This tradition needs to be tossed over the wall

December, 20, 2011
12/20/11
2:12
PM PT
Just wait till new coach Jim Mora gets wind of this.

Mora is preparing to take the reins of the UCLA football program and has been preaching discipline and accountability since the day he took the job, but it appears he is inheriting a team that has little of either.

The Bruins ditched practice Tuesday, renewing an old tradition of jumping over the wall that surrounds the practice field in order to get a day off.

It's one of those long-standing traditions the UCLA football program has, like failing to win games, losing to USC and the inability to compete on the national stage.

This is a team filled with players who have preached all season long that they needed to change the culture of the UCLA football program, that they were sick of mediocrity and they needed to inject a winning attitude. Those same players ditched practice Tuesday, foregoing an opportunity to help instigate some of those changes.

This tradition, in fact, was supposed to have ended last year when seniors on that team implored the players not to do it as one of the steps required to change the culture of UCLA football. But after going 4-8 last season and 6-7 this season, this year's senior class apparently didn't hold the same standards.

"I was hoping it was kind of out of our system, but clearly it’s not," said quarterback Kevin Prince, one of a handful of players who returned to the practice field to work out. "Hopefully this doesn’t come back to bite us."

The Bruins are preparing to play Illinois Dec. 31 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. They received a special waiver from the NCAA in order to play in a bowl game with a losing record, saying that the extra practice time you get during bowl preparation is among the biggest benefits of playing in a bowl.

And so the Bruins decided to just go ahead and throw away one of those opportunities to get better and improve.

"I had practice scheduled, but if there is a tradition of jumping over the wall, then I’d rather have it happen today," said interim coach Mike Johnson. "You don’t want to lose the day of work, but at the same time that’s what the last two weeks were for. We covered a lot in those last two weeks."

This is a team that has been so bad that it has fired two head coaches in the last five years, has defeated only two teams that ended the season with a winning record during that stretch and has lost 12 of the last 13 games against crosstown rival USC.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the Bruins need all the practice they can get, but in the wake of Rick Neuheisel's firing most of the current coaching staff has been reduced to lame duck status, so the team apparently had little fear of repercussions for going over the wall.

"I’m not going to discipline the guys for anything," Johnson said. "I’m going to come out and practice them hard tomorrow and do things that we have to do to get ready for the game. I think we’ll be fine and we’ll adjust. Instead of having 15 practices, we’ll have 14."

The tradition of skipping practice began decades ago as players sought to have a team bonding day instead of practicing. They said they planned to do that Tuesday by going to a movie. But last week Johnson called off practice for a team bonding day and the team played paintball. Was there really a need for another team bonding day?

"The seniors wanted to do it and get together later for a team activity," said running back Johnathan Franklin, a team captain. "Whatever the team wants to do, you have to do it."

Even if that means you miss out on a day to get better and take one step closer toward pulling the program out of mediocrity?

"It was the seniors call," said Franklin, a junior. "In my opinion, if I’m here next year, it won’t be happening."

A handful of players were visibly upset. Safety Dalton Hilliard did not go over the wall and walked off the field shaking his head as his teammates ditched. Prince said he tried to implore the team not to do it, but was overruled.

"I tried to voice my opinion about it but the seniors wanted to do it and ultimately it’s their call," Prince said.

The seniors, of course, have nothing to lose. Once Dec. 31 rolls around, they will be finished with their UCLA playing days. The problem is that now some of the younger players have been exposed to this tradition and it could very well live on. That's what happened this year, Prince said, after nobody went over the wall the last two seasons.

"There are still guys that are in the program from that time, so you figured once they got a chance to be the seniors they would call it," Prince said.

Strangely, they called it Tuesday instead of Wednesday. The Bruins are off Thursday through Sunday for Christmas break so they could have made it a five-day weekend had they called it for Wednesday.

But call it for Tuesday they did and as the players sprinted toward the wall, the coaching staff stood hands on hips and watched in bewilderment. They had practice plans ready. They were ready to try and help the players get better.

The same coaches who are about to lose their jobs were committed to doing their jobs through to the bitter end. Too bad the players they are trying to help didn't return the favor.

You can bet Jim Mora won't be too thrilled with that.

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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