Commentary

UCLA, for better or worse, stands pat

AD Dan Guerrero still sees tremendous effort from Rick Neuheisel and the players

Updated: October 26, 2011, 2:43 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

For the past nine years, we have seen a lot of UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, but heard very little. He's a grinder, not a schmoozer. Deliberate and thoughtful, never slick.

When he talks publicly, it is for a reason. There is both message and method behind his words. So when he called late Thursday night after the Bruins' embarrassing 48-12 loss to Arizona, it was not a rash decision.

"Rick [Neuheisel] is my coach," Guerrero said. "I don't know who is talking about him being relieved early, but it's certainly not me. He's a great Bruin. I want to see him succeed."

[+] EnlargeRick Neuheisel
AP Photo/Paul SakumaRick Neuheisel is 18-26 in three-plus seasons as UCLA head coach.
It was one of the most decisive -- and divisive -- statements Guerrero has made during his tenure at UCLA. The kind of stance that could raise the temperature in his office to a level just a few degrees below Neuheisel's. The kind of action he might later have to defend to people who make far more money and wield far more influence than him.

And yet when Guerrero spoke, he wasn't trying to sound brave. He was just trying to explain a decision he's obviously spent quite a bit of time on.

Firing Neuheisel after a loss like last week might feel good in the moment and might appease the members of his constituency who plan to wear brown paper bags over their heads at UCLA's next home game against California on Saturday, but where would it leave UCLA? And how would it get the Bruins closer to winning any of their final five games this season?

Would a team that most likely would be led in the interim by first-year offensive coordinator Mike Johnson fare better than a team led by Neuheisel?

What would a midseason coaching change mean for recruiting? How would it go over with boosters already annoyed by having to pay off the final two years on former offensive coordinator Norm Chow's contract?

And, most importantly, is another drastic change really what this team needs?

"All this talk about him staying or him going," Guerrero said, "it does nothing for our team that is trying to regroup and go out there every week and play hard and try to win football games."

Over the past four years, UCLA has had two head coaches, three defensive coordinators and three offensive coordinators; the team has changed schemes on both sides of the ball and has used a half-dozen quarterbacks.

Not surprisingly, its biggest problem has been consistency. For every big win over a Texas or Tennessee, there have been inexcusable losses like Thursday's nationally televised debacle against Arizona.

"Football is a large operating mechanism that has to have a lot of components on point," Neuheisel said. "We've had a very difficult time maintaining consistency with a lot of it, whether it be because of injury, whether it be because of changing scheme.

"When we play like we're capable of playing, we do fine, and we've had some great wins over some really good programs. When we don't play up to our level of capability and we're inconsistent, bad things happen."

While there is a self-serving aspect to Neuheisel's self-diagnosis, there is also a large kernel of truth to it.

This was supposed to be the year that Neuheisel finally hired all of his guys and coached all of his players after firing Chow, defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough and two other position coaches in the offseason.

These are his coaches and his players. If he was going down, at least he'd go down feeling like he got to do it his way.

[+] EnlargeGuerrero
Kirby Lee/US PresswireAD Dan Guerrero would want nothing more than have his coach to turn the program around.
The results through seven games have been mixed, but mostly unsatisfying (3-4 record, 2-2 in the Pac-12). They are also inconclusive.

That's one reason why Guerrero picked up the phone and went to bat for his embattled coach after Thursday's loss.

"The reality is, Rick is working hard," Guerrero said. "The assistant coaches are working hard; the players obviously didn't play their best [Thursday], they got thumped pretty good, but it wasn't because they laid down."

That last part is the most important part of the quote. It's what Guerrero was looking for in the second half after the Bruins fell behind 42-7 by halftime. It's what he'll keep looking for as the season goes on. At the end of the season, it's what he'll gauge when he makes his final decision on Neuheisel's fate.

In the next few weeks and months, you'll hear a handful of names mentioned as possible successors if Guerrero decides to move on from Neuheisel after the season.

Names like Boise State's Chris Peterson, former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach or former UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker, who has impressed during his short stint as the head coach New Mexico State.

The list will grow longer, but of that group only Walker seems like a realistic option. Leach probably has too much baggage for UCLA, and Peterson has way too much going for him in Boise to leave for a job like UCLA. Plus, he already turned it down four years ago.

But in the end, Guerrero will come back to the same spot he was in Thursday night.

Which decision leaves UCLA in a better place?

For now that means standing pat and seeing whether Neuheisel can work some magic at the end of the game.

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

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