Dorrell has UCLA on right path

Originally Published: October 8, 2003
By Ted Miller | Special to ESPN.com

What was UCLA thinking when it hired Karl Dorrell? How in the hell could it hire somebody without any experience as a head coach?

That's so low rent. Big-time programs need big-time coaches, and if a school is big-time or wants to be that way, it must hire an experienced head coach. We know this because, shoot, that's just the way things are.

Oh, sure, some other, minor schools impetuously hired guys with NO HEAD COACHING EXPERIENCE. Oklahoma did that with Bob Stoops. He's doing OK. And Georgia did that with Mark Richt. Fine. Fine. And there's Jeff Tedford at California. Yeah, he's all right, too.

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  • Those guys are different, special even. But Karl Dorrell?

    Got to be social engineering. Got to be affirmative action. Where's Rush Limbaugh when you need him?

    See, Dorrell is black. If he shook hand with Notre Dame's Tyrone Willingham, they would form a human chain of all the African-Americans currently running BCS programs. Of course, in defense of college football's progressive attitude, it must be mentioned that black men currently are head coaches at two of the other 117 Division I-A programs.

    It's not like folks weren't patient with Dorrell. UCLA and its one senior and five sophomore offensive starters opened with a 2-point defeat at Colorado, and only a few started grumbling. But after an unimpressive win over Illinois, a blowout defeat at top-ranked Oklahoma and a tough victory over San Diego State, enough was enough.

    Dorrell, a former UCLA receiver, offensive coordinator at Colorado and Washington and assistant with the Denver Broncos, obviously wasn't ready. He joked about not knowing where to stand on the sidelines during his first game. His West Coast offense was a flop. Four games were plenty of time to pass judgment on him and his lack of credentials.

    And then UCLA scored 39 unanswered points in the second half and trounced then-18th-ranked Washington, 46-16.

    Never mind.

    Ah, the fickle tide changes in college football -- one week you're a callow disaster; the next, you're a talented young coach. Dorrell, 39, knows he now lives in a fishbowl. Dry, cerebral and relentlessly focused, he's not ready to claim victory over his myriad critics just yet.

    "A one-week reprieve," he said, laughing for perhaps the first time in five weeks, "until the following game."

    That game is a visit to Arizona on Saturday. Arizona used to have a head coach with lots of experience. John Mackovic went 10-18, alienated nearly every one associated with the program and was unceremoniously booted on Sept. 28.

    "Obviously they have had their own issues," Dorrell said. "But I believe in this conference that any team can surprise you."

    Now that sounds like a coach. Somewhere, Lou Holtz is smiling.

    But the problem for Dorrell is he can't just be a coach. He has to operate as a symbol. While Willingham was a known quantity after a successful tenure at Stanford, Dorrell was not. His success or failure will have larger ramifications, unlike Stoops, Richt or Tedford.

    If he succeeds, opportunities for black assistant coaches figure to increase. If he fails? Well, let's just say that will be duly noted in backroom nods and whispers among boosters and athletic directors looking for someone to take over their program (Arizona, anyone?). They will lump Dorrell in with a small group of African-Americans -- Bobby Williams at Michigan State and John Blake at Oklahoma -- who were justifiably fired after being elevated from assistant to head coach.

    Dorrell doesn't want to be a spokesperson for a cause. He wants to be fairly judged on how he performs. He also knows that it isn't that simple, even in 2003, considering the number of black head coaches has increased by just three since Willie Jeffries was hired at Wichita State in 1979.

    "We're in a situation where there isn't fair representation," Dorrell said, without noting that about 50 percent of college football players are black. "We're at that point where we're trying to get that issue resolved."

    The impressive victory over Washington hushed the gadflies for at least a week. But they're lurking. UCLA figures to be favored in its next four games -- God forbid that the Bruins should lose -- which could set up a Nov. 8 visit to Washington State with considerable ramifications.

    Of course, every game has ramifications for Dorrell.

    "Definitely, I see a building block," he said. "I think the foundation has been set for quite some time. Maybe that's harder for you all to see compared to what I've seen for the past four or five weeks."

    Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

    Ted Miller | email

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