Aug. 23, 2006
Watch out, USC -- Dorrell is making UCLA a threat again
By Matt Hayes, Sporting News
Eddie is a janitor. Empties the trash, cleans the locker room. He means nothing to you yet everything to UCLA. "No one is more important here," Karl Dorrell says.
It's Day 1 of another season, another opportunity for Dorrell, in his fourth year as coach, to pursue the monster that is Southern California and put his alma mater back on the college football map.
The first full team meeting of the season is the longest -- and most important -- these players will sit through the entire year. Dorrell is talking about character and respect. No one, he says, is better than anyone else. No player, no janitor. He is preaching, and they are catatonic, and he then does something he never has done before.
"Everyone stand up," he says. And now everything is so still, you can hear mammoth lineman Shannon Tevaga breathe.
"Words are powerful," Dorrell says. "There's one word that is a problem on a lot of football teams. That word is the most vulgar, hostile form of contempt in the English language."
Nigger. There's no easy way to say it. Or read it.
It's disgusting, it's vile, and it's part of Dorrell's life -- like it or not. Rising above it, steering clear of it, shaping who he is today. He is one of only five black head coaches in Division 1-A, a number nearly as offensive as the word itself.
Now this meeting has become a sermon -- "to our young brothers and our white players" -- of football and of life. Dorrell speaks of his parents, who once were forced to use segregated bathrooms. Of his father, a career Navy man, who had to explain to his youngest son why the family always drove at night in the South -- then made sure Karl understood that everyone is equal.
"I hear that word spoken freely -- like it doesn't mean anything," Dorrell says, and they're still standing at attention. "It's not a word in a rap song. You have to understand the historical significance of it. That word can divide you, can tear a team apart."
This speech, this lesson, can bring his team together. This team is more talented than his previous three. Bigger and stronger and more, well, more like that school's across town. This team is his team. For the first time since he arrived before the 2003 season, nearly every scholarship player is one Dorrell recruited.
There are seven fifth-year seniors who were recruited by the previous staff, seven players who have bought into and embraced Dorrell's philosophy. This year's freshmen, some of whom could have chosen that school across town, make up his best recruiting class yet. This team is coming off a 10-win season, something only six other teams in school history have accomplished.
The staff believes quarterback Ben Olson, after two years on a Mormon mission and one year sitting and waiting, finally is ready to live up to his megarecruit hype. Remember mighty-mite tailback Maurice Jones-Drew? Meet tailback Chris Markey, who, if he lost a couple of inches, would be Jones-Drew's twin. The interior lines are stronger and more experienced, and the Bruins haven't been this deep at wide receiver in years.
"But if you don't have chemistry," Dorrell says, "if you don't have that brotherhood, you don't have anything."
When Dorrell arrived at UCLA, the program was a wreck. Even worse, that school across town had just finished a season in which its quarterback had won the Heisman Trophy. And because he wasn't Pete Carroll -- because he wasn't a teen with boundless energy trapped in a 50-something body -- and because he chooses words carefully and speaks in measured tones, he was seen as a coach in over his head.
Especially after that first season, when the Bruins finished 6-7 and his time was spent weeding out malcontents instead of teaching. The second season wasn't much better -- a 6-6 record and another loss to a non-BCS team in a meaningless bowl game.
Then came the e-mails, the hurtful, embarrassing and, yes, threatening e-mails. This is what happens when the guy across town recaptures the glory and the Bruins are losing to the Fresno States and Wyomings of the world.
"If they could've hanged me," Dorrell says, "they would've."
It's 8 a.m. the following day in Los Angeles, about 12 hours after the initial team meeting, and it's Media Day at UCLA -- an opportunity for the local media to talk to Dorrell before fall camp officially begins later in the afternoon.
This is the nation's second-largest television/media market, a booming metro of sports, entertainment and hedonism.
