December 21, 2011
Even at 6-7, UCLA is going to a bowl game. And even at 6-7, that means UCLA players are going to do what they always do during bowl prep: Skip out on a day of practice by going "over the wall" after stretches. This year, that day was Tuesday, when seniors led the rest of the team off the practice field and into a nearby movie theater — you know, for the sake of tradition. From the L.