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Karl Dorrell worth remembering at UCLA

Karl Dorrell has been quiet for four years now, a long time even for a guy who was never really loud.

Another man has now tried and failed to do what Dorrell could not do. Another man will soon be hired to try again.

All the while Dorrell has watched from afar, said little, and kept his distance. After being fired as the UCLA Bruins' head coach in 2007, he needed to rebuild his name and his résumé so he took a job as the wide receivers coach with the Miami Dolphins. This season he was promoted to quarterbacks coach.

If it seems like a long time since you've heard his name, that's because it has been. Dorrell hasn't spoken publicly about his tenure at UCLA since he left.

"I wanted to respectfully give [Rick Neuheisel] his chance of putting his mark on the UCLA football program," Dorrell said. "I didn't want to be an influence, I didn't want to be a nuisance, I didn't want to be anything that could be a distraction to him. I gave him his space to build the program that he felt was in the best interests of UCLA."

He's talking now mostly because it's been long enough, not because Neuheisel was fired on Monday. They are friends, not rivals. If anything, their shared experience as UCLA head coaches has drawn them closer, not apart.

But it occurs to me, all these years later, that the silence might actually have done Dorrell some good. That his 35-27 record in five years at UCLA (2003 to '07) looks better now than it did the day he was fired by AD Dan Guerrero in December 2007.

Did Dorrell lose to USC 66-19 in 2005? Yes. But UCLA just lost 50-0 to a USC team with less talent than the 2005 team had.

Did he go 6-6 in his final season? Yes. But UCLA also advanced to bowl games in each of his five seasons. In Neuheisel's four seasons, the Bruins went to just one bowl game and had a winning record just once.

It has occurred to Dorrell, too. But he moved on from that place a long time ago. Regret gets him nowhere. Only the future matters now. His future and, yes, UCLA's too.

"There's a lot of things I look back on and say, 'Boy, I'm not going to do that again next time,'" Dorrell said. "But the mission in terms of what I wanted to accomplish -- in terms of cleaning up the peripheral of the program, in terms of representing the school well and graduating kids -- that was done. The wins were coming, they just weren't coming at a fast enough rate.

"I probably should have put that more on the front burner instead of the back burner when I was trying to build all those other things up. ... That's the biggest thing I know I'll do, if there is a next opportunity; it is going to be a faster-paced process of getting everything to be maximized and productive as early as possible."

Dorrell said he's interviewed for two college jobs in the past two years and would prefer to return to college someday as a head coach, rather than stay in the NFL. Although his reunion in Miami with former UCLA quarterback Matt Moore has been a pleasant surprise.

"It's funny how it's come full circle. He is such a great kid and right now he's playing his best football," Dorrell said of Moore, whose 87.8 quarterback rating is fourth in the AFC this season. "He's working his tail off, and if he keeps playing the way he's playing, he's going to make a lot of money in this league."

Dorrell continues to praise Moore, and I stop him after five-plus minutes. This interview is about the coach, not how well his new quarterback is playing.

Then I remember who I'm talking to.

"Karl's never been a self-promoter," said Colorado head coach Jon Embree, who worked on Dorrell's staff at UCLA. "That's why I don't think people ever really knew Karl, or gave him the credit he deserved."

That was always the rub on Dorrell, right? He was dull. Boring. Aloof. People appreciated his class and dignity, but never got excited by it.

"Sometimes he'd walk by you and not say anything. That kind of threw people off a little," said a former UCLA player who played for Neuheisel but was recruited by Dorrell. "But I didn't mind that at all. I liked Coach Dorrell, you just had to know him. He was down-to-earth; you could talk to him about anything. All the players liked him. We were excited about playing for him until he got fired."

When Guerrero fired Dorrell, it was mostly because he failed to build off his 10-2 season in 2005. Recruiting fell off the next two years until Dorrell rallied to put together an outstanding 2008 class, which Neuheisel and defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker closed out.

By the end of the 2007 season, it was too late. Momentum had turned against Dorrell. He was perceived as the guy who was able to clean up UCLA after the embarrassing off-the-field scandals of the Bob Toledo era, but not the guy with the moxie or charisma to take UCLA to the next level.

For Embree, the key issue is very different. In his view, Dorrell put too much of his effort into healing UCLA from the scandals of the Toledo era and not enough time into trying to change it and modernize it.

"There's a lot of issues [at UCLA] that were unique, is the best way to put it, that needed to be cleaned up and fixed, and I thought he did a good job of that and getting the program going," Embree said. "But you know, UCLA is a unique place."

In my experience, people use words like "unique" when they are too polite to say dysfunctional or difficult. Neuheisel said much the same thing Tuesday. UCLA has expectations of being a big-time program, but it doesn't spend money like one or have similar academic guidelines with respect to recruiting.

"At some point, you can't bring a knife to a gun fight," Neuheisel said in an interview with ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd.

Both Dorrell and Neuheisel were among the lowest-paid head coaches in the Pac-10/Pac-12 conference during their tenure. Dorrell's assistants didn't fare well until he was able to get them raises in 2006, and even then their salaries were just average.

By 2006, Embree was tired of the commute from Valencia to Westwood every morning. Most of UCLA's coaching staff -- including Dorrell -- lived in the suburb about 40 minutes north of Westwood because housing prices in Los Angeles were skyrocketing.

"Ultimately, for me it just got too much," said Embree, who left UCLA after the 2005 season to become the Kansas City Chiefs' tight ends coach. "It's too hard if you have kids and a family."

Many of Dorrell's former staff went on to bigger things. Embree, Tom Cable, Eric Bieniemy, Brian Schneider and Don Johnson all went on to coach in the NFL. Walker became the head coach at New Mexico State. Jay Norvell is the co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. It is an impressive coaching tree for a coach who lasted only five seasons in his job.

It's also rarely talked about when looking back on Dorrell's tenure at UCLA. Four years have passed, and a lot has happened since then. For some, Dorrell will always be the nice guy who helped rebuild UCLA but couldn't make it big.

There is truth to that notion. But it feels a bit different now. After what came next, and after what he has done since.

Karl Dorrell may have stayed silent all these years, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have something to say. It's actually worth listening to.

"Sometimes you get carte blanche where you can hire who you need and get the resources these SEC schools do, " Dorrell said. "Sometimes you've got to really try to stretch your resources to try to be as good as they can be and make it work. I'm not complaining. We've all had things we need to deal with. And when it was all said and done, it was a great experience.

"I learned from being a first-time head coach and [that] is going to allow me and enable me to [be] better when I get this next opportunity."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.