Dorrell takes coaching staff instability in stride

Karl Dorrell has seen an average of three assistants leave in each of his five seasons. But he's not letting the coaching merry-go-round get him or UCLA down, writes Ivan Maisel.

Updated: March 7, 2007, 12:41 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

UCLA coach Karl Dorrell seems like a nice enough guy. He doesn't chain his assistant coaches to their desks. He's not a screamer. From what time I've spent around Dorrell, he doesn't scrimp on deodorant or toothpaste. He doesn't appear to be a tough guy to work for.

Karl Dorrell
Kirby Lee/WireImage.comKarl Dorrell is accustomed to assistant attrition.
Yet as he begins his fifth year in charge of the Bruins, Dorrell has gone through assistant coaches like he buys them at Sam's Club. Some he fires. Some leave for better jobs. Some leave for different jobs. And some -- brace yourself -- actually stay.

Take this offseason. On Jan. 18, Dorrell fired offensive coordinator Jim Svoboda. Eleven days later, offensive line coach Jim Colletto left for the NFL. A full 22 days later, wide receivers coach D.J. McCarthy left to become passing game coordinator at LSU. That's three changes, the average that Dorrell has made since 2003, his first season with the Bruins.

If you're scoring at home, new offensive coordinator Jay Norvell will be Dorrell's fourth offensive coordinator in five seasons. Ditto for the offensive line, where Bob Connelly takes over, and for the receivers, when Dorrell replaces McCarthy.

Secondary coach Gary DeLoach remains the only holdover from Dorrell's original staff, which makes him the Darrell Hammond of this cast.

"This is going to be a positive story, isn't it?" Dorrell asked.

I was about to say, "Yeah, if you work for Mayflower."

The truth is, a strange mash of circumstances has led Dorrell to hire everyone but Bob from Accountemps. Yes, some of the changes have been a result of poor decision making by a young head coach. But some of the changes have been a result of Dorrell's hiring the right guy. Last season, when Dorrell had six new assistant coaches, provided perfect examples of both.

DeWayne Walker
Charles Baus/Icon SMIDeWayne Walker did a complete overhaul of UCLA's defense.
After UCLA went 10-2 in 2005, three Bruins offensive assistants -- coordinator Tom Cable, assistant head coach Jon Embree and running backs coach Eric Bieniemy -- left for higher-paying jobs in the NFL. And because UCLA finished in the bottom 10 in rushing, scoring and total defense, Dorrell fired two defensive assistants and didn't object when a third one fled California for the Midwest.

Dorrell hired DeWayne Walker to run the defense, and the results are startling. There are plenty of statistics to indicate the improvement, but the biggest one read "UCLA 13, USC 9." Dorrell had lost three games to the Trojans by a total of 77 points, including a 66-19 debacle in 2005.

The offense suffered, and Dorrell admitted he made a mistake a year ago when he promoted Svoboda from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. Not only did he have to hire six assistants, but he had to do so in a hurry. Dorrell moved spring practice up from April to February to provide more time for the university to install a new practice field.

"I put together a staff so quickly because we were starting early," Dorrell said. "I probably didn't put together the best situation."

He got the practice field. He also got an offense that scored 16 points fewer per game. Out went Svoboda. In came Norvell from Nebraska, where he already drew enough attention that he interviewed for the Iowa State job after last season. Dorrell fully understands that Norvell may not stay long, either. In fact, Dorrell hopes that will happen.

"We're in an era where coordinators are getting opportunities to move up," Dorrell said. "You saw it in the NFL. Almost all the vacancies were filled by guys who went from coordinators to head coaches, which is great. I have two really good coordinators in DeWayne and Jay. Both of them will be [sought and hired], and I'll be doing what I've been doing the last couple of years. You have to look at the situation and embrace it."

In other words, Dorrell is damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. Hire good coaches and they leave. Hire bad coaches and you ask them to leave.

Really, what do we expect? In an era when universities give a contract extension in the spring and a pink slip in the fall, the notion of staff loyalty is as quaint as long skirts on a cheerleader. But if those days are gone, as Dorrell maintains, hasn't he lost the continuity of teaching his players the same system year in, year out?

There are plenty of permutations of the West Coast offense, he said. The framework of the offense doesn't change.

"It's like Windows," Dorrell said. "It's an operating system, but you tailor it to what you think is important."

When you stop and think about it, Dorrell said, hiring coaches is not all that different from signing players. It comes down to recruiting. UCLA scares off plenty of candidates because of the high cost of living in the Los Angeles area coupled with the state-run university's tradition of lagging behind the national market in coaching salaries. Take Dorrell. He is guaranteed $850,000 with incentives for another $505,000. Why, USC coach Pete Carroll has to work darn near till the end of May to make that kind of money.

"There are a lot of positives," Dorrell said. "I love this conference [the Pac-10]. I love how competitive this conference is. It's a great place to live. There are a lot of positives and there are a lot of negatives. You have to be optimistic about where the program is headed, about where this place can position you …

"You have to show that you're going in the right direction. I have made changes that prove we're going in the right direction most of the time."

All I know is, if the Southern California realtors ever name a college football coach of the year, I've got my candidate. Where Bruins assistants go, home sales follow.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com