Cults are curious things.
UCLA hiring Chip Kelly was a strong move. A coach with a proven record, not only around the Pac-12, but nationally. It’ll be interesting to see if he can duplicate the success he had at Oregon.
Ah, but not as interesting as the internet-fueled fawning that has begun. It’s a phenomenon where fan websites have become big-tent salvation shows. The devoted chime in with proper “amens” and paw at the preacher who controls the webpage as he promises to heal what afflicts them — “Brothers and sisters, I bring you salvation in the form of the spread offense … ”
It’s a scary ride along the fringe of any fan base, where rhyme and reason are unwelcome visitors.
There is a soliloquy at the end of “Patton” with George Scott saying:
“For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeteers, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”
Three people should listen to what is whispered — Clay Helton, Dan Guerrero and Kelly.
With Helton as coach, USC has lurched to the top of the Pac-12 heap. It’s a slippery slope.
The sanctions are gone. The reality show feel has disappeared (tune in next week to see who gets fired on the tarmac). The Trojans have back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since Pete Carroll was stomping the conference.
It should be remembered that USC, and Carroll, were trampled by Oregon in 2009, Kelly’s first year as the Ducks’ head coach. Kelly can change the power structure quickly. He took Oregon to new heights, playing in the 2011 national championship game. He did inherit a 10-win team and that helped. But there is no denying he changed the way college football is played.
Helton now has to deal with comparisons and his fringe fan base can rival the Bruins clan in piss and vinegar. The USC and UCLA coaches are always linked and trouble comes to the one who fails that eye test.
Guerrero gets to be the athletic director being praised for the Kelly hire. He also missed three times with football coaches before.
Under Karl Dorrell, the program foundered. Sure, Carroll cast a large shadow from across town, but Dorrell’s recruiting judgement was short-sighted. He decided Reggie Bush was too one-dimensional and told Toby Gerhart he wouldn’t be allowed to play baseball at UCLA. So, they went elsewhere.
Under Rick Neuheisel, the Bruins flopped. It was like watching a traveling Hungarian circus — three acrobats and a gypsy foreteller. Sure, it was entertaining for a time, but very limited. He brought in talent, but didn’t seem to know what to do with it. In the end, Captain Queeg had more control of the Caine.
Under Jim Mora, the Bruins got close. It helped that USC was burdened by NCAA sanctions, but there was some buzz after three consecutive victories over the Trojans. But he couldn’t beat Stanford and waited too long to beat Oregon. There also seemed to be a change in the players brought in. They were too many not team-first guys.
This is Guerrero’s last chance, which was why having UCLA mega-booster Casey Wasserman and quarterback-announcer-kingmaker Troy Aikman running the search was a wise move.
Which brings us to Kelly.
There are challenges to coaching in Westwood. In 2007, the football program received new goalposts, which sat in storage for months awaiting committee approval. Things have loosened up since, but UCLA remains a red-tape madhouse.
Kelly is clearly the man for UCLA at this moment, as Red Sanders and Tommy Prothro were in their days.
Ah, but Sanders and Prothro didn’t have to deal with fan websites. UCLA “slipped” to 7-3 in 1957 and 8-2 in 1958, failing to reach the Rose Bowl both seasons. Prothro couldn’t beat USC with national title possibilities dangling before the Bruins in 1967 and 1969. Let the carping begin.
That big tent salvation show loves Kelly now. He is everything they desired. But these people on the fringe build more monuments than Saddam Hussein. There was “The Passion Bucket” when Neuheisel arrived and “In Mora We Trust” after Mora’s first victory over USC. They also topple those statues like marines reaching Baghdad when the weather vane spins.
The leader of one such cult was once giddy when talking about Neuheisel at first, even saying “he could take a top-10 team into Rutgers in a couple years” where his buddy was running a Rutgers fan site. A few years later, this same bro would call the Los Angeles Times reporter after every UCLA loss to say, “I hear Neuheisel is getting fired.”
The love for Mora evaporated just as quickly. Fans even called in an air strike, hiring a plane to fly a “Fire Mora” banner over the Rose Bowl on game day.
Kelly didn’t just fall off the college football turnip truck. Wacky fans will be nothing new to him (ever been to Eugene?). And, he certainly knows how to control everything in his airspace. But cyberspace? That can be another matter.
Hell hath no fury like a woman, or fan base, scorned.
“All glory is fleeting”.
Chris Foster is a former sports writer for the Los Angeles Times who covered UCLA football and basketball, USC basketball, the Kings and the Ducks. He grew up in San Clemente, arriving long before Richard Nixon came to town. As a teen, he surfed, played football and basketball, and fell in love with sports journalism. He left The Times in 2015.