Commentary

Dan Guerrero knows the terrain

UCLA AD has had plenty of success, but he knows he'll be judged on football

Updated: January 27, 2011, 8:02 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- The ring on his left hand is simple and forever. A marriage band.

The ring on his right hand is gaudy and not long for the public spotlight. A national championship ring.

On this day, Dan Guerrero is wearing the ring commemorating UCLA's 2006 national championship in men's volleyball. But as soon as I -- or anyone else for that matter -- asks him which ring he's wearing, Guerrero will take it off, put it back into its box and change into another of the 20 national championship rings he has accumulated during his nearly nine years as UCLA's athletic director.

"It's all sequenced," he said. "My deal is, whenever someone asks me which one I'm wearing, I take it off and put on another one and wear it until the next person asks me which one I'm wearing."

It was -- until this column is published, anyway -- Guerrero's little secret and possibly the only public bow he takes for what is a fairly remarkable achievement: UCLA has won more national titles in Guerrero's tenure than any other school.

Dan Guerrero & Rick Neuheisel
US PresswireDan Guerrero, left, says of football coach Rick Neuheisel: "My hope is that Rick is here for a long time."

There are two reasons for that: Guerrero has never been a flashy, in-front-of-the-cameras guy; but mostly it's because all anyone ever really wants to ask him about is what's happening with his struggling football and basketball programs.

"Those are the economic drivers. Those are the ones that draw the most attention in our fanbase and from a national perspective. I understand that," Guerrero said.

"I'm the first one to know what people think. When the clock hits zero at a football game we lose, my BlackBerry's on my hip and it starts buzzing and it doesn't stop for about 50 buzzes … which means that people have already written the e-mail and are just waiting to push send.

"One day it might explode on my hip. I get it."

He's just as frustrated as everyone sending him messages on his BlackBerry after a loss.

UCLA is his alma mater -- the one job he wanted from the day he began this career path and the last job he probably ever wants to have.

Every one of us has a job like that. Most are simply dreams. Very few of us ever get to live them.

The movie usually ends when the main character reaches his goal, as if everything falls into place after that and rolls along happily for the next 40 years.

But life is more complicated than that. Loose ends rarely become perfect bows.

And so the man who grew up in nearby Wilmington shows up to work every day, trying to treat his dream job the same way he treated the jobs that got him here. Grinding it out, checking in with his gut to make sure it's still aligned with his moral compass, and reminding himself that success isn't a permanent condition for anyone, but a never-ending game in which we all have to play.

"Being the athletic director at your alma mater, it's very different than being at another school," he said. "Especially for someone like me, who would've never got a scholarship if it wasn't for my ability to hit a curveball and turn a double play.

"I would've never been at UCLA. I probably would've been a longshoreman like a lot of the guys who grew up in Wilmington. But I had a chance to come here and it's given me a chance to have a great career and a great life."

It is in this respect that Guerrero shares a bond with his football coach Rick Neuheisel, who walked on to the Bruins' football team five years after Guerrero finished playing baseball, and grew into a Rose Bowl-winning quarterback.

This is Neuheisel's dream job, too. The one job he wanted from the day he began coaching. The one job he'll never want to leave.

"In Rick's case, was it an absolute that I hired someone that was a Bruin? No, it really wasn't," Guerrero said. "But I did value the fact that he got it and this really meant something to him.

"That coming back to his alma mater, in light of everything he had to deal with … in the past, it's an opportunity for redemption. That's why I think it will be such a great story when he turns this thing around. We believe that's what's going to happen and we want it more than anybody."

He did not pause on that last statement.

Guerrero chose Neuheisel to be his head football coach three years ago for a specific reason.

"I know he understands UCLA," Guerrero said.

I had asked Guerrero what made him like Neuheisel in the first place, not why he hired him. So it was, in some ways, an impersonal answer. And especially so when compared to the answer he gave to the same question about basketball coach Ben Howland.

"He was hard-nosed, tough, passionate, committed. I like that. We needed that in this program," Guerrero said of Howland.

But Guerrero's answer to the question about Neuheisel also was surprisingly revealing. This was not a sentimental hire. Two gutty little Bruins looking out for each other.

