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New Game Plans

Hurricane Continues to Wreak Havoc for UCLA's Toledo During Off-Season

August 11, 1999|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The months that brought a life and a death, a crash and an implosion, a wedding and a divorce of sorts, a house being torn up and a foundation being threatened are about to give way, finally, to a new college football season.

But even as Bob Toledo settles on a couch in his UCLA office, he finds no sanctuary. Because of renovation of the Morgan Center, the coffee table that used to be in front of where he sits now is little more than a storage stand for the symbols of success--two Outland trophies, a Davey O'Brien Award, a Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, the Jim Murray Trophy marking last season's victory over USC. So it has come to be that even prosperity is part of the disarray.

"It's the worst off-season of my life," he says. "It's the worst six months of my life."

Eight months, actually.

"Starting with the Miami game," Toledo says.

It still lingers, the Dec. 5 loss--the implosion--to the Hurricanes that cost his Bruins the chance to play for the national championship.

Next was the car crash two days later, when he and offensive line coach Mark Weber got T-boned in Georgia during a recruiting visit and Toledo suffered a separated left shoulder that doctors say might need surgery.

Which was followed by the loss to Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and in-fighting among players for the second successive game.

And then the death of his father at 91 on Feb. 9.

And then, 10 days later, the resignation under fire by defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, which probably ended not only a business association but a long friendship as well.

And then the night later that month that his 30-year-old son-in-law suffered a seizure, the first symptom of what doctors eventually discovered was a baseball-sized brain tumor.

And then the FBI investigation into point shaving and some players' association with a reputed mobster. Ultimately, all were cleared but only after the words "UCLA, FBI" and "mobsters" appeared together in sports sections around the country.

And then the three months he and his wife spent in a one-bedroom apartment while renovation began on their newly purchased home, at the same time construction was underway at the Morgan Center.

Oh, and then word in July that 14 current and former players had been charged in a handicapped-parking scam and the police report that showed a systematic pattern of abuse, not some aberration by a few guys.

It became an embarrassment for the entire university, but particularly a coach who is so image-conscious that last season he suspended starting tailback Jermaine Lewis for a big game because Lewis defended himself in a fight at a late-night party, instead of simply walking away as Toledo would have preferred.

It also came with a final indignity. Toledo thought he was to attend a news conference merely to show support for the two-game suspensions handed down by the chancellor, only to be called to the podium dressed in slacks and a short-sleeved shirt, feeling uncomfortable about looking resort casual at a suit-and-tie occasion.

There has been no place to hide. Not in the 5,000-square-foot home on the golf course in Westlake Village, where he and Elaine are living in the upstairs guest room while the master bedroom and bathroom are torn up downstairs.

Not entirely in the arms of family, which has also been concerned with the brain tumor that hit the husband of one Toledo daughter, who at the time was expecting their second child, and more recently occupied with the wedding of the youngest of the three daughters July 24, one of the few bright spots in these hellish months.

Not even in his office, the one with the coffee table-as-trophy case, home to a coach who is exhausted before the new season has even started--and angry and frustrated and wounded and concerned about the emotional state of his team. Home at least until the coaching staff, and the hardware, move into new digs in the expanded Morgan Center. They say that'll be in late September or early October.

"So, right in the middle of the season," Toledo says from the couch, "we're going to be moving from this office to that office."

He laughs.

"I'll tell you what. If we can get through this one, we're going to get through anything."

"It's Been Very Stressful."

If we can get through this one?

The concern is so real that there is not even any debate on whether Toledo is emotionally ready for the season to begin--he's not--and instead focuses on whether he is up for the long haul.

Split end Danny Farmer, the star of what should be one of the best receiving corps in the nation, sees that Toledo is stung.

"I think the thing about Coach Toledo is that he takes a lot of things personally," Farmer said, "and that's a great quality he has, not only as a coach but as a person. He really cares for us. To see us make a mistake like that--some of the guys make a mistake like that--it really hurts him."

Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti, a longtime friend, sees that Toledo is wounded: "There's no question."

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