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UCLA football players' ditch day criticized

April 17, 2008|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

College football is all about traditions.

At Florida State, Chief Osceola throws a flaming spear into the ground to announce the Seminoles' arrival on the field. At Clemson, players touch "Howard's Rock" as a promise to give their all during a game. At UCLA? Players run away.

The Bruins went "over the wall" Tuesday, a UCLA football tradition in which players bolted from practice for a self-imposed day off -- high-tailing it through a gate instead of scaling the practice facility wall as tradition demands.

It left Bruins coaches angry, high school coaches and potential recruits in attendance perplexed and fans questioning the team's commitment. Though visibly upset, first-year Coach Rick Neuheisel tried to put a lighter touch on it Tuesday, saying, "Maybe we can banish it forever since no one went over the wall."

His mood Wednesday was unknown, as a UCLA official said Neuheisel was unavailable for interviews.

The flight cost the Bruins a day of practice in their effort to rebound from a series of mediocre seasons.

Neuheisel apologized to an officiating crew that was assigned to work scrimmage portions of the practice.

Meanwhile, coaches from La Palma Kennedy High, who had come to Westwood to see practice, left shaking their heads.

"I guess that's why they're in the Lay's Potato Chips Bowl every year," said Chris Pascal, Kennedy's freshman coach.

Coaches from Encino Crespi High also left with a vivid impression.

"Let me put it this way, they wouldn't have done that at Fresno State," said Coach Jeremiah Ross, a former Fresno State player.

Pascal said he and other coaches had yet to receive an explanation or apology from UCLA as of Wednesday afternoon even though they were required to leave their e-mail addresses when they signed in before practice.

"They had recruits there, and can you imagine what they think after being driven there and being sent back onto the freeway at 5 p.m.?" Pascal said. "The four of us were standing there for a half-hour, someone could have said something. On the way home we thought about going over to USC because we knew they would be on the practice field."

Reaction from UCLA fans was equally harsh Wednesday.

"This is exactly why USC wins and UCLA is subpar," David Wong said in an e-mail. "The culture of USC is to practice hard and play hard. UCLA's culture apparently is ditch practice and play around Westwood."

Bruins players expect to pay the price when they return to practice today.

"We have to come back and have a good practice," said tailback Raymond Carter, who is returning from a knee injury. "We can't take a day off, then have a bad practice. They'll be all over us hard."

The "over the wall" tradition dates back about 30 years, and was practiced when Neuheisel was a UCLA quarterback.

The tradition was suspended when Bob Toledo was coach but restored by Karl Dorrell.

Asked how he dealt with the "over the wall" day, former UCLA coach Terry Donahue said, "not very well." Donahue said he believed the tradition began before his team's playing Oregon State in Japan at the end of the 1980 season and then carried over to spring practice.

"During bowl season it had merit," Donahue said. "In spring, you wanted to work on particular things or maybe you had a couple of important guests who were looking at you like, 'What kind of place are you running?' But for the most part it was harmless."

Donahue's empathy for Neuheisel goes only so far.

"When he was a junior and senior, he was the one instigating it," Donahue said. "I guess what goes around comes around."

Times staff writer Eric Sondheimer contributed to this story.

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chris.foster@latimes.com

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