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Can UCLA find a coach to keep pace with football's big boys?

T.J. SIMERS

With Rick Neuheisel unlikely to keep the job after this season, can AD Dan Guerrero find a coach who can restore the Bruins to prominence?

October 29, 2011|T.J. Simers
  • UCLA players and coaches react as the Bruins defense makes a key stop against California in the fourth quarter Saturday night at the Rose Bowl in a 31-14 victory.
UCLA players and coaches react as the Bruins defense makes a key stop against… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Our Bruins beat reporter, Chris Foster, heard rumblings a few weeks back that someone had made preliminary overtures to Boise State football Coach Chris Petersen.

"Oh, is that right?" said UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero moments before Saturday's kickoff in the Rose Bowl. "No rumblings; nothing from me; we would never do that."

The fact that Foster hears voices is no surprise to those who know him. But what a coincidence to learn a few days later that Boise State was going to beef up Petersen's existing five-year contract.

Guerrero conceded people are going to hear "rumblings" in the next few weeks. And he said he wouldn't be surprised if some alum stepped out on their own to gauge the interest from a coach elsewhere.

But he said no decision has been made regarding Rick Neuheisel's status, and there won't be until season's end.

In the meantime, this whole football experience at UCLA has a Paul Hackett feel to it — a half-empty stadium, mediocre football and the inevitability that someone else will be coaching the team next season.

USC changed everything with the hiring of Pete Carroll.

"But Dan Guerrero will be hiring our next coach," said a Bruins alum at halftime of Saturday's scrimmage with Cal.

Mike Garrett hired Carroll and Lane Kiffin, so, if anything, there is a precedent here suggesting miracles do happen.

But given the financial and academic constraints mentioned so often that supposedly handcuff the Bruins, can UCLA really be big-time in football?

"You can't say it's not possible when you see Stanford and what it's doing," said Guerrero. "If you're going to look at a program that has set a standard over the last five or six years, then Stanford would be the one. We have to believe we can do that, and it has to be something that drives us."

Apparently, UCLA has ruled out following USC's plan for success and then maybe deciding later what to say to the NCAA.

But as turnarounds go, UCLA needs one desperately. The Rose Bowl is presently being spruced up and renovated suites for UCLA games are going to cost between $55,000 and $80,000.

How does anyone justify $80,000 to watch this?

Club seats will range from $2,000 to $4,000 beginning in 2013. A ticket for the Cal game Saturday night went for $45, or $8 more than most of UCLA's regular-season games.

UCLA fans are also going to be hit hard by new Pauley Pavilion prices. This is no time to have depressed UCLA alumni.

On top of beating Cal, which everyone does, Neuheisel best beat Arizona State and USC. If not, there is every reason to believe Guerrero will need a new salesman for his football program.

Carroll made it happen almost overnight at USC, and as if Guerrero needed more evidence, Harbaugh did the same at Stanford.

"No question, Jim went in there and changed the culture," Guerrero said.

But does UCLA have the money to make it big in football?

"I don't believe financial constraints would limit our ability to be successful," Guerrero said, while indicating financial conditions were different in the past.

"They are in our favor now," he said. The new Pac-12 TV contract payoff will increase from $6 million annually to $25 million.

Perfect timing if UCLA opts to go in a new football direction. Our man Foster said Neuheisel is owed another $1.25 million, defensive coordinator Joe Tresey $250,000, offensive coordinator Mike Johnson $390,000 and running game coordinator Jim Mastro $235,000.

Would you pay Neuheisel $1.25 million to disappear?

"As for financial commitments, we've made significant strides over the years to upgrade what was previously being done," Guerrero said. "We know we have a little more ways to go if in fact we want to continue to go with the big boys."

Obviously, I had to interrupt.

"You said, 'If in fact we want to continue to go with the big boys.' Is there any doubt?"

"Absolutely not; we obviously believe that we can have a nationally competitive program here at UCLA," he said. "History shows that."

It's almost impossible to fathom now, but UCLA won 20 games in a row under coach Bob Toledo, who was fired by Guerrero.

"We were always big time in football," said former UCLA AD Peter Dalis. "We didn't always win the conference, but we were upper third. We'd have a bad year here or there, but why wouldn't you think we could turn it around with what we've done here previously?"

The Bruins are 4-4, but it feels far worse. They should beat Colorado and Utah, making them bowl eligible, but it would probably take a win over USC on top of that to wipe out the memory of the Arizona debacle and save Neuheisel.

Right now it seems farfetched. Former USC coach John Robinson suggested Terry Donahue should hire the next coach.

"Terry knows this stuff," said Dalis. "When he retired he wanted me to talk to Jim Tressel, and he had just gotten to Youngstown State and wasn't at Ohio State yet.

"I told Terry I didn't think he would resonate in L.A., but he knew more than I did. However, he didn't know about [Tressel's] dark side either."

If not Donahue, Guerrero will hire the next coach. And as a former UCLA baseball player with two strikes already against him, he knows he best not strike out now.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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