Gold: Burn, Hollywood, burn -- how it all went so wrong in La-La Land
For those with a zip code that doesn’t start and end with 90210, the death of the dreams of 2 once-proud college football programs might be a bit of a surprise.
After all, USC entered this season with sky-high expectations while UCLA was coming off its best season in years.
The Trojans have the returning Heisman winner, for Heaven’s sake! The Bruins had a star-studded defense and a new 5-star quarterback primed to take over.
They also had coaches stuck in their ways. In the end, the stubbornness and misguided loyalty of both USC’s Lincoln Riley and UCLA’s Chip Kelly proved to be fatal flaws.
And now where are we? USC has lost 4-of-5 heading into its regular-season finale. UCLA has fallen in consecutive weeks to scorching Arizona and slumping Arizona State.
Both of their seasons? Massive disappointments.
But not shocking to those who follow the programs the closest. I caught up with Podcast of Champions co-hosts David Woods of Bruin Report Online and Ryan Abraham of USCFootball.com to get a better sense of what went wrong in La-La Land and if we should have seen this coming.
1. Recruiting missteps
UCLA: Gets off to a bad start
Kelly’s first real recruiting class in 2019 was a bust. Ranked 44th nationally, the Bruins landed just 2 4-stars and zero 5-stars. A year later, they improved to 31st, but still no 5-stars. The next year, 2021, again showed a modicum of improvement, but only a few players from that class ever made a difference.
“Starting with when Chip was hired, right off the bat, we noticed a lot of recruiting issues,” Woods said. “That’s the lifeblood of what we do, so we pay close attention. Chip was ignoring star ratings, going after measurables, height and weight requirements, rather than leaning on people evaluating talent, all of which has been proven to be accurate in a large sample size. They eschewed a lot of that. One of the main advantages of UCLA is access to these recruiting hotbeds, and from the jump, he ignored the recruiting potential of UCLA.”
USC: Struggling in the NIL era
The Trojans’ recruiting missteps are a bit more nuanced. It’s more than the swings and misses in the transfer portal, of which there have been several.
The Trojans have had some big successes in the portal but haven’t been as effective in the high school ranks as expected.
“It’s been an issue for sure; the first year hit the portal hard and it made sense, especially on the offensive side. They did more on defense this year, but it’s hard to replace good defensive line recruiting and development. It’s a combination of things. Riley was known as a pretty good recruiter, but the landscape has changed. There is definitely a different philosophy when it comes to NIL. They’ve been really reluctant to dip their toes into the high school waters in that way. And what made USC attractive before might not be what’s attractive to the kids right now. If you’re a little out of it for those guys before it gets started, it can be a problem. It’s just not there yet. They’re not at the place where they need to be with NIL.”
2. Going for broke
UCLA: All eggs in the 2022 basket
The stars appeared to align for the Bruins last year, with veterans all over the field, including in the backfield and the offensive line. But with a defense lacking discipline, UCLA’s talent topped out at 9-4.
It didn’t help that Kelly put all his eggs in the 2022 basket.
“There were obvious red flags before now, starting with Chip not running the blur. He went to a pro-style offense, multiple tight ends. And the proof of concept was last year, to have an NFL quarterback, running back, wide receiver and 3 NFL linemen,” Woods said. “But that’s proof of the negative in the process. You’re not able to get to that level with NFL players starting all over, that is something only Alabama can do and Georgia can do. UCLA can’t do that. You need advantages with your scheme.”
What was Kelly’s motivation to veer away from what made him one of college football’s great minds at Oregon?
“Getting into the psych of it is difficult. It’s the innovator’s curse. Once they catch up, can you innovate again?” Woods said. “When I look at that offense, it’s stuff you see every Sunday. I haven’t seen a whole lot of creativity. I don’t know if it’s his natural contrarianism. Is the sky blue? Well it’s grey today. So he goes double tight end compressed because everyone saw my blur. Like, that will show them?”
USC: Everything on Caleb
Let’s be clear: Caleb Williams is some kind of superhero. That much is clear, but even superheroes have weaknesses.
Riley put his full faith in Williams but the reigning Heisman winner seems out of gas.
In the end?
“You ruined a season where there could’ve been something special,” Abraham said.
3. Blind loyalty
UCLA: Too much Azz-kissing
The best thing you can say about Kelly is he’s loyal. It only took him a half-decade to think outside of his box.
“If you’re looking for a defining decision, it was hiring and retaining Jerry Azzinaro for 4 years,” Woods said. “It was a failure. There were better options than his old D-line buddy from Oregon. He wasted pretty good defensive talent. Cascading failures on defense. They were bottom 40 and couldn’t get over the hump. That’s coaching failure and hiring failures. He’s not an offensive coordinator. He has to manage all levels of the program and he flat neglected the defense for way too long.”
USC: The Grinch who stole the Playoff
The fact that Riley did not deem Alex Grinch’s performance at Oklahoma unsatisfactory speaks volumes about the deep, lack of seriousness that is at play here.
“A lot of it was the loyalty factor. Grinch was with him at Oklahoma and the first guy on the plane when Lincoln said he was leaving,” Abraham said. “I think he wanted to make it work, and the results in Oklahoma were mediocre, but there was a path forward. But he wasn’t really on the market. When you look at it, they had an opportunity to get someone new, last year was where the real opportunity was. But then once you had all the issues you had last year, there was a great opportunity and his reasoning was you wanted to keep some staff continuity. But the results were historically bad last year and he attributed it mostly to personnel. Get some better personnel … and it didn’t get better.”
4. The relationship game
UCLA: Kelly clams up
When it came to dealing with the local media, Kelly has treated it somewhere between a root canal and a colonoscopy. But his prickliness extended further:
“Donor relations, fan relations, media relations are not his strong suit — he doesn’t like it and he doesn’t put effort there,” Woods said. “Donor relations is always a hidden part of the job, and now it’s fundraising literally for building your roster by itself. Even at 9-3 every year, failing at that is a fireable offense. But the second factor, you don’t have any goodwill built up. For Chip Kelly, at this point, lots of coaches go through periods of being embattled, and 8-4, 9-3, 6-4 on the surface are not fireable records, even if there was never a breakthrough win. But when you glad-hand with fans, you’re going golfing with donors, a lot of people will stick up for you. He doesn’t have that built in base.”
USC: Riley’s goodwill runs short
It’s not like Riley’s USC start is a bad one, but his insistence on sticking with and excusing the failures of Grinch has left the fan base fuming.
“I’m shocked. If you hire a guy who had the resume of Riley, you give him a chance,” Abraham said. “I don’t know if it’s PTSD from years of this. But a chance at the Playoff and a conference championship and you win the Heisman. And you’re upset?!
“But just imagine you flip Year 1 and 2; you go 8-4 beat and beat UCLA and then go 11-3 and win the Heisman, they’re not so upset. The order it happened you raised the bar.”