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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

UCLA’s Athletics Have Gone Completely Down the Crapper

It was 1995. I can remember watching those precious few seconds tick away as Tyus Edney drove the length of the floor against Missouri in the Final Four. For some reason, I watched the end of the game in Solvang, California, apparently a dose of smorgasbord giving me the amnesia that is making it impossible to remember why I was there. The behind-the-back dribble to get by Jason Sutherland, the right hand lay-up over Derek Grimm to give the Bruins an improbable win. Later, a win over Arkansas in the national title game to set off a riot in Westwood of antediluvian proportions.

A few years later, the football team, rolling over opponents like an illegally-obtained SUV, debuted as the first ever top-ranked team in the BCS, only to be undone by Hurricane Georges, then two typhoons named Edgerrin James and Ron Dayne. Throw in one too many losses to USC in a variety of sports, and UCLA’s stock has fallen quicker than a Duke basketball player committing a flop.

Last week was yet another disappointment. UCLA’s run-up to Rivalry Week turned out to be more pointless than Geraldo playing tour guide to Al Capone’s vault, or an antiquated, 25-year-old reference made in one of my articles that hardly anyone understands anymore. Prior to last week’s UCLA-USC football game, the score of which more closely resembled a tennis match or a cricket massacre, Bruins head coach Rick Neuheisel exulted how Westwood was closing the gap on USC. Apparently, that statement had about as much meaning coming from Michael Strahan’s orthodontist.

When I think of all the episodes of Cops I missed on Saturday night, dedicating my weekend to that game, it makes me even more bitter. At least with the former, one can reasonably anticipate a beating in front of a national audience. Like so many other personal experiences, the game’s climax lasted about a minute, followed by a 59-minute sobbing session. 4 plays, a touchdown for USC. UCLA drove down the field on the subsequent possession, was stopped on 4th and goal, and pretty much the rest of the way the Trojans composed themselves as if they were the ones wielding the wooden horse. After the smoke — or the steam from Neuheisel’s ears — cleared, the Coliseum once again became the Bruins’ mausoleum. (Note: Don’t waste more than 5 seconds trying to make historical sense out of the fact that the Trojans play in Los Angeles in a venue called the Coliseum.) 50-0. It was the worst lost for UCLA in the series since the Marx Brothers became a household name. To paraphrase Groucho, Bruins fans certainly have had a wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.

Add it up, and in Neuheisel’s four years on the job at UCLA, the Bruins were outscored by a collective tally of 134-28. That statistic alone has had school supporters calling for administrative heads with the gusto of a 16th century English monarch.

When he first arrived on campus, UCLA’s head coach famously, yet inaccurately, declared that USC’s monopoly was over. Judging by the returns, the only monopoly the Bruins have usurped is one on mediocrity.

On Monday, it was made official by the university in the only way they can. Slick Rick’s tenure as coach is over, but not before he coaches the team for a theoretical chance at a Rose Bowl appearance. In other words, the logic being: Perhaps the captain couldn’t steer the Titanic away in time to miss that gigantic iceberg, but he should be fine to lead the dinghies. It seems to make sense. On Friday, the Ducks will be one side of the field, and a lame duck on the other.

December has been the traditional time of year for UCLA faithful to exult that basketball has arrived to the strains of Bing Crosby. (Not ‘White Christmas’ since those all-white numbers didn’t quite work out on the gridiron.) But, even the hardwood has not shown UCLA any solace. The eleven championship banners are starting to yellow as they hang from the rafters at Pauley Pavilion — no the Sports Arena, uh, the Honda Center… While construction continues on UCLA’s hallowed hardwood, the basketball team has become a vagabond playing in Ontario, Anaheim, and most notably in the shadow of USC’s campus at the Sports Arena, an aging edifice which began to lose significance at some point after the 1960 Democratic National Convention. John Wooden’s 10 titles, including 7 in a row, is a feat that will probably never be eclipsed. But those may seem like ancient history in today’s society, given that there are no hashtags applied to the accomplishment. Charles Ed O’Bannon and Ed Charles O’Bannon might need to walk around campus with a shillelagh these days in order to stand out, but they were instrumental in the Bruins last title run, (shudder) 16 years ago.

It would certainly be disingenuous to go on lashing the basketball team without mentioning their three Final Four appearances from 2006-2008, including their ’06 runner-up finish, and the 2008 year where they didn’t officially lose to (vacated), and the guy who may or may not play for the Bulls. Ben Howland is now in his ninth year on the job at Westwood, a stint longer than any of the other seven coaches who have followed Wooden. Two of the last three years have seen the Bruins’ season end in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, with a losing record in between.

This year has been much more frustrating, given the expectations of a well-sized front court. Yet, the Bruins found a way to lose to Loyal Marymount (acceptable, perhaps, only if this is 1990) and Middle Tennessee State (acceptable only if the bus broke down in the middle of a cross-country trip and the basketballs were left behind). What’s worse is that players casted off by Howland have been thriving elsewhere. Mike Moser and Chace Stanback last week helped UNLV to lead an upset of top-ranked North Carolina, while Drew Gordon is leading New Mexico in rebounding and is second in scoring.

For so many years, it was easy to deflect negative comments of UCLA’s athletics by simply reminding the critics of the 107 NCAA team championships they have accrued over the years. The fact still remains the same. UCLA’s teams have won more titles than any other. However, repeating those accomplishments loses a little gravitas when you find an alumnus thumping their chest over yet another title for the women’s golf team. Even the programs at the school that have been tradition stalwarts — water polo, volleyball, tennis — have begun to hit a dry spell. The situation for UCLA athletics is stickier than any brand of hair gel Steve Lavin ever used. The reality is more obvious than the answer to one of the questions on a Jim Harrick-written final. Attendance has waned and negativity has begun to reign. I have never been confused with an optimist. This time, however, I will take the lead. I am truly confident in the future, that there will be no failure, and that success will result. That’s because, on Friday, I’m taking Oregon with the points.

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