UCLA’s problem is its athletic director—not its coaches

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So UCLA fires football coach Jim Mora on his birthday last Sunday with one game left in the season. Why so precipitously, especially the day after the Bruins played a much better USC team very competitively? There is no getting into UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero’s brain to answer this question, but it was probably because he was breathlessly hoping to lure former Oregon coach Chip Kelly to take the job. But it seems as if there’s at least an equal chance that Kelly is headed for Florida.

Other rumors are that Guerrero is lusting after Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin. This would make more sense because he fits Guerrero’s desire for mediocrity. Like the coaches he has hired for his two major sports, Mora, Rick Neuheisel and Karl Dorrel for football and Ben Howland and Steve Alford for basketball, Sumlin has never won anything. Even though coaching the school with the eighth largest endowment in the country, over $10 billion, his six year record at A&M is a lackluster 65-44, which equates to losing approximately one out of every three games.

Last Friday I was at a party and met a man who was a former quarterback for Bo Schembechler at Michigan. He was here accompanying his daughter who is a star high school athlete in three sports, including track and field. She was interviewing at USC. I asked her why she did not interview at UCLA. She said she was not interested in UCLA because of the “coaching problems” there. That’s a telling commentary on Guerrero’s achievements over the past 15 years.

Guerrero’s defenders, and there apparently are a few, point to all the NCAA titles UCLA has won. UCLA has, in fact, won more NCAA titles than any other school. But under Guerrero they haven’t won anything in the only two sports that really count in the grand scheme of things, football and basketball.

According to reports, Guerrero has asked two people to help him choose a new football coach, Troy Aikman and Casey Wasserman. Wasserman, as President and CEO of the Wasserman Foundation, a charitable organization founded by Lew Wasserman and his wife Edie in 1952, donated millions for the new football building about which I wrote last week. Aikman is a former UCLA and Dallas Cowboys quarterback, now a TV commentator. I don’t know how much either knows about hiring coaches. Wasserman, now basically a rich agent, owned a team in the Arena League for whatever that’s worth. Just because he donated a lot of money and owned a minor sports franchise doesn’t mean he knows anything about choosing a good coach.

There are, however, three people with close strong ties to UCLA who know a lot about hiring coaches. They are former UCLA head football coach (for 20 years) Terry Donahue, former UCLA assistant basketball coach Jerry Norman (who is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about both basketball and football; in fact I would call him a savant), and former assistant athletic director (to the legendary JD Morgan) Angelo Mazzone, who negotiated contracts for Donahue and former UCLA football coach Dick Vermeil and former UCLA basketball coach Larry Brown, among others. If Guerrero is really interested in getting the best football coach available, he should appoint these three as the recruiting committee.

As bad as Guerrero’s judgment is in picking football and basketball coaches, the contracts he gives to them are worse. He signs them to long term contracts with huge buyouts. Because the coaches he hires are mediocre at best he does not need to negotiate and give away the store to get them to sign up. Most of them are panting to get the job offer and will sign virtually anything.

Even if Guerrero does not consult with Mazzone about which coach to hire, he should obtain and follow Angelo’s advice on the structure of the contract he offers to whichever coach he hires. My understanding is that Mora is going to be paid in excess of $12 million as a buyout solely because of the unwise contract Guerrero awarded him. (Basketball coach Alford apparently has a similar deal).

You might have to give someone with a lifetime record of accomplishments like Alabama’s Nick Saban a contract with huge incentives, but not people like Mora and Alford. This is a frivolous expenditure of taxpayer money and it’s unacceptable.

Tony Medley is the author of three books including “UCLA Basketball: The Real Story,” the first book written on UCLA basketball. Visit TonyMedley.com.

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