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COMMENTARY : For Donahue, Roses Are Quickly Wilting

October 16, 1994|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

There are times when it must be great being Terry Donahue. This season is not one of them.

It is Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. Donahue's 2-4 Bruins, 0-3 in the Pacific 10, are playing Oregon State (1-4 and 0-3). The game is actually being televised. Call this one Saturday Night Dead.

Traditionally, Oregon State was one of those teams UCLA used to flick away, like a fly on the dinner table. But there is very little traditional about this bleak Bruin season.

Oregon State leads at the half, 7-3. The Beavers are actually playing a wishbone offense--anybody wearing leather helmets?--and making it look more exciting and creative than Donahue's supposedly more explosive multiple offense. If Troy Aikman is watching somewhere, he is sick to his stomach.

It is hard to tell if the UCLA natives are restless or disinterested. There aren't all that many of them here. They announce 35,347, which must include the inhabitants of every other car driving by on the Foothill Freeway. That crowd figure means that UCLA's average for its four home games so far is 43,508. You have to go back to 1975, the year before Donahue took over, to get an average below that.

But then, why should fans flock here? Their team is lousy and the game, which could have been played on a beautifully cool and crisp autumn afternoon in Southern California, is at night because television says it must be and Pac-10 schools lap-dog along for something like $27.56 a game for doing the bidding of the great TV god. Sports used to be for spectators; now it's for Nielsens and shaving cream.

What a difference a few months can make. Last Jan. 1, Donahue had his team in the Rose Bowl, after securing his third consecutive victory over hated USC. But then the University of Wisconsin, sparked by 87% of the population of the Badger state, most of whom had swarmed the game with tickets secured from thousands of UCLA entrepreneurs, turned the Bruins into the visiting team, not to mention the losing one.

And what a difference a few weeks can make. When UCLA got past Tennessee in its opener this season, there was talk that that victory had opened the door for a Bruin national championship.

Which brings us to the vaunted Beavers, Donahue and some restless UCLA natives.

Last week's mailbag at The Times brought much more than the usual venom toward Donahue, a man who, at age 50 is in his 19th season at UCLA, is the winningest football coach at UCLA and the eighth active winningest coach in the country. He is also a man who has stuck around Westwood despite lucrative offers from such places as the Atlanta Falcons.

Despite all this, there has always seemed to be something about Donahue that brings out the loudest whines amid the normally whiny Bruin fans. Who knows? Maybe it's because he still looks as if he could play the 35-year-old leading man in the movies.

One of his loudest critics is, surprisingly, a former Bruin player named Frank Batchkoff. Batchkoff, now a stockbroker, played defensive tackle for Donahue from 1983-86, and played in two Rose Bowls, a Fiesta Bowl and a Freedom Bowl in that time, all winning efforts.

All of which makes Batchkoff more credible perhaps than the average fan penning poison after four beers. Batchkoff has been there, done that.

"Donahue was our Achilles' heel," wrote Batchkoff, who played on teams that won 33 games in his four years.

Later, in a phone interview, Batchkoff expanded on those views, issuing the opinion that Donahue projected a negative air over the entire program.

"I'll give you an example," Batchkoff said. "My senior year (1986) against Washington, we went out and had a great warm-up. Washington's a tough team to play, so you need every edge you can get. We went back into the locker room, raring to go. Then Donahue walked in, said he had watched warm-ups and said it looked like we hadn't gotten ourselves ready properly. Well, it was like the air going out of a balloon. We went out flat."

And ended up with a 17-17 tie.

Clearly, Donahue is a big boy who understands about taking the heat, and who has done so and gotten through times such as these before. But clearly, all things are not wonderful in Westwood these days.

Saturday night's final score was Oregon State 23, UCLA 14. When the game was still up for grabs at 10-6, UCLA's All-American kicker, Bjorn Merten, missed a 32-yard field-goal try.

When the Bruins scored in the last few minutes, in front of a crowd of hundreds, and quarterback Wayne Cook ran in for a two-point conversion, a handful of Bruin players actually celebrated. Somewhere, Frank Batchkoff was hanging his head in shame.

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