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SAN BERNARDINO — The change began to take place shortly after the UCLA football team arrived for training camp at Cal State San Bernardino.
It started with offensive linemen and defensive linemen making the long walk from the locker room to the practice field together. Then you'd see young freshmen and grizzled veterans stride side by side with beaming smiles. Defensive backs and receivers, who talked trash all practice the day before and would do the same that day, shared many a laugh on that path.
Those are scenes rarely seen in Westwood over the past few years, when players in certain position groups nearly always stuck close together and freshman were usually treated like freshmen. It figures to be a different scene when the Bruins return to UCLA Saturday for their first on-campus practice of camp.
Coach Jim Mora’s master plan of team bonding in San Bernardino came together almost exactly as he drew it up. In Mora's grand mission to change the culture of UCLA football, this represented a significant step.
“Before we got here, the team had certain cliques,” running back Johnathan Franklin said. “But those are all broken now. “We’re really becoming a unit, a full unit and a family. A band of brothers and it’s great. I think we needed to improve in that area and just coming out here has definitely done that.”
It started the day they arrived. Mora assigned players to dorm rooms instead of letting them choose bunk mates. He paired offensive players with defensive players, seniors with freshmen and tried to separate players he knew to be close friends. The goal, Mora said, was to build a bond and develop a sense of trust among teammates that would help the team through tough times during the season.
“Any time you are working in a team environment like this, it’s important that you know the person next to you,” Mora said. “You have to trust them on the field and if you can trust them off the field as well, if you know a little bit about them, it’s easier to trust them, I think.”
As the camp went along, the bond between players started growing stronger. They all had to endure a brutal heat wave that regularly produced temperatures north of 105. They all had to listen to Mora rant. One day, Mora verbally blasted the entire coaching staff loud enough for those back in Westwood to hear. Later, Mora became so incensed with the team that he kicked everyone out of practice.
“We had to be together and we had to suffer together,” said receiver Joseph Fauria. “We have this common experience of going through this camp in San Bernardino with only each other.”
It’s an experience that Mora and his team hopes pay dividends on the field. Kevin Prince, a senior, has noticed over the last couple of seasons that the football players wouldn’t hang out much together. Certain groups of players would, but he would never see a big group of teammates together.
When he was in high school, it was the opposite. His close-knit team would always travel in large packs and those strong friendships paid off. Prince was part of two Crespi teams that advance to Southern Section title games.
“That’s something I don’t think we’ve had at UCLA and that’s something I’ve always missed about high school,” Prince said. “I think that’s what we’re starting to form now is guys who want to hang out with each other more and want to be with each other and I think that’s going to help us win some games.”
The San Bernardino experience was about more than just bonding on the football field. They had team bonding experiences such as swimming and bowling—where again Mora divided the team into random groups for a competition.
The players had long walks from their dorms to the lunch rooms, meeting rooms, locker rooms and practice fields. Every day they would find themselves sitting with different people at meal time and walking the campus with someone they barely knew before camp started. At night and in between practices, they held gab sessions.
“We all hung out together like a big family,” Franklin said. “Offense, defense, kickers, punters. Some days we even let the long snappers come.”
And sometimes the conversations turned personal and serious.
“It wasn’t always joking around or talking about football,” Prince said. “It’s sometimes serious stuff in life. I roomed with Brandon Sermons and we talked about our future plans and stuff you don’t normally have time to talk about when you are just on campus. But when you are stuck here at camp, you start talking about things.”
The payoff, the Bruins hope, will come on the field. By getting to know one another on a personal level, they have built up the type of trust that has been lacking in UCLA. Last year, coach Rick Neuheisel indictaed a low level of trust among teammates when he frequently talked about problems arising when players were trying to do each other’s jobs.
Also, players should now be able to communicate better. A young player won’t be afraid to speak up to an older player because they have a personal relationship. An offensive player won’t shy away from pointing out something to a defensive player.
“Guys are communicating better,” Franklin said. “They are comfortable talking to other people no matter who it is and they are holding each other accountable and getting on each other. Just playing together and working hard and pushing each other.”
And for that, they have Camp San Bernardino to thank.
“This is a great foundation for us to be able to draw back to how tough this camp was,” safety Tevin McDonald said. “The heat out here, all the uncomfortable situations they put us through. This is great to be able to draw back to this and how we needed each other to get through this. There will be plenty of times where we can use this to help us.”