And there are eight tired bodies waiting for Dorrell's message -- nine if you count the guy who called ahead and said he was stuck in traffic on the 405. At that other school across town, things got so wild last year the publicity staff joked that each media event was part of the Beatles Farewell Tour.
At one point in the brief Q and A session, Dorrell jokingly yells, "Wake up!" as the back and forth wanes. The night before, he turned on an overhead projector and flashed the Pac-10 preseason media poll -- the one that had UCLA behind USC, California, Oregon and Arizona State. He then placed the national coaches' poll on the projector, ran down the list of 25 and snaked back and forth over the "also receiving votes" until his finger finally landed on UCLA.
"An insult," Olson says.
There's one way to get better in college football: get better players. When that school across town is like a black hole sucking up every five-star stud high schooler north of Tijuana, it makes it even tougher. Yet Dorrell is making recruiting inroads. It began a few years ago with guys such as safety Dennis Keyes, Jones-Drew and Tevaga, who grew up a USC fan but chose to play for UCLA because of Dorrell.
Look, USC still is the king -- not just of L.A. but of the entire nation. But the Bruins are becoming more than just a nuisance on the recruiting trail. UCLA has seven early commitments for 2007, three of whom USC badly wanted, including defensive tackle Brian Price from Crenshaw High School, a Trojan stronghold a couple miles from USC's campus.
"Once you meet him," Tevaga says of Dorrell, "you believe in him."
Three team pictures hang on the wall in Dorrell's office, daily reminders of how far the program has to go. One of the top receivers in school history, Dorrell played on three Rose Bowl champions in 1982, 1983 and 1985.
"Sometimes I'll go in his office just to look at them," wideout Junior Taylor says. "We're close to adding another to that wall."
Considering where they were when Dorrell arrived, that's a remarkable statement. That summer in 2003, a mere 48 players showed up for UCLA's offseason conditioning -- less than half the roster. Three years later, Dorrell is finishing his first meeting and getting emotional as he speaks of the team's 100 percent turnout in summer conditioning -- rare in the college game these days.
"You guys did your part," Dorrell says. "It's time for the coaches to do ours."
The first step was last winter, when Dorrell -- unbeknownst to most -- was pursued by the Chiefs and Raiders for head coaching jobs. The guy in over his head at UCLA had the NFL floating seven-figure dreams in front of him. Dorrell decided to stay put.
"I'm not here as the cleaner," he says. "I will get a lot more satisfaction with my job when we're able to turn this around and bring this program back where it should be."
Dorrell took another step toward returning UCLA to the nation's elite this offseason by hiring respected NFL assistant DeWayne Walker away from the Redskins to coordinate a defense that ranked 106th in the nation in 2004 and 113th in 2005.
"They're horrible on defense," says one Pac-10 coach. "Look at those athletes; I can't figure it out."
Walker can. "They didn't know where the hell they were half the time."
The answer is as simple as eliminating complicated coverages and ever-changing responsibilities, as simple as manning up and tackling someone. Walker will rely on what he has gleaned over the years as an assistant under a few guys who know what they're doing: Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, Panthers coach John Fox and some dude named Carroll.
Yep, Walker was part of Carroll's first staff at USC, the team that lost six games and had finicky L.A. fans wondering whether Carroll was the right guy for the job. Walker also was part of Carroll's New England Patriots staff in the late 1990s. That's when he first met a young coach on his way up, a coach who interviewed for a spot on Carroll's staff but didn't get it.
Who knows what would have happened had Carroll hired Karl Dorrell that day.
"You stay in this business long enough, and it all comes around," Walker says. "That's why the good guys -- the Karl Dorrells -- always rise to the top."
The first meeting of Dorrell's fourth season is complete. Fall camp is hours away. "The journey starts tomorrow," he says.
It started a long time ago.
He walks out of the room and walks into Eddie, who just happens to be walking by. He puts his arm around him and walks away.
No one is better than anyone else.
It's that exceptional moment when you find one who is.