New Year’s is a time of fresh habits, diets, and ambitions…at least for a couple of weeks. Just like an individual can hit the reset button, so too can organizations. Fresh off their highest win total since 2015, UCLA football entered December armed optimism to generate even more fresh momentum heading into 2022. Three straight wins (including the most points ever scored in the Coliseum), nearly two dozen additional practices to build continuity of talent and culture, culminating with one of the most anticipated non-New Years’ Six bowl match-ups against arguably the most underrated team in the country. However, a funny thing happened on the way to an electrifying Dorian Thompson-Robinson versus Devin Leary match-up…or two, or 10. The optimism from just 30 days ago has been replaced with puzzling and intriguing uncertainty.
Treating Business Like A Holiday
As the old saying goes, “never mix business with pleasure.” Easier said than done it seems when the business trip is called “The Holiday Bowl.” By now, much has been made about the infamous Bruin behavior in pulling out of the San Diego based game just five hours prior to kickoff, including the dreaded photos of mask-less players enjoying themselves at Sea World, with NC State coach Dave Doeren feeling like he’d “been lied to.” We’ll probably never know the true details of UCLA’s hazy-at-best COVID compliance and communication, but even with all the personal empathy we must share around a global pandemic, there are two facts that are indisputable.
First, there were six bowl-eligible PAC-12 teams, five of them played their games, and the only one that wasn’t prepared was also the team that had to go the shortest distance…UCLA. Second, if you want to shed the moniker of being “basketball first” and the younger brother football program in LA, while trying to convince an often-apathetic fan base to travel and care, you MUST be ready to play in your program’s biggest postseason game since the 2014 Alamo Bowl. Period. AD Martin Jarmond speaks to being ELITE, and while he’s an elite social marketer and community builder, one must wonder if his social media frequency inadvertently sent the wrong message to Bruin players. “If I’m going all over the place meeting people, you can too.”
This is a teachable moment for Jarmond, who will need to balance his inherently gregarious persona with an infusion of tactical discipline to create a culture of accountability. After all, look at the North Star of the sport, Alabama, who’s team voted not to leave their respective hotel rooms for several days leading up to their CFP semifinal game. In their words, “years from now, we won’t remember anything we did the night before the game, but we’ll remember everything we did in the game.” Lesson learned Bruins: that’s the sacrifice it takes to be great.
Maybe Three Isn’t A Crowd?
In addition to the thud from the Holiday Bowl, the Bruin quarterback situation is turning into an episode of the Young & The Restless. Let’s start with the incumbent. Reports are DTR has been taking the temperature of NFL scouts and GMs with a lukewarm-at-best response. The reality being, he’s an elite athlete that has lacked consistent QB polish and precision. He would certainly be aided by a stellar 2022 season in Westwood; however, he must balance the risk-reward ratio of losing his top two receivers (Kyle Phillips & Greg Dulcich) and most probably his two top rushers (Zach Charbonnet & Brittain Brown) to the NFL Draft. While it sets the stage to build up new playmakers (a skill the NFL salivates for in their QBs), it also poses the risk of reduced productivity and greater turnovers playing with a less seasoned group of skill players.
Not an easy decision.
While DTR is assessing his professional future, Bruin fans were rejoicing at their transfer coupe nearly 20 days ago, in the form of UCF quarterback, Dillon Gabriel. Armed with an 18-8 record as starting QB over the past three seasons for the Knights of Central Florida, along with his pristine 70 TDs to 14 INTs ratio, the succession plan was perfectly aligned in the event DTR would be taking his talents to the NFL. Even if DTR came back for a super senior season, the most compelling spring QB duel in modern Bruin history would ensue. But today’s transfer portal is about as permanent as the shelf life of a viral Insta-Story, and Gabriel stunningly departed UCLA on the first day of the Spring Quarter to Norman, Oklahoma.
Gabriel became a newly minted Sooner, reuniting with his former UCF offensive coordinator, Jeff Lebby, who has taken over the same position on Brent Venables’ staff. Can’t say I blame the kid.
But in the Shakespearean plot twist that is modern college football’s secondary QB market, Gabriel was allowed to make this move because OU’s incumbent starter, Caleb Williams, decided to transfer himself out of Norman. Recruited originally by Lincoln Riley, Williams has opened his collegiate free agency with the stated priority by his father to maximize his NFL preparation. Williams took over for preseason Heisman favorite, Spencer Rattler, in arguably 2021’s game of the year, the Red River game that featured an epic Oklahoma comeback to defeat Texas, 55-48. Shortly thereafter, Kirk Herbstreit declared Williams, “the future face of college football for the next 2-3 years.” In addition to the usual suspects of USC, LSU, and Georgia, Williams has revealed mutual interest with UCLA amongst his early handful of suitors.
