Can UCLA Football Become Great Again? A Defining 2021 Season.

Jamal Madni
UCLA Bruins Pre-Game. Photo Credit: Ryan Dyrud | LAFB Network
UCLA Bruins Pre-Game. Photo Credit: Ryan Dyrud | LAFB Network

[vc_column_text el_id=”

“]Is it even possible for UCLA to become a great football school again? That’s the question all Bruin football fans should have in the back of their minds as they watch year four of the Chip-DTR experiment, better known as the 2021 season, unfold.

The Correlation

Over the past 2+ decades, there has been a staggering correlation between the explosion of money in professional football and the demise of UCLA Bruin football. There are two key events that have marked the beginning of this correlation. Firstly, the ushering in of free agency along with a revenue-driven salary cap in the NFL. Secondly, the retirement of legendary coach Terry Donahue, who tragically passed away earlier this year.

A revenue-driven salary cap was instituted in the NFL in 1994 and has since exponentially gone up a mind-blowing 427% from approximately $34.6M in 1994 to $182.5M in 2021 [1]. The salary cap created a free-market economy for professional football where player contracts were set by fan engagement, in the form of television deals, merchandising rights, and ticket sales. No longer could teams exclusive to larger market cities stockpile talented players based on low-ball pricing. Rather, the NFL entered the ranks of Wall Street and Silicon Valley as demand-driven big business.

While this tectonic shift was taking place, Terry Donahue retired as UCLA’s all-time winningest coach in 1995 after 151 wins, five Pac-10 titles and three Rose Bowl wins. But his influence was etched all over the program for a few more years. UCLA’s last great football seasons were 1997 & 1998, where the Bruins won 20 straight games over those two seasons, a share of two Pac-10 titles along with a Cotton Bowl victory and a Rose Bowl appearance. Those great teams were led by quarterback Cade McNown, receiver Danny Farmer and linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, all Donahue’s recruits. Beginning in 1999, the moment Donahue’s successor, Bob Toledo, had to win with his own players, the losing began…and it hasn’t stopped since.[vc_column_text el_id=”

“]

The Results

In fact, in the 22 seasons between 1999-2020 as compared to the previous 22 seasons from 1977-1998, Bruin football has fallen off a cliff in terms of win percentage, top 25 season finishes, Rose Bowl appearances and wins, Bowl record, and record versus USC [2].

Seasons 1977-1998 1999-2020
W-L Record 167-82-7 137-131
Win Pct. 67% 51%
Top 25 Finishes 13 3
Rose Bowl Appearances 5 0
Rose Bowl Wins 3 0
Bowl Record 9-4-1 5-9
Record vs. USC 13-8-1 5-17

[1] https://www.spotrac.com/nfl/cba/

[2] https://www.sports-reference.com/cfb/schools/ucla/index.html

22 seasons is a significant sample size. 22 seasons is a football generation. This is profoundly more than just one bad coaching hire, one bad recruiting class, or one bad luck season with injuries. There’s something much deeper and more systemic going on here.

The Challenge

The explosion of money in professional football has forced athletic departments to have laser-focused strategies as incubators for future multi-million-dollar athletes armed with NFL-ready player development, world-class training facilities, and unconditional resources from alumni in the form of bottom-less endowments and packed stadiums. Gone are the days where schools could simply rely on their overall academic prestige, the brand of a legendary coach, or residing in a beautiful city with non-football-related job opportunities. Big money has made the word ATHLETE have a dominant reign in the term student-athlete. The things that made UCLA so distinct in the ’80s and ’90s no longer apply to most of today’s blue-chip football prospects.

Furthermore, in our new social media, on-demand everything, content overload Gen-Z world, these athletic department feeder factories must be laser-focused 24-7-365 to be elite. This has also forced athletic departments to a world of specialization with one sport. Let’s look at the schools that have won multiple college football national championships since 1998: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, USC, LSU, and Florida State. None of those schools have consistently above-average performing basketball programs outside of the occasional local, one-and-done, five-star recruit that stays for six months (see Greg Oden and Evan Mobley).

Similarly, let’s look at the schools that have won multiple college basketball national championships since 1998: Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, UConn, and Villanova. As the NBA’s salary cap explosion had a very similar timeline to the NFL, none of those schools either have a D-1 football program or have a football program that consistently performs at an above-average level. The only exception to specialization was Florida, over a brief outlier three-year period from 2006-2008, but they haven’t reached a national title level of success in either sport since.

The Decision

UCLA will forever be a “basketball first” school. The Pyramid of Success. The Wizard of Westwood. 11 national titles. Arguably the two greatest players in the history of college basketball. A group of current NBA players that includes an MVP, a 2-time Slam Dunk Champion, a reigning NBA champion, and two reigning Gold Medal winners. The 2020 Final Four run quite literally lit up the city of Los Angeles and the Bruins are top two in every major 2021 preseason poll known to the universe. It sure feels like the renaissance is upon us and UCLA basketball will reclaim its rightful place atop the sport’s mountaintop with continued financial support and strategic focus.

Now, UCLA football goes into year four with the inventor of modern college football, Chip Kelly, a 4th-year starter (an extreme rarity in college football today) in Dorian Thompson-Robinson, 20 returning starters from a team that lost four games by a combined 15 points, a new apparel deal with the greatest athlete in the history of North American team sports, and reaping the Name, Image & Likeness (NIL) benefits of Los Angeles for its players. If the Bruins can’t make the jump to 8-9 wins THIS season despite a convergence of all these factors, all fans and AD Martin Jarmond must question if the sun has permanently set on UCLA football re-entering national prominence and whether it’s time to double down on specializing exclusively as a basketball school.