UCLA football embraces change
Rick Neuheisel and Norm Chow experiement with 'the pistol' offense
LOS ANGELES -- The game plan has been scripted. Plays, sequences and strategy for the UCLA Bruins season opener against Kansas State have been long since debated in meeting rooms and around long tables.
On Sunday, a copy of those plans were delivered to the players. On the front of the book was a quote from Madame Chiang Kai-shek, picked by offensive coordinator Norm Chow:
We write our own destiny. We become what we do.
The Bruins devoted large chunks of their spring and fall practices to installing a new offense -- "the pistol" -- in the hopes of invigorating an anemic rushing attack.
On the eve of this season, Chow and coach Rick Neuheisel say they have no idea how this experiment will turn out.
"We're anxious to see what it looks like on Saturday," Chow said. "It could fall flat on its face, we don't know. But we're excited about it. We've worked awfully hard and we've done a lot of R&D."
Chow and Neuheisel are two of the most accomplished offensive minds in college football. But at the end of last season, they sat in a room and admitted that what UCLA had been doing wasn't working well enough.
UCLA simply didn't have the personnel to pull of the schemes it had been running. The Bruins ranked 97th among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in rushing offense last season, up from 116th in 2008. They averaged only 22 points a game last season, following 2008's abysmal 17.7 points a game.
Something had to be done.
"We couldn't sit and tell ourselves something, like some person looking in the mirror, that we're skinny, when we're not," Neuheisel said. "You've got to go on a diet. You've got to face the facts. We needed a change in who we were as a running team."
After some debate about which muse to study, Neuheisel and Chow found themselves in Reno, Nev., where coach Chris Ault's Wolfpack featured three 1,000-yard rushers last season and led the nation in rushing yardage. R&D, as Chow calls it.
Hardly. Just about every summer Chow makes one of these trips. Over the years he's talked shop with other college, professional and high school coaches.
"One of my favorite quotes is from Mahatma Ghandi, 'Consistency is the refuge of fools,'" Chow said. "You always have to learn. Football is a game of adjustments. It's like a pendulum. The offense comes up with something, then the defenses adjust. Then the offense has to come up with something else.
"Every place I've been, I've adapted. That's what people don't understand. It's not like Norm Chow has a system. That's a bunch of baloney. You fix it to the players that you have."
The installation process has been slow and choppy. Spring ball was rough. Fall camp has had its moments, though it's hard to accurately gauge the Bruins' development because starting quarterback Kevin Prince has missed most of it with a strained oblique muscle.
But Neuheisel said he's enjoying the process and wouldn't change his decision to mix things up.
"We sat and talked about that the other day," Neuheisel said. "We're actually enjoying it because it gets your creative juices going again. It's new territory.
"And now, in talking to the guys [at Nevada] who helped us get this thing started, we're even calling them and saying, 'Hey, you gotta try this.'" The excitement in Neuheisel's voice is noticeable. There are few things coaches enjoy more than a good chalk talk session with another coach, and he and Ault have spent a lot of hours on the phone since UCLA decided to study the principles of the pistol in April.
Like Chow, who has adapted several times from the high-flying attacks he designed at BYU in the 1980s and '90s, Neuheisel made this kind of an adjustment before.
"When I took over at Colorado, we changed from what Coach [Bil] McCartney had had for our offense, which was primarily two tight ends and two wide receivers," Neuheisel said. "We went to a lot of three-wide receiver sets because we felt like we had the equipment to do that and we ended up having a pretty prolific offense.
"Well, when we moved to Washington and brought that offense with us, we didn't have the pieces to do it as effectively as we needed to. We had to come up with something else."
He said Huskies quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo and fullback Pat Conniff had been high school teammates in Woodinville, Wash., where they ran a triple option.
"So we decided that maybe the way to get defenses to behave -- because & you have to force the defense to play at your tempo rather than vice versa -- we could implement some veer. Those kids had been part of that mechanism for years so we kind of let them teach us."
After installing the veer, Neuheisel's Huskies won 18 of their next 21 games.
"It was just about finding the right formula to give yourself a chance to run your offense and run it effectively," Neuheisel said. "That's what we're hoping the pistol does for us this year."
We write our own destiny. We become what we do.
UCLA begins this season in adaptation, implementing something new, changing something dysfunctional.
"There's always something to learn," Chow said. "Football moves on. But that's what makes it fun."Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.