Williams is such a potential program changer that former NFL QB Charlie Batch, offered Williams $1M if he chose to play at Eastern Michigan next year. However, if the primary emphasis is NFL preparation then Williams would be wise to seriously consider UCLA. There’s been a common pattern amongst the NFL MVP quarterbacks over the past 10 years. Cam Newton (Auburn), Matt Ryan (Boston College), Lamar Jackson (Louisville), Patrick Mahomes (Texas Tech), Aaron Rodgers (Cal) all took non-traditional college programs used to winning 4-6 games annually and turned them into 9-11 game-winners. Even Deshaun Watson put Clemson on the map and Justin Herbert revived an Oregon team that had just four wins prior to his arrival. The best NFL preparation is playing when you don’t have any decided advantages at the offensive line or skill positions; it forces you to be extra meticulous, precise, and focused.
Conversely, if we see the quarterbacks of the blue blood glamor programs of the past 20 years, we see Ken Dorsey (Miami), Chris Weinke (Florida State), Matt Leinart (USC), Colt McCoy (Texas), Sam Bradford (Oklahoma), Tim Tebow (Florida), Matt Flynn (LSU), A.J. McCarron (Alabama), Matt Barkley (USC), Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), and John David Booty (USC)…all NFL busts (Bradford flashed some good play but couldn’t stay healthy, and Tagovailoa still withstanding in just his second season). When you have advantages at every offensive position, you’re not stretched to be a better player, it’s hard to truly test yourself and improve given the plethora of talent around you. If Caleb Williams wants to be a college legend and then sit next to Leinart and Brady Quinn on the Fox College Football Saturday show, he should go to USC or LSU. But if he wants to set himself up for success in the NFL, he should don the UCLA powder blue & gold.
Coach-less In Westwood?
If the QB drama wasn’t enough, the Chip Kelly contract situation is quietly and consistently getting into saga territory. Reports are that contract negotiations have been ongoing for several weeks and continue to stall as Chip enters the final season of his original 5-year deal. The elephant in the room is January 15th, after which point the $9M buyout in Kelly’s contract goes to zero and either side can walk away with no debt to one another.
From Jarmond’s perspective, the friction makes sense: Kelly wasn’t his hire, and while 8-4 was a terrific step in the right direction, I’m sure he would like to see one more positive year before making a long-term commitment. After all, he must manage UCLA Athletics’ two-year cumulative debt of $40M, and offering Kelly a new long-term contract with another hefty buyout isn’t financially responsible. Those that think UCLA is “nickel-and-diming” at the expense of excellence, don’t understand the investment dynamics of the university. For instance, USC’s endowment is $5.9B and UCLA’s is $5.5B. Thus, contrary to popular belief, they have roughly the same amount of money. While Athletics is a different pool of money, the way these two schools fundraise is consistent across functions and drastically different from one another.
USC relies on fewer people to write bigger checks, while UCLA relies on many more people to write smaller checks. This is an important strategic issue because while Mike Bohn can call his top 6-7 donors and gauge their support quickly on new/flexible contract perks for Lincoln Riley, Jarmond must manage the budget like a corporate financial steward that doesn’t have a surplus.
This means Jarmond probably offered Kelly a modest contract extension without an insurmountable buyout to keep financial and operational flexibility moving forward. Furthermore, UCLA football’s top two boosters, Casey Wasserman and Troy Aikman, shelled out the vast majority of Kelly’s original $23.3M contract, and most likely want to see more wins next season before reaching back into their checkbooks.
From Kelly’s perspective, the friction also makes sense: this was his true year three and he led UCLA to their most wins in six seasons. Furthermore, the market for coaches’ salaries soared at the end of 2021. No greater example of that than Mel Tucker, who used a similar transfer portal approach and got to just two more victories than Kelly after similarly struggling seasons across Michigan State and Colorado. He cashed in on $95M over 10 years from a state school. Now I’m sure Kelly isn’t expecting that level of payday, but he probably wants more stability than the modest buyout currently being offered on the table.
This leaves UCLA with two options outside of the obvious coming to some negotiated middle ground. Kelly could coach the 2022 season as a lame duck with no assurances of an extension. Something most coaches wouldn’t consider given their lack of recruiting leverage or job security in that scenario. However, given UCLA’s relatively light non-conference schedule, Kelly could coach himself into a very attractive contract at the end of the 2022 season with another 8–9-win season and a massive payday from UCLA or someone else at the end of that rainbow. Furthermore, it’s not like traditional recruiting is part of Kelly’s core strategy, so he wouldn’t be as hurt as a traditional recruiter would.
Alternatively, Jarmond could be waiting for the NFL’s “Black Monday” of January 10th. That’s the first Monday of every NFL offseason and the day all coaches’ firings occur. A name to watch is Matt Rhule, very much on the hot seat with the Carolina Panthers, but who had tremendous success leading both Temple and Baylor to double-digit win seasons, respectively. He’s an incredible program builder, known to turn around difficult situations, and the ONLY coach that’s a better alternative to Kelly. The timeline, in this case, sets up nicely where Jarmond could be putting out feelers for the fired NFL coaches on the 10th or 11th, and then set up potential interviews on the 15th, the day Kelly’s buyout expires.
A lot to digest, but between Caleb, Chip, Martin, and Monday…
The next 10 days could set up the next 10 months.