like Lindsay Lohan. We talk about them at the water cooler, we read about them on wonderful blogs like LAist, and we listen to their opinions as if they carry the weight of the President (except for maybe Tom Cruise). Regardless of whether the attention is positive or negative, the point is that you matter if you are somebody in this city. I’m sure even “Firecrotch” would agree that being tabloid fodder is better than being irrelevant.

For the sports teams in LA, the paradigm is no different. We love our stars, especially when they win, and even more so when they show us something spectacular. But we have relatively short attention spans: if you show continued mediocrity (or worse) without any sign of life, you’ll get kicked to the curb faster than K-Fed. LA gets excited about the Lakers, Magic and the Showtime era, Kobe, and all of those championship rings. Meanwhile, one of the Lakers’ co-tenants, the Kings, have registered barely a blip on the public consciousness since Gretzky left town. If you’re not going to build a championship team, you have to at least give the fans a compelling reason to stay interested.

Whether fair or not, the UCLA football program is treading on a potentially dangerous path towards insignificance, struggling through a 4-5 season and a four-game losing streak with a bowl bid seriously in question. Coach Karl Dorrell is bearing the brunt of the criticism, due to a perceived inability to lead the program, in part because of poor game strategy and management, but also because of a perceived lack of Q-rating. Although many of the criticisms have some truth to them, the reality is that the problems were around long before Dorrell arrived. The dilemma is that it is not clear that Dorrell can do enough to overcome them.

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Without question, Dorrell has injected discipline and accountability into the program. Recruiting has improved and the enthusiasm internally seems to be there. Hell, the team won ten games last season and had a number of exhilarating come-from-behind wins on the right arm of Drew Olson. These are good things. What is bad are the disheartening losses: the inability to close out Notre Dame after conservative playcalling enabled Brady Quinn to get one more shot on offense; humiliating losses against USC that weren't even as close as the 25- and 47-point margins of defeat would indicate; a 38-point loss to a 2-6 Arizona team to fall from the ranks of the undefeated; consecutive bowl losses to inferior conference opponents. What is bad is that the base of support for the program appears to be eroding. UCLA may be winning some games, but none that get the fans excited about the direction of the program or remove the sting of disappointment from the losses. These days, it seems like the toll of these losses is really starting to add up.

Of course, it doesn't help that the Bruins are living in the long shadow of USC, with the charismatic Pete Carroll having restored the Trojans to its traditional place as a national power. It is impossible to not notice all of the cardinal and gold being proudly displayed around town, a sold out Coliseum for every home game. The team's stars are considered royalty here: last year, Matt Leinart gave up millions of dollars to stay in school, but lived the life of an A-lister while taking ballroom dance classes. USC garners the national spotlight and has stars like Snoop Dogg regularly on the sidelines. No matter what UCLA is able to do, it is relegated to being a second-class citizen. Its best players fly under the radar and its understated coach stays poised but doesn't hold a captive audience.

Furthermore, the rich tradition of the basketball program from the John Wooden era often leads football to become a secondary sport, just as basketball is at USC. Though the basketball program fell on some difficult times under Steve Lavin, Ben Howland has re-energized the team, culminating with the Final Four appearance last year. The attitude of "it's basketball season now" is pervasive among the fan base. What is often forgotten is that UCLA's football history is also rich; from 1965 to 1988, UCLA finished in the top ten nationally eleven times and in the top two of the conference 18 times. Football should matter.

However, since 1988 (Troy Aikman's senior year), the program has slowly slipped from elite status. Four, five, and six loss seasons became more commonplace. Bruin fans were able to console themselves with the fact that USC was even in worse shape, as evidenced by the Bruins' eight-game winning streak over the Trojans throughout the '90s. UCLA experienced a resurgence in 1997 and 1998, with Cade McNown leading Bob Toledo's high-flying offense to a 20-game winning streak. That all came crashing to a halt with the crushing upset loss to Miami with a national title game shot on the line, thanks to a mind-boggling defensive collapse. Since that fateful day, the national reputation of UCLA has been a soft team that doesn't step up in big games. Recent years have done nothing to dispel that perception, with continued late season collapses and mediocre results.

The ironic thing is that a play or two could have changed everything. One defensive stop against Miami could have elevated the team to become a true national power; one first down against Notre Dame could have established some much-needed credibility. Al Pacino's character in Oliver Stone's flick Any Given Sunday gives a memorable locker room speech about the difference between success and failure, between life and death, being but a matter of inches, and implores them to fight together for that inch. The current state of the UCLA program shows a team unable to capture that inch.

I like Karl Dorrell, and I think he's done enough to earn the trust of the Bruin faithful for now, but the clock is beginning to tick. The players and coaches are giving their all and are deserving of support. But the fans are beginning to expect that UCLA isn't going to be able to win that inch, not now and not in the near future. Once the fans have lost the desire to fight together with the team, that inch will not be won back. The only thing worse than having angry fans is having indifferent fans. It certainly won't be easy for UCLA to be a somebody on the national football scene again, but it's on Dorrell's shoulders to give people reason to hope; otherwise, it will be time for a new somebody to give it a shot.

AP photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez