When I entered the seventh grade, my brother (six years my senior) began his first year at UCLA. At the time, I was – and still am – big into the San Francisco Giants and was – and no longer am – into the San Francisco 49ers. The world of college athletics was a big mystery to me. The closest I had been to college sports was this horrible road trip I was on when I was seven or so in the back of my uncle’s GMC van. The reason why that had to do with college sports was because we (me, six or so of my cousins, my brother, my father, my uncle and two random strays from the high school team my uncle coached) crammed into this car and rode down to Palo Alto to see the East-West Shrine game. During said trip, which seemed to be an all-day affair when (in retrospect) it couldn’t have been more than a four or five hour event, the highlight of the day was me taking a leak on a random set of train tracks somewhere in the peninsula. So, coming off a heartbreaking 2000 NLDS and a horrible season of 49er football, I was kind of in the market for something new.
My brother, who at the time was not a sports fan at all, went to Westwood because of UCLA’s incredible academic reputation. Unbeknownst to him, UCLA featured a top-25 team that season and, needing to fill a little bit of a void, I began following UCLA sports in the spring of 2000. By the time the 2001 regular season rolled around, I was a knowledgable UCLA fan. UCLA, ranked 17th in the pre-season polls, also happened to feature a Heisman hopeful in running back DeShaun Foster. Foster, who is more well-known for his lethargic running style that led him straight out of the NFL, was this crazy mix of power, speed and hands. Some people compared him to 49er legend Rodger Craig, and others thought he would become something even greater (similar to what LaDainian Tomlinson would become). Either way, he was everything to UCLA’s offense. He was so cool too, this perfect mix of humility, talent and what we now call swag.
Bob Toledo with quarterback Cory Paus in the summer of 2002.
This Bob Toledo team went from being a mid-tier top-25 team to a top-4 team as they ran through 25th ranked Alabama, 21st ranked Ohio State, 19th ranked Oregon State and 10th ranked Washington. They stood atop the Pac-10 entering the last week of October (6-0) as they headed into a clash in Palo Alto against 20th ranked Stanford. The Cardinals defense focused in on the Heisman candidate, holding him to 77 yards on 21 carries, and no touchdowns. UCLA lost 38-28, as their best player that day was mediocre quarterback Scott McEwan, as he passed for 221 yards with two touchdowns. The next week, UCLA would lose to 16th ranked Washington State 20-14, where Foster actually rushed for 102 yards on 28 carries with a score. However, the loss probably was due to starting quarterback, and most disappointing player ever, Cory Paus threw three interceptions, one of which came late in the game with UCLA having a shot to win the game.
The Bruins sat at 6-2, ranked 17th in the nation, still with a shot at the Pac-10 championship, when they (and, by extension, their fans) got the worst possible news. DeShaun Foster was being suspended for the upcoming game against seventh-ranked Oregon because he violated the “extra benefits” rule. Foster would not play another down of football that season, and though his 1,109 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns, 129 receiving yards and sole receiving touchdown were impressive numbers (for eight games), he fell into the top half of the second round of the NFL Draft. He would become a spell back in the NFL, mostly working as third-down back during his mostly unmemorable six seasons in the NFL. His last, of course, came as a primary backup to Frank Gore in San Francisco.
Me at the Washington Redskins vs. San Francisco 49ers game in December of 2008. DeShaun Foster scored a touchdown in his last professional football game.
Watching him, as often as I did that season, made me sad for three reasons: 1) that 49er team was horrible; 2) Seeing a pseudo childhood hero of mine play and look so bad at something he was so good at is always sad; and 3) the potential UCLA had sat in front of me and looked like a bad car wreck. There was this moment, I was home for Christmas break, and I found myself at the season finale at Candlestick Park. Foster, who went 44 yards on nine carries with a score, looked okay, but he was no longer the crisp back that could break ankles at any given moment. And as the sun shone down on the decrepit old stadium, its fans filtering out as they watched the end to another disappointing season, I sat disappointed in my face paint and Santa Claus hat, not just for the losing season, but for the dashed hope of UCLA football.
