Pete Dalis accepted early on that the Mt. Rushmore of UCLA athletics already was in place, that the larger-than-life images of basketball coach John Wooden, charismatic athletic director J.D. Morgan and football coaches Red Sanders and Terry Donahue were indelibly chiseled in the psyche of Bruin followers.
So Dalis carved his niche as the anti-icon, a self-described nontraditional choice for athletic director, a furtive figure forever lingering in the back of the room at news conferences and leading the high-profile, high-pressure department by pulling nearly invisible strings.
Those who expect the Bruin men's basketball team to win the NCAA title every year and the football team to occupy permanent residence in the top 10 will quibble, but his mild-mannered methods made a mark.
In a 19-year tenure that ended Sunday in retirement, Dalis, 64, leaves a legacy highlighted by 39 national championships, including one in men's basketball. The department is financially sound and enjoys a strong national reputation. The staff is experienced and loyal.
Certainly, incoming Athletic Director Dan Guerrero faces challenges--from fans who have seen enough of football Coach Bob Toledo and basketball Coach Steve Lavin to a new Rose Bowl contract to looming television negotiations--but he hardly is inheriting a mess.
Dalis, in fact, is nothing if not tidy. He provided Guerrero with a comprehensive briefing document on the state of the department and even escorted him around the Rose Bowl, walking through the athletic director's duties on a football game day.
A more melancholy stroll for Dalis is the one down memory lane. He came to UCLA as a 17-year-old freshman in 1955, served as manager of the football team while a student and took an administrative job on campus upon graduating. It's the only place he has worked.
"This is the place [where] I grew up, and I've been reflecting on my time here for several months," he said. "It is quite a different environment now. Westwood Boulevard was a public thoroughfare; you could drive right through campus to get to Sunset. There were no parking problems. There have been so many changes, and I have very fond memories."
Difficult ones too, including episodes early on that shaped his views on NCAA rules enforcement and media coverage.
Dalis was a football manager when the Bruins were rocked by scandal. UCLA (as well as USC and other West Coast schools) was charged with giving players $40 a month in violation of NCAA rules. The Pacific Coast Conference, a precursor to the Pacific 10, put the Bruins on three years probation beginning in 1956 and prohibited seniors from playing in more than five games. The uproar led to the dissolution of the PCC.
"I was angry and disillusioned [with the PCC] because giving a small amount of money to players was part of the culture nationwide," Dalis said. "I did not consider it a problem because that was the way life was conducted. I was young, these were our friends on the football team, and we didn't quite understand why this was happening.
"I still feel there is a great deal of inconsistency in the way penalties are laid out. Not with the Pac-10 necessarily, but with the NCAA."
The most painful task for Dalis, as athletic director, was investigating infractions by UCLA that resulted in severe penalties. Lowlights included the school forfeiting the 1995 national championship in softball because of an ineligible player, football players illegally using handicapped-parking placards in 1999 and star tailback DeShaun Foster losing eligibility last fall because he accepted the "extra benefit" of driving a car that did not belong to him.
"Having served on the Pac-10 compliance committee and having appeared in front of the NCAA infractions committee more than once, you see there is unevenness in how penalties are applied," he said. "It's hard to explain to your student-athletes and their families and to your constituency, particularly when you bare your soul and assist in the investigation."
Dalis was uncomfortable speaking to the media. His trepidation was well founded in January 2001, when he did talk to Bruin beat writers and said he had had a conversation with Rick Pitino, then the Boston Celtic coach.
That was a bombshell, calling into question the job security of Lavin, a hot topic anyway. However, Dalis regarded his comments as a preemptive strike because his conversation with Pitino had been made public in New England earlier in the day.
"It would have got out anyway," he said. "I had nothing to hide. But if I had it to do over again, I wouldn't have mentioned it."
Dealing with the media was not the only time Dalis found himself longing for a less-complicated bygone era. For a lifelong administrator sensitive to protocol and chain of command, receiving floods of e-mails from Bruin fans addressing the perceived failings of coaches became unnerving.