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UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero: Life in a very public eye

Nearly three decades ago Dan Guerrero eschewed a potential career in politics, saying 'I don't really want a public life.' But he got one anyway, as Bruins' A.D. and, these days, as a lightning rod for fans' criticism.

March 09, 2012|By David Wharton
  • UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero has faced plenty of criticism lately from fans who aren't happy with the direction of the school's football and men's basketball programs.
UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero has faced plenty of criticism lately… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

This all happened years ago, long before Dan Guerrero became the athletic director at UCLA, before he had to worry about hiring and firing coaches, before the critics came after him.

It was the early 1980s and Guerrero figured he was done with sports, having retired from playing pro baseball in Italy.

Back home in Wilmington, he joined with some friends — they had been teenage volunteers at a youth center in the old days — to start a nonprofit agency that renovated homes and built facilities for the community.

"That's where I thought my career was headed," he said. "It was going to be in public service."

But then the baseball team at nearby Cal State Dominguez Hills needed money and Guerrero helped with fundraising. School officials were so impressed, they wondered if he'd ever considered working in athletic administration.

"No," he said. "What's that?"

The university offered him a deal: If he signed on as an unpaid assistant in the athletic department, he could earn a living by teaching leadership and government classes on the side.

Talking it over with his wife, the 32-year-old Guerrero warmed to the idea of a change, if only because his career at the time seemed headed toward politics, running for city council or maybe Congress.

"I don't want to go that direction," he recalled saying. "I don't really want a public life."

Going public

These days, Guerrero has nowhere to hide, not with angry fans calling for his head on websites and in letters to the editor.

It might seem odd, given that his department has produced 22 national champions in 12 sports over the past decade — the most of any major college in the nation — while operating under one of the Pac-12 Conference's strictest budgets. UCLA's teams have performed in the classroom and steered clear of NCAA infractions.

But, for better or worse, athletic directors are judged on their record in the two major revenue-producing sports and, in that area, UCLA has struggled.

The slumping football team has been through four head coaches in nine years. The once-mighty basketball program is reeling too, with Coach Ben Howland the subject of recent media reports that portrayed a team spinning out of control.

Even the much-needed $185-million renovation of Pauley Pavilion has become a sore point among boosters facing higher ticket prices. Richard Bergman, an influential supporter who has butted heads with Guerrero over design elements of the project, said: "He's a very bright man who has made some poor decisions."

Guerrero, 60, knows he is on the hot seat. Though not entirely comfortable talking to reporters, he agreed to a series of interviews in his office overlooking a plaza at the center of campus.

His style was casual if academic. That included his dress — sports coat, open collar — and a habit of lacing answers with detail and the occasional historic quote. He talked about trying to keep a steady course through troubled waters.

"You have all these factions," he said. "Someone once said, 'I can't tell you the secret to success, but I can tell you the secret to failure — trying to appease everyone.'"

Friends insist that beneath his calm persona lies utter determination. Still, this is not the future Guerrero envisioned for himself in younger days.

Seeking to serve

Wilmington was a rough town in the 1960s, an ethnic mix of blue-collar families. Back then, longshoremen could bequeath their union membership to their offspring, so a lot of boys figured to end up on the docks.

The son of an oil refinery worker, Guerrero had other ideas. He began hanging around the Teen Post, a youth center created as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. The director there, John Mendez, preached civic pride.

"We were told to solve problems," said Ray Madrigal, who frequented the post. "It was a good, strong work ethic and concern for your community."

Guerrero answered the call. A meticulous teen, he organized cultural events and field trips for the other kids. But that wasn't his only passion.

His father had been a talented ballplayer and he followed suit, practicing relentlessly, making the All-City team at Banning High and earning a scholarship to play for the Bruins.

"My dad always told me that UCLA was a place for the people," Guerrero said. "By that he meant if you were a minority, it was a place where you could be accepted."

Teammates called him "Warrior" for the grit he showed at second base. When a hamstring injury ended any major league dreams, he spent the mid-1970s in Italy getting the game out of his system, then returned home to formally begin a career in public service.

Having previously worked as an administrative deputy for a city councilman, Guerrero joined Madrigal and others to form the Harbor Community Development Corp., which sought government grants to launch projects around Wilmington.

"We were greenhorns, taking on all this stuff," Madrigal said. "We were tackling anything and everything we could to help the community."

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