Though I was the biggest Penn State fan, I still followed the UCLA Bruins (because that’s what a brother does). And the most interesting thing to happen to the Bruins during my college years was the pick up of former quarterback Rick Neuheisel. Neuheisel, who led the Bruins to an upset win over the 4th ranked Illinois Fighting Illini in the 1984 Rose Bowl, was known at the time for being fired as head coach of the Washington Huskies football team in 2003 after participating in an NCAA Tournament pool. UCLA, who had become a joke of a team over the six season since Foster had been suspended, decided to hire their former star quarterback to change the dynamics in Los Angeles. By then, USC had become a national power in that time while UCLA was happy to get to .500. The fact is: the biggest news that came out of Westwood was linebacker Bruce Davis taking a massive dump on the ESPN Gameday crew after UCLA’s 13-9 victory over the Trojans in 2006.
Neuheisel was hired and immediately made waves, awesome waves, by releasing this gem in the print media down in Los Angeles. As soon as I saw the ad, I printed it and taped it to my bedroom door right next to my Penn State football poster. The sad part was: the ad would probably be the height of Neiheisel’s UCLA coaching career. He would go 21-29 in his four year tenure (2008-11), appearing in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship game in 2011 because of USC’s postseason ban. They, however, would get ripped by the Oregon Ducks, 49-31 before Neuheisel would get unceremoniously fired.
The Bruins coaching search was a mess (thank you, Dan Guerrero). After failing to get Chris Petersen, Mike Leach, or even Turner Gill, the Bruins had to settle for Jim Mora Jr. Mora was not a popular choice, as he brought no college experience, little pedigree and had his own embarrassing exit (this time from the Atlanta Falcons in 2007). Nevertheless, Mr. Playoffs Jr. was headed to Westwood, and there was nothing the fan base could do about it.
The one thing people did not give Rick Neuheisel credit for was building up really good recruiting classes. During his time, he was able to sign some really good talent. Jordan Zumwalt, Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Anthony Barr and of course, current star quarterback Brett Hundley (amongst others). When Mora came to Westwood, the cupboards weren’t bare. In fact, they were rife with unused talent that would help build a 2012 team that was not only able to win the 2012 Pac-12 South Division title, but make a game out of it between the Bruins and Cardinals in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
This season, the Bruins are ranked 11th in the nation and are 4-0. They roll into this weekend’s game against the Cal Golden Bears a three touchdown favorite and a favorite to win the Pac-12 South for the third straight season. The Sons of Westwood are succeeding in spite of their clueless leadership in Morgan Centre (thank you again, Dan Guerrero). Similarly to that 2001 team, they feature a Heisman hopeful in Brett Hundley, and really should have no problem beating up on our Golden Bears.
That said, I bring this up because in a lot of ways UCLA is in bad shape. They have idiots in power who don’t respect the tradition and respectability that UCLA stands for. Cal fortunately doesn’t have that problem. And watching a team like UCLA succeed in these outrageous conditions (bad leadership, horrible facilities and a constant change for the worse in Westwood) only gives me hope for Cal.
Cal will not win this weekend. They’ll be lucky to make it close, fortunate to field a full team. We won’t like it and we’ll moan and groan and drink to try to forget about it. We’ll look like an FCS team while UCLA fits into their Pac-12 Championship aspirations. That said, UCLA fell from grace in 2001. They only had one double-digit win team from 2001-2012, they went 3-6 in bowl games and had difficulty beating their crosstown rivals USC, going 2-10 since 2001 (they won last year 38-28, marking the first time they did it since the aforementioned 2006 game). But, now, if UCLA isn’t playing for the Pac-12 Championship, this season will be an utter failure.
While I, as a reformed UCLA fan, think those expectations are a little asinine (I remember when a winning season was a treat), I can understand the expectations. And I cannot wait until the day that the Golden Bears have those expectations. I cannot wait for that epic night when Shattuck Avenue and Telegraph Avenue are chalk full of students, celebrating a championship season. If it can happen on Westwood Boulevard, I don’t see why it can’t happen in Berkeley.