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#pounditSunday, May 26, 2024

UCLA football giving fans reasons to be optimistic

It has often been said that UCLA football is like a supermodel: It may look good at first glance, but try to enter into any long-term relationship and you will end up broken-hearted. I was personally raised on the Bruins, which is to say I was largely fed a flavorless mush containing some notes of sweetness followed by a rather bitter aftertaste. Such a conclusion was drawn after one-too-many remote controls were sent hurdling toward the plaster.

This season has brought renewed expectations to Westwood; anyone following the Bruins is as ebullient as one can be two weeks into the season. A new head coach, a quarterback, and a new philosophy has perhaps harbored a sort of newfound delirium that has some — read this writer — thinking that this unbeaten start may not soon end.

It wasn’t too long ago that folks around Southern California were talking about monopolies with the gusto of Uncle Pennybags on a Marvin Gardens binge. Sheriff Rick Neuheisel came to town with guns blazing following that declaration but, following a pistol-whipping that had as much to do with the offensive system run during his tenure as it did with his red-faced tirades directed toward his starting quarterbacks, was soon ridden out of town on a rail with a handsome severance package attached.

Sun, Emerald, Silicon. These could very well be defining characteristics of Los Angeles. Alas, they merely stand as the lower-tier bowl games to which the Bruins have been relegated over the last decade. In three of the last four years, UCLA lost eight games. The last time UCLA made the Rose Bowl people were talking about the Titanic. Uh, the movie not the actual ship. Thus you’ll excuse the outlandish exuberance that comes from beating two teams that evoke thoughts of a high-carbohydrate intake: Rice and the Cornhuskers.

Keep in mind the fans in Los Angeles who eschew the cardinal and gold of USC have been starved for success since Terry Donahue paced the sidelines for UCLA. The last 16 years have included a less-than-holy Toledo, showing Karl the Dorrell, and out with the old in with the Neuheisel, yet the team has come nowhere near the consecutive 10-2 years the team had in 1997-1998, when the Bruins were last spotted floating at the top of the conference.

This year, the decision was made to bring former NFL head coach Jim L. Mora, a guy the fans hope does not live up to his middle initial. Certainly there was some reticence by the fanbase. After all, Mora had never coached a college game, and he is the progeny of a guy who is better remembered for his playoff rant, which later served as the influence behind Howard Dean’s stumping speech.

Two games in, the Bruins are in the top 25 for the first time since 2007 after the win over previously-ranked (rank?) Nebraska. Johnathan Franklin has run for over 400 yards, redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley has looked more kingly than Prince, and the offense has gained so much that Val Kilmer and Jessica Simpson are starting to get a tad bit jealous.

The former Bruin in me — the one that spent four good years getting a fancy communications degree — wants to believe that this is the year UCLA will be competitive against USC, unlike most of the last 13 years. (Editor’s note: The two years that apparently were stricken from the records by the NCAA have yet to be erased from my subconscious, or my nightmares for that matter.) The devil’s advocate in me knows better.

Those who have not ritualistically self-lobotomized as a result of watching UCLA football may know all too well about the letdown that comes from this line of thinking being borne out of two nonconference September wins. In Neuheisel’s first year in 2008, UCLA beat Tennessee, which was ranked eighteenth at the time. They went on to lose eight of their final 11 to close up shop that season. Two years later, the Bruins beat No. 23 Houston followed by an improbable win over 7th-ranked Texas in Austin. That, too, turned into a four-win season.

How optimistic can one be after two weeks? It has not been uncommon over the course of a UCLA fan’s life to cling to the notion that this could be the year for the football team. But, what exactly is “this”? No one in their right mind ever talks about UCLA in the same breath as Alabama.

The only championship claimed by the school was in 1954, which was recognized by a now-defunct news service and was a year in which the Bruins were prevented from going to the Rose Bowl due to an antiquated rule. Last year, the team was theoretically 60 minutes away from the conference title in about the same way as I’m about a cool million away from being a millionaire. UCLA got into the Pac-12 title game because USC was ineligible as a result of being Bush-whacked, so they got the keys to the executive washroom but still ended up making a mess at the end. The year concluded with an ironic appearance in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, seeing as how the team had a losing record at the time, and left San Fran starved for postseason success.

Despite all the inherent risks that come with wearing the four-lettered word on one’s chest around Los Angeles during football season, fans in Westwood want to believe that 2012 represents a harbinger of sea change not the queasiness that accompanies sea sickness. Sure, historical evidence certainly supports holding out hope UCLA football’s dalliance with success will last the whole season is on par with some poor schmendrik staking the deed to his house on a long-shot three legged horse to win.

Then, again, maybe it is not such an unlikely prospect that Mora can come in and change the culture of the program, one which was turned down by no less than a Sergeant Peppers’ cover-worth of coaching candidates over the offseason. Perhaps with just the right amount of coaching, intensity, and enough pain-killers in November (oh, and for the players, too) this could be a successful season: 2-0 a preview not necessarily a harbinger of doom.

Either way, as modest a start as it is, a strange feeling is overcoming UCLA fans. Not the usual anger and disappointment. Perhaps this is the effect of inhaling too much household cleaner, but there is excitement. Excitement that in a few months the ringing in the ears will be from a successful Victory Bell sounding, not another Rey Maualuga-like hit in the standings.


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