Thursday, October 19, 2006

Powder Blue and Gold | by Jay

Our friend John is both a Domer and a Bruin. He sends us his thoughts on UCLA football history and the upcoming game this weekend. Enjoy.

This Saturday, many UCLA fans will be in the somewhat unusual position of rooting against Notre Dame in football. Although there's no special affection between the schools, UCLA followers always cheer for the Irish at least once every year -- when they play Southern Cal. That became clear to me near the end of the first USC-UCLA football game I attended, in November 1986 -- my first semester at UCLA Law School after graduating from Notre Dame. Terry Donahue's Bruins were putting the final touches on a 45-25 rout of Ted Tollner's Trojans, when the UCLA band taunted Southern Cal by playing the Notre Dame Victory March. The majority of the Rose Bowl crowd roared in approval, anticipating an Irish victory the following week at the Coliseum. (ND had to overcome an 18-point deficit to edge Southern Cal, 38-37.)

If UCLA has a beef with Notre Dame at all, it's probably over the issue of which team is USC's main football rival. I was ridiculed when I insisted to Bruin fans that the ND-USC rivalry was bigger than UCLA-USC. Geography supports UCLA's claim, but history is on ND's side: the Irish and Trojans began their series three years earlier and have played three more games against each other than UCLA and USC. Of course, ND-USC games usually are more meaningful to national rankings as well: UCLA has won only one national championship in football, a split title in 1954 (Ohio State won the AP poll, while UCLA took the coaches' vote), and is a distant second behind Southern Cal among Pacific-10 schools in winning percentage.

Saturday will mark only the third gridiron meeting between Notre Dame and UCLA. The first two matchups were Notre Dame wins at home in consecutive years. Irish football was at its lowest ebb in 1963 under interim coach Hugh Devore, as ND won only two games for the third time in eight years. Ironically, both wins came against teams visiting from Los Angeles in back-to-back weeks -- 17-14 over USC and 27-12 over UCLA. The Bruins also were down in 1963, finishing 2-8. Both teams appeared to be improved as they entered the 1964 game -- ND was 3-0 and UCLA was 3-1 -- but only the Irish proved to be for real. They blanked the Bruins, 24-0, en route to a 9-1 season under first-year coach Ara Parseghian. UCLA stumbled to a 4-6-1 finish and made their own coaching change at the end of the season -- from Bill Barnes to the innovative Tommy Prothro, who led the Bruins to a surprise Rose Bowl title and consecutive top 10 finishes in his first two seasons in Westwood.

Most of the nation, including Notre Dame, sees UCLA as a basketball school, which is understandable since UCLA has as many NCAA men's basketball titles (11) as Notre Dame has football championships (both numbers are tops in their respective sports). Indeed, ND has met UCLA in basketball 45 times, including every season from 1966-67 through 1995-96 and twice a year from 1971-72 to 1982-83. (UCLA leads that series, 27-18.) Notre Dame plays a cameo villain in the lustrous UCLA basketball tradition; in 1974, Digger Phelps' Irish team ended UCLA's 88-game winning streak on a last-second shot by Dwight Clay in South Bend.

But UCLA has a strong football tradition as well, even though they're usually in the shadow of the Trojans. UCLA got a late start -- the school opened its doors in 1919 and joined the Pacific Coast Conference (the predecessor to the Pac-10) in 1928. UCLA was humiliated in its first two games against Southern Cal, 76-0 in 1929 and 52-0 in 1930. The schools didn't meet again until 1936 (a 7-7 tie) but have played every year since, and twice annually during 1943-45. USC leads the series 41-27-7 and has won seven in a row, although UCLA won the previous eight and dominated the series in the 1950s, 80s and 90s.

UCLA's glory years were from 1949-57, under coach Red Sanders. The Bruins were 66-19-1 (.773) in that era, including the split championship in 1954. UCLA also enjoyed success and Rose Bowl wins over Prothro (1965-70), Dick Vermeil (1974-75) and Donahue (1976-95). The Bruins last contended for a national championship in 1998, when Bob Toledo led them to a 10-0 start and Pac-10 title. But a porous defense cost UCLA a chance at the first BCS title, as they lost the regular-season finale at Miami, 49-45, and the Rose Bowl to Wisconsin, 38-31. Four years later, in 2002, UCLA endured its fourth-straight subpar year, leading to Toledo's ouster. The surprise choice to replace Toledo was Karl Dorrell, who then was receivers' coach for the Denver Broncos and had no head coaching experience at any level.

Many have drawn comparisons between Dorrell and Tyrone Willingham, in part because of their race (they were the first African-American head coaches at UCLA and ND, respectively), their limited coaching experience before their first head-coaching jobs and the timing of Dorrell's hiring, on the heels of Willingham's 10-2 debut season at Notre Dame. Their three-year records were virtually identical -- Dorrell was 22-15, Willingham 21-15. But while Willingham was fired, Dorrell received a contract extension after his third season. This may be due to the differences between Dorrell's track record and Willingham's. The Bruins' record improved in each of Dorrell's first three seasons, peaking at 10-2 in 2005 -- although the two losses were blowouts that would even make Willingham blush (52-14 to Arizona and 66-19 to the hated Trojans). Unlike Willingham, Dorrell has made numerous changes to his coaching staff. Under first-year defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker, UCLA's national ranking in total defense has shot up from 113th in 2005 to 9th this year (it was 2nd before last week's 30-20 loss at Oregon). And unlike Willingham at Notre Dame, nobody has ever accused Dorrell of being out of place at UCLA -- he was a star wide receiver for the Bruins from 1982-86.

Saturday's trip to Notre Dame is probably the biggest road trip in UCLA football history. That's not really saying much -- other than Rose Bowl games (played in the stadium UCLA has called home since 1982), the Bruins' only major bowl trips were to the Fiesta in 1985 and the Cotton in 1989 and 1998 (all UCLA victories). And next year's Notre Dame-UCLA game might be an even bigger deal -- it will be ND's first-ever road game versus the Bruins, and it hasn't played in Pasadena since the 1925 Rose Bowl, when Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen lead the national champion Irish to a 27-10 win over Stanford. But make no mistake, UCLA's most important game every year is against Southern Cal. And for UCLA, the most important similarity between Dorrell's tenure in Westwood and Willingham's in South Bend is that both started 0-3 against the Trojans. Dorrell's long-term job security ultimately will depend on whether he can break UCLA's seven-game losing streak in that series.