December 2, 2007
His offense ran off the field for the last time, their soiled and bandaged jerseys passing his spotless and pressed jacket.
They didn't look at him. He didn't look at them.
Moments later, he was jogged off the Coliseum field followed by five policemen who proved entirely unnecessary.
The large UCLA cheering section did not acknowledge him. He did not acknowledge them.
Five years ago, on a chilly day in Colorado, the Karl Dorrell era at UCLA began with the new coach disappearing under the moment, leading me to write that the Bruins had gone from "Holy Toledo to Holy Ghost."
Fittingly, this is also how the era probably ended Saturday at the Coliseum, on a day holding that same chill.
Such a good, decent man.
Such an invisible head coach.
The Bruins were wiped out by USC, 24-7, in a game featuring four turnovers, 10 penalties and peculiar play calling.
It was just like Dorrell's first game five years ago, a two-point loss to Colorado featuring bad management and brain cramps.
On Dorrell's first Saturday, the Bruins lost when a roughing-the-passer call led to a touchdown, when they ran out of timeouts in the final two minutes, when they gained just 38 yards rushing.
On possibly Dorrell's last Saturday, the Bruins lost when another roughing-the-passer call led to a touchdown, when they chose to give USC an extra down after a penalty that led to a touchdown, and when they rushed for just a dozen yards.
This is not progress.
And this is ultimately how Dorrell should be judged when UCLA officials meet Monday to make a decision on his future.
Don't judge him on his players' improved off-the-field behavior. Since Athletic Director Dan Guerrero was hired several years ago, that sort of behavior has become expected.
Don't judge him because his players play hard. Isn't college football one of the last bastions of sports where everyone plays hard? Since when is that a sign of good coaching?
Don't judge him because of recent injuries. This is not about five games, it's about five years.
Finally, don't judge him because you think he, as one of college football's six African American college coaches, has been treated unfairly because of his race. To do so trivializes the truly serious racial problems that still beset many less influential African Americans in the workplace.
Los Angeles may have racial problems elsewhere, but they rarely surface in the sports world, where this city's color-blind sports fans have supported African American basketball coaches, Asian pitchers and Latino owners.
So how should Dorrell be judged?
If you want a build a program for the future, judge him on the past.
If UCLA wants to be considered a big-time football program again, then it needs to judge him based on the work of Pepper Rodgers, Dick Vermeil and Terry Donahue during a stretch in the 1970s and 1980s.
The program won 70% of its games during that time.
It needs to judge Dorrell based on that sort of smart, consistent winning.
Once again Saturday, in a big game, his team showed none of those things.
"We didn't take advantage of the opportunities we had," Dorrell said. "You can't afford to make those kind of mistakes, and we made those kind of mistakes."
For five years, they've been making those kinds of mistakes.
On Saturday, they were sudden and suffocating.
Midway through the second quarter, they had already committed a game-full of blunders that stole all chance of taking the momentum from the slow-starting Trojans.
They had lost two fumbles.
They had been forced into a defensive timeout when confused players were running madly around the field.
They had thrown an illegal block that nullified a good interception return.
They had smacked John David Booty in the face to keep an eventual touchdown drive alive.
"We could kick ourselves," said the Bruins' Bruce Davis, grimacing. "We shot ourselves in the foot."
In the last five years, how many Bruins locker rooms have echoed that same statement? How many dozens of Bruins have shared that same expression?
And then, in the final minutes of the second quarter, it got appropriately, absurdly worse.
After USC's Terrell Thomas grazed Terrence Austin on a fair-catch punt return, the Bruins' Trey Brown apparently said something to the officials and was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. Then Dorrell angrily walked several yards on to the field to argue the call, and the Bruins were given a sideline warning.
Then, oh yeah, the ensuing lost yardage eventually led to the Trojans acquiring the ball near midfield and driving for a field goal.
"When something bad happens, you always look at the head man," said cornerback Alterraun Verner. "But we're all in this together."
Late in the third quarter, when they had the ball at the USC 42-yard line and trailed by just 10 points, they were indeed in it together when the defeat was clinched.
The coaches called a silly gadget play. Brandon Breazell, taking a reverse hand off from his wide receiver position, immediately dropped the ball back into the hands of USC.
The Bruins were never that close to scoring again, and afterward it was time to search for Dorrell votes of confidence.
Athletic Director Dan Guerrero? "I have nothing to say, we'll meet on Monday," he said.
Quarterback Patrick Cowan, who could be next year's leader? "I'd like to only talk about the USC game," he said.
Dorrell also would not issue a news conference statement about his future, even when asked if he felt he had been treated fairly in the process.
"I don't want to comment on that," he said.
During five years of consistent disillusionment, Dorrell has been given every possible chance to succeed.
No matter what he decides, it is time for Guerrero to give his football program the same.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.
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