The UCLA football team that Terry Donahue inherited from Dick Vermeil in the spring of 1976 was a very successful one. It was coming off a 9-2-1 season and a Rose Bowl victory over Ohio State.
It was a veer offense team, and Donahue believed in the veer. He still thinks it's the best way to move the football. He stuck with what was working and the team was 9-2-1 again in '77. But Donahue took a lot of criticism for being "conservative," even "boring."
He also learned a couple of things in his rookie year:
--No matter how many games a UCLA team wins, if one victory isn't over USC, it's not a successful season.
--No matter how many games a team in L.A. wins, if you don't put on a good show, the act doesn't play here.
No dummy, Donahue made the changes that have the Bruins sitting pretty now.
He didn't get the job at 31 by sitting back on his heels. The next year he started working the I-formation into his game plans. And by 1980, Donahue had a hit on his hands.
Since then, the Bruins have beaten the Trojans five times. UCLA is 5-2 against USC in the '80s. Compare that to 5-14-1 against the Trojans in the '60s and '70s.
The flashy, multidimensional offense that Donahue let offensive coordinator Homer Smith develop before he left this season for the Kansas City Chiefs allows for a star running back as well as a star quarterback and a couple of star receivers every year.
That not only attracts fans, it attracts the high school stars and transfer players, such as quarterback Troy Aikman, for example, who could have gone just about anywhere when he left Oklahoma two years ago.
Or UCLA's current Heisman Trophy candidate, Gaston Green. Green's a local kid. Ten years ago a running back of his caliber, with his heart set on a Heisman Trophy, would have signed with USC in a second.
Why did Green pick UCLA?
He says: "When I was deciding where to go to school, UCLA was doing all the winning. I was watching them in the Rose Bowl. I wanted to be a part of that."
It's a glorious time for Bruin football, and there are a couple of other key factors.
First and foremost, there is Terry Donahue himself. He chose to stay on at his alma mater, once he had made a name for himself, instead of taking any of several offers to coach elsewhere.
UCLA Athletic Director Pete Dalis was well aware of the importance of continuity when he scrambled to make the counter-offers that helped convince Donahue to stay.
The adage is that a coaching change sets a program back two or three years, even if it's a change for the better. And if it turns out not to be a change for the better, there has to be another change, which sets the program back another couple of years.
There have been some fine football coaches at UCLA, but only Bill Spaulding, who was there from 1925 to '38, stayed longer than Donahue, who is in his 12th season. Donahue is the winningest coach in school history with a record of 97-35-7, which figures to 72.3%.
To illustrate Donahue's comparative success, this is the 11th season in which the Bruins have won nine or more games. Six of the 11 times were under Donahue. Red Sanders had two and Tommy Prothro, Pepper Rodgers and Dick Vermeil each had one.
Bill Rees, the UCLA assistant coach who has coordinated UCLA's highly regarded, nationally acclaimed recruiting effort since 1979, said: "Players want to play for a school that has a chance to go to a bowl game and that has an outstanding head coach. Rarely do I go anywhere with Terry, in state or out of state, where he is not immediately recognized. He has became very visible and very respected--largely, I think, because they see him on TV, winning games."
Even when it's not Jan. 1, they see him on the sidelines at the Rose Bowl. That's another positive move that the Bruins have made.
Starting in 1982, the Bruins have been playing their games not at the Coliseum--which was perceived as the Trojans' home field--but at the Rose Bowl, which has proved to be a very nice home field for the Bruins.
Donahue lists the move to the Rose Bowl as one of the major factors in the Bruins' recent success.
Dalis said: "The move to the Rose Bowl gave us an identifiable home of our own. That, in turn, increased our season ticket sales from about 17,000 in '82 to 26,000 now."
"Identifiable home" also means "out of the shadow of USC." But at UCLA, no one likes to make a comparison to the school across town.
Donahue, asked this week if he thought his program had finally built itself a pretty good lead over the Trojan program, smiled and said: "I am committed to being uncommitted on that subject."
He added: "I will say that I am very pleased with the growth of our program."
And in the business of college football, success begets success.
Rees said: "It's much easier to convince a player to join in the winning than it is to convince him that he should be a part of a rebuilding effort.