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The Thinker

Dorrell's stoic style is questioned as UCLA's football team struggles, but those close to him say he's disciplined, not indifferent.

November 08, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

On a Thursday night, halfway through a crumbling season, the UCLA football team gathers behind closed doors in a meeting room beside the practice field. The mood is rowdy, a clatter of jokes and insults, until Karl Dorrell walks in.

Dressed in a loose, gray T-shirt and black sweatpants, the coach begins softly, saying it is time to "contemplate some things," then recites a poem. "If you think you are beaten, you are ... " His players wait, maybe sensing what comes next.

This is not the Dorrell fans usually see, the pokerfaced guy on the sideline who rarely shows emotion.

First he paces. Then he starts clicking the cap of the red pen in his hand, edgy, irritated. All the while, his voice grows louder.

"I'm asking," he stops and growls, "do you think we're in bad shape?"

Pointing at one player, then another, he keeps asking: "Do you believe?" His words now ricochet off walls adorned with photographs of past All-Americans, ghosts of a better era.

Karl Dorrell, of all people, is thundering.

"We will fight."

After starting 4-1 this fall, UCLA has lost four straight, including Saturday's 38-24 defeat at California. Dorrell's play calling and clock management have come into question, detractors wondering whether the young coach is still learning on the job while losing games.

To some degree, he understands all this. What mystifies him is another recurring complaint -- his style.

Fans don't seem to want a coach who politely thanks Notre Dame for the "experience" after losing in South Bend. When UCLA starts the Cal game with a string of holding penalties, they want him charging onto the field to chew guys out. Instead, Dorrell appears restrained to the point of detachment, what he calls "my usual stoic self."

It doesn't help that, across town at USC, the preternaturally gregarious Pete Carroll is on a roll.

"If UCLA was winning national championships, people would look at Karl Dorrell as this extremely disciplined, poised coach," says Michael Young, a supporter and former college teammate. "But when you're not winning, it looks like you don't care."

A major college coach who doesn't care? Dorrell shakes his head at that one.

People close to him insist there is a side of his personality -- intense, competitive, even loud -- that reveals itself mostly in private. Players point to their Thursday night meetings, such as the one before the Cal game, as an example.

"He talks when he needs to," center Robert Chai says. "He gets worked up and you can see the fire in his eyes."

That, apparently, is the paradox of the man. What you see and what you don't.

*

Kim Dorrell realizes her husband is not the easiest person to gauge.

"He's a thinker and it's hard for a lot of people to read him," she says. "My friend calls him the man of mystery."

This sort of unspoken determination made him a star at UCLA in the mid-1980s, a receiver who ran precise routes to compensate for average speed. Dorrell worked tirelessly in practice and always believed the best way to compete was to maintain an even keel, never get too high or too low.

"He kept his emotions on the inside as a college kid, so I'm not surprised he's that way as a coach," former teammate Mike Sherrard says. "Composed all the time."

IBM offered him a job out of college, but his coach at the time, Terry Donahue, persuaded him to stick with football, suspecting his work ethic and knowledge of the game would make a perfect fit.

As for Dorrell's reticence, Donahue adds: "I played for a guy named Tommy Prothro, and people thought he walked on water. Tommy Prothro stood there with a hat, smoking a cigarette. He never showed any emotion on the field. Rarely, if ever, did he show any emotion in the locker room."

Only two years after starting as a UCLA graduate assistant, Dorrell became the offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona, where Kim was in her final semester as a student. She thought he looked nice and they shared certain traits, both detail-oriented. She soon learned something else about him.

"He doesn't need to show off to anyone," she says. "He just goes about his business."

As her husband climbed the coaching ranks, moving from Arizona State to Colorado to Washington, she watched a pattern develop. He would stick around the house in the off-season, content to play with their son and daughter, but when football came around, he inevitably turned inward.

"It just sends him into that thinking mode," she says. "I give him his space because I know he's thinking, 'How do I fix this?' "

Kim also knows what people say about his personality; she hears it on the golf course and nearly everywhere else she goes. The other day, at physical therapy, a patient on the next table talked about it. She wanted to ask the guy: What do you know about my husband?

"That's what kills me," she says. "I don't see him as dull and boring. I see him doing his job."

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