It was two gutty little Bruins looking each other in the eye, exchanging a knowing glance, and realizing it was going to take more than guts to turn the football program around.

It was going to be a grind and both of their faiths would be tested along the way.

"He understands the unique aspects of this culture," Guerrero said. "I can assure you with the highest degree of confidence that a lot of these great coaches that are out there, if they came to UCLA they'd struggle. Because the things that they can control, they can control. The things they can't control, they can't control."

Neuheisel is the second football coach Guerrero has hired. Karl Dorrell was the first. Guerrero fired him after he went 35-27 in five seasons. Neuheisel is lagging way behind that pace with a 15-22 record through three seasons.

The record is important. It's the bottom line in a bottom-line business. But Guerrero also seems to be measuring them on a personal scale. He hired them for different reasons, so he'll fire -- or retain -- them for different reasons.

"I loved Karl. Having to fire Karl was very difficult," Guerrero said. "I hired Karl in a situation where I felt that he would come in and give us what we needed at that particular time.

"We needed, for lack of a better word, healing in our football program. I brought him in in a tough situation. It was his first head job, the guys across town [at USC] were going crazy. They were building a dynasty. I needed for him to come in and heal this program and get us moving forward, which he did.

"In his third year, we had a 10-2 year and things kind of blossomed all at the right time. Drew Olson had a great year, we had Maurice [Jones-Drew]. … All those things were there for that one year and then it wasn't there after that."

The next year UCLA went 6-6, taking a step backward.

But Guerrero says it was UCLA's failures in recruiting after that 10-2 season that compelled him to make a change.

"Rick did not inherit a pat hand," Guerrero acknowledged. "You'd like to push the button and go straight to the penthouse. But it doesn't happen that way. You still have to build step by step and that's what we're doing.

"I think I'm probably more patient than others in my profession because I know and understand the nuances of UCLA. It's not only different, it's much more difficult in a lot of ways. So you have to be able to give a coach that opportunity to make that change, to turn that program around."

Neuheisel has had three years. Guerrero says he's committed to at least a fourth. He likes the way Neuheisel goes after recruits relentlessly and vigorously, he likes the accountability he shows to fans at the Rose Bowl after losses.

But mostly he says he likes that losing bothers Neuheisel as much as it bothers him.

"There are a lot of quick triggers in our business," he said. "I think there's a lot to say for evaluating the program and whether the needle is being moved forward and to what degree. Whether or not you feel that if you continue to stay the course that you'll eventually get there.

"The bottom line is, we have to produce a winning program and I believe with all my heart that we can do that and I believe Rick gives us the best chance to do that at this point."

The longer Neuheisel takes to turn UCLA's football program around, the harder it will be for Guerrero to continue to lend that support. He will get 100 messages on his BlackBerry after a loss, instead of 50.

But Guerrero did not want to consider that line of thinking.

"Now you're speculating," he said firmly. "My hope is that Rick is here for a long time."

He seemed neither afraid of making a decision about Neuheisel's future in the next two years, nor eager to do it.

His hope really is that Neuheisel wins enough to be UCLA's coach for a long time.

He is also realistic about the bottom line.

"I'm going to make the decision that I feel is the right decision for UCLA and our program," he said. "If it means that I stay with a coach longer than what other people would want, that's a decision I have to make and one I have to live with. If it means I have to pull the trigger, then I'll pull the trigger."

These should be breezy times for Guerrero. In a down economy, he has somehow moved along multimillion-dollar projects to update Pauley Pavilion and the Rose Bowl.

He earned high marks during his five-year term as chair of the NCAA Division I men's basketball committee.

He rotates through a collection of 20 national championship rings.

But all anyone wants to talk about is what's ailing the basketball and football programs.

"I understand that," he said, neither asking for nor expecting sympathy.

He took this job with eyes wide open, knowing the distinct educational and financial challenges UCLA will always have to deal with.

He also embraced it.

"A lot of the successes I've had, they don't just happen," he said. "They happen because I'm a grinder. Because you're able to deal and fight through adversity. You're able to take one on the chin and fight back and prove people wrong."

Like the ring on his left finger, always and forever a gutty little Bruin.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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