That was rough. It’s been more than 48 hours since the UCLA Bruins’ inexplicable 17-7 home loss to Arizona State in a game that felt part flag football, part fictional theater, and all finality of a head coach.
Chip Kelly was already on thin ice after last week’s 27-10 drubbing at the hands of the red-hot Arizona Wildcats. That 17-point defeat was the first time all season that the Bruins vaunted defense lost the line of scrimmage battle to an opponent. The unquestioned strength of the team was moved methodically courtesy of Jedd Fisch’s nuanced game plan of short slot passes and horizontal stretch run plays to find creases in an over-pursuing front seven that enabled Wildcat running backs to make one cut and go consistently.
But to lose to 2-7 Arizona State? The team that consistently played running back Cam Skattebo and tight end Jalin Conyers at quarterback? The squad that treated its offensive line like glorified cheerleaders in what seemed to be a scene out of an Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell comedy? Hard to believe there’s a credible path coming back from that.
Kelly’s much-publicized flaws have been dissected at nauseum: unwillingness to recruit high school prospects, annoyance toward the media as a credible brand partner in Los Angeles, or outward emotional connection with his players. But there was still a lot to like with the architect of modern college football: 23-11 in his past 2+ seasons prior to Saturday night, a win percentage that increased every year, a green thumb on the transfer portal as a key tool to bypass UCLA’s demanding admissions standards, and a passion for the university’s cherished values as epitomized by his catchphrase “books and ball” and his philosophy of the four legs of his athletes’ “chair” being academic, athletic, spiritual, and social.
Unfortunately, Oluwafemi Oladejo’s alarming comments after the Arizona loss in describing the team’s “disunity” combined with the Bruins lifeless and clueless performance against a glorified high school team has piercingly indicated Kelly losing his locker room and players completely tuning him out. All in all, it’s just too wide a chasm to cross and the Kelly era needs to ultimately end.
But while fans, boosters, alumni, and supporters are all focused on questions like “why he got six years?” or “Who should replace him?” or “Why couldn’t he resurrect Oregon?” we’re all blindly asking the wrong question. Because the right one and the only one that matters is just “How serious is UCLA about football?”
How Serious Is UCLA About Football?
Terry Donahue is quite literally the statue upon which UCLA football is measured. His 151 total wins (a UCLA record) and 98 conference wins (a PAC-10/12 record) over 20 years from 1976 – 1995 is the golden era of modern UCLA football. To put Donahue’s accomplishments into context, the Bruins have five total Rose Bowl victories in their 105-year history, and Donahue has three of them. The Bruins have 16 total bowl wins, Donahue has eight of them with Jim Mora as the only other Bruins coach with more than one. In the century-plus of UCLA football, the longest streaks of consecutive 8+ win seasons: Donahue with five from 1984-1988, Red Sanders with four from 1952-1955 (including the 1954 national championship), and Mora with four from 2012-2015. Ironically, if Kelly can complete this season and wins two of his final three games (including a bowl game), he would be fourth on this list.
While Donahue retired in 1995, his fingerprints weren’t completely off the program until after the 1998 season, when his final recruiting class graduated. That decorated group included Cade McNown, Kris Farris, Kenyon Coleman, Brendan Ayanbadejo, and Larry Atkins. This quintet was the leadership core of the 1997-1998 Bruins, who won a school-record 20 straight games. But since Donahue’s departure, the past 25 seasons have yielded the following results:
- 5 bowl wins
- 4 Top-25 finishes
- 3 10-win seasons
- 0 conference championships
- 0 New Year’s Six Bowl appearances
Of the four top-25 finishes, one was Kelly last year. The other was Karl Dorrell’s 2005 season which saw the Bruins race out to a dramatic 8-0 record courtesy of four improbable 4th quarter victories. Every ball bounced that team’s way and it was ultimately exposed in their two defeats by a combined 85 points. In Dorrell’s other four years on the job, the team won either six or seven games. The other two ranked finishes came in 2013 and 2014 under Mora as part of his well-publicized 29 wins in three seasons. That success between 2012-2014 cannot be talked about without acknowledging USC’s scholarship reductions from 2010-2012. Year three is the moment a recruiting class makes its impact on a team’s depth and UCLA’s success is perfectly correlated in a three-year window to USC’s sanctions. The moment the team across town was at full strength, UCLA was unable to get access to the same level of local player filled by the Trojans scholarship void, and Mora subsequently went 17-19.
That’s all to say, it has been five coaches since Donahue and NOBDOY figured out how to win with their own players consistently when the team across town was at full strength. In those 25 years, recruiting also went from regional to national, money skyrocketed in professional football changing the value proposition of an education from an elite school versus credible preparation for the next level, and the amount of resources in facilities, amenities, and perks has soared.
These problems will only be exacerbated with Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) endorsements, the immediacy of the transfer portal, and the competitive necessity for athletic department endowments to grow exponentially. The Bruins aren’t a blueblood in football anymore not because of a coach, but because of a lack of investment in football – a problem that will only grow wider despite BIG-10 media money. Just ask Minnesota, Purdue, Northwestern, Indiana, Rutgers, and Maryland.
Furthermore, UCLA is already a blue blood in basketball and the amount of investment needed to be elite in the professionalization of college athletics probably requires specialization – just ask the football programs of Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and North Carolina, who must deal with their royal basketball program counterparts.
I get it, Chip didn’t work out. But true and consistent football success in 2024 and beyond will require more than just a coach, but rather an aligned, tangible, and definitive commitment across administration, alumni, and boosters. But with UCLA being so world-class in so many other areas like research, teaching, healthcare, social justice, and basketball, does the university have the appetite for both feet in the football pool? A data point: UCLA recently released a captivating and brilliant strategic plan here, but not a single mention of football or athletics.
By comparison, the archrival’s strategic plan here had athletics clearly laid out. So, I’ll say it again, the question we all should be asking is just “How serious is UCLA about football?”