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COVER STORY

Meet Mr. Motivation

Just Win, Baby? Sure, but Only if You Embargo Controversy and Doubt. Just Ask UCLA Football Coach Bob Toledo.

October 11, 1998|ALAN RIFKIN and Alan Rifkin's last article for the magazine was on the community of Belmont Shore.

Practice has been loose enough for occasional trash talk, focused enough that from the stands you can hear the lacy spin of a fingertip catch. A big game is two days ahead. (It's an 11-game season. They're all big games.) Now the head coach stands at midfield, sermonizing in the early-evening Westwood haze. As he speaks, the UCLA Bruins kneel in unison, forearms staked into empty helmets, heads bowed.

Afterward, a reporter asks for the gist of the prayer.

'Prayer?" Bob Toledo answers, surprised. He laughs, smiles his cartoon smile. "They're just paying attention."

The evangelical imperative of big-time coaching--to motivate players, fans and boosters alike--has undone every Los Angeles coach in the last 20 years except Pat Riley and Tom Lasorda, both legends. Bob Toledo is another natural.

Here he is, weeks earlier, in the lion's den of the athletic department's most prominent donors--20 or 30 couples balancing cocktails and plates of caramel brie in a gated colony of Newport Beach. On Balboa Island, nearly in earshot, resides Toledo's enigmatic predecessor, Terry Donahue. Forehead knotted with low-grade doubt, Donahue turned to broadcasting in '96, not long after losing the love of rooms like this. "His last couple of appearances, he was a deer in the headlamps," says one attendee. As the darling replacement--happy to be anywhere, in some up-from-the-playground respect--Toledo fears no such evil. He shakes peanuts in his fist, working the crowd.

"It got down to us and Nebraska," he is saying, describing a recruiting war for lineman Michael Saffer. "We were battlin' pretty hard and makin' a lot of calls. Well, Mike's dad, Donny Saffer, played on a national championship basketball team at UCLA, so . . . ." A wicked grin. "We had John Wooden make a little call at the end there--kinda like the Mafia'd do it!"

The voice is a lusty sermon. The stance is wide, short below the waist; the eyes all but collide at the bridge of the nose, Yogi Bear-like. Every associative leap, in fact, lands on images of popular beardom, from Bear Bryant of Alabama to the new, bulked-up UCLA mascot: Gone is the "gutty little" Bruin image of old. But while this robust new symbol was stitched together in the sweat shops of market research, Toledo arrived full-blown, the hardy, gregarious, backyard dad of bears, a leader so natural you could plain overlook him. And UCLA did at first. Toledo, then offensive coordinator, got the promotion only after better-known candidates Rick Neuheisel and Gary Barnett turned down the job. "I probably wasn't my wife's first choice either," Toledo quipped to reporters.

"I'm proud," he tells his Newport audience, "of what we've accomplished the last two years." The most encouraging trends of Toledo's 1996 debut--better conditioning, resilience, killer instinct--mushroomed in 1997 to magical heights. Nine points shy of an undefeated season, last year's Bruins closed with 10 straight wins, a feat the university hadn't witnessed since 1946. If that weren't enough, he has recruited a class of freshman athletes ranked best in the nation by many analysts. With the Bruins' starting offense in full flight--senior quarterback Cade McNown is a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy--local fans have cause to wonder, week by week, just how many notches upward their dreams may rise. In late September, national polls had the team at No. 4.

Heady math, to be sure, for an L.A. culture conditioned to leave the perfectibility of football to a few factories in the Midwest and the South. But in Toledo's presence, Bruin fans have shed negativity. Not that he'll promise a national championship outright, though he does establish the goal of "competing" for one. It's enough to hear him talk the talk of unremorseful exertion--of "sparring enough to keep us calloused and tough," of "playing each play like it's the last we'll ever play . . . and I'm not worried about the scoreboard!" Those two words alone, "not worried," have worked magic on his listeners.

The applause is long and genuine. "Imagine this guy recruiting you at home," one supporter whispers to another. Yet Toledo is no harder to imagine in your living room than the next guy, which may be the point. Football experts admire him as various things--a risk-taker, a master of surprise, a motivator. Just as important around UCLA's family of boosters, however, is that Bob Toledo is a sunny guy, gambling on destiny, reaching for the prize--a "half-full kind of guy," as athletic director Peter Dalis has put it, in a time of half-empties. He may just stand to lift a family curse.

*

It was not the worst family curse in sports. It was the curse of fielding "quality teams," teams that sent players to the NFL, teams that went to bowl games.

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