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Toledo finds shelter from storm at Tulane

His first head coaching job since being fired by UCLA in 2002 is a major undertaking: rebuilding the Tulane program, post-Katrina. But then he knows all about hurricanes.

May 08, 2007|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — That Bob Toledo would end up coaching football at Tulane is sort of like the bread pudding souffle they serve up here: too rich.

Four years after a seven-year record of 49-32 got him fired at UCLA, Toledo in December accepted a Conference USA mop-up mission that reacquainted him with uncomfortable parts of his past.

"A hurricane and a quarterback I lost," Toledo, seated in his office chair, said with a laugh. "It's amazing."

Hurricane Katrina, which remains New Orleans' boarded-up backdrop, would link Toledo full circle to Hurricane Georges, which in 1998 postponed UCLA's game with Miami from September to December, which may have led to a slipped-tackle loss that may have cost UCLA the national title.

"One game changed my career," Toledo said of that 49-45 loss to Miami.

And so, he could argue, did one quarterback.

His name was J.P. Losman, a prized recruit out of Venice High who enrolled early at UCLA in 1999, quit after 15 spring practices, and transferred to ... Tulane.

If not for a hurricane and a quarterback ...

If UCLA beats Miami in 1998, and then defeats Tennessee in the Bowl Championship Series title game, Toledo's career might not have sputtered to a halt in 2002.

Momentum might have kept UCLA on top and upstart Pete Carroll at bay. The equity of a national title might have allowed Toledo to survive the handicapped parking-placard scandal and other indiscretions that handed firing fodder to incoming Athletic Director Dan Guerrero.

Don't coaches with national title rings get a little more rope?

"Look at SC," Toledo said, "you don't think they've had some problems?"

Ah, but for a hurricane ...

"Killed us," Toledo said of Georges.

And a quarterback ...

"He would have been the next great quarterback at UCLA if he would have been patient enough," Toledo says of Losman, who used Tulane, not UCLA, as his springboard to a starting job with the Buffalo Bills.

Because UCLA had locked up Losman, it didn't recruit Kyle Boller, who went to California, which led to a painful patchwork progression for the Bruins that included Cory Paus, Ryan McCann and Scott McEwan.

This is known in the Toledo era as: the beginning of the end.

Life's funny, and then you get fired, and then you move on.

Toledo moved here, first to a small apartment near campus on St. Charles Avenue. With three grown daughters leading lives of their own, Toledo and wife Elaine were ready for new digs and Southern roots.

Of course, in terms of the hurricanes in Toledo's life, the difference between Katrina and Georges wasn't even close.

Many of the Tulane players inherited from Chris Scelfo, fired after producing two winning seasons since 1998, remain in stages of recovery.

Toledo watched Katrina unfold as most everyone else did, on television, never imagining that less than two years later he'd be part of the recovery effort.

"You go over that little bridge, go down there, it's frightening," Toledo said of a recent visit to the 9th Ward. "It's like a ghost town, it just makes you cringe. You realize these were real people and they're not there anymore. Their houses are boarded up. They're gone. There are steps leading up to a house and there's no house. It's devastating."

Toledo took the Tulane job because he likes challenges, and he picked a doozy in Dixie.

After playing 11 games in 11 cities in 2005, the Green Wave returned home last season in the full throes of Katrina fatigue.

Toledo, who turned 61 in March, decided this was a good fit to make his last (probably) coaching stand.

After his 2002 firing, Toledo spent three seasons out of football until hitching on last year as offensive coordinator at New Mexico.

Toledo still views his UCLA axing as inevitable from the day Guerrero was named athletic director in April 2002.

"He didn't only get rid of me," Toledo said. "The basketball coach [Steve Lavin] is no longer there. The baseball coach [Gary Adams] is no longer there."

It remains an open question as to how much better UCLA football has been since Toledo.

Karl Dorrell, who succeeded Toledo, is 29-21 through his first four years.

Toledo thought he deserved another year. His 2002 team won eight games playing 22 freshmen. "We were going to be fine," he said.

But the UCLA hierarchy was angered by off-the-field issues that included the handicapped-parking scandal, tailback DeShaun Foster's untoward ties to a 2002 Ford Expedition, and drunk driving convictions involving quarterback Paus.

Losing four straight years to USC didn't help.

Toledo sat and listened as a reporter read excerpts from comments Guerrero recently made about the state of UCLA football under Dorrell.

* "I am very appreciative that Karl came in and reestablished order in the program in a lot of ways."

* "He rebuilt the foundation that I felt needed to be fixed in a lot of ways."

* "He came in and healed the program."

Toledo bristled in his chair.

"That's his opinion," he said. "He [Guerrero] wasn't around long enough to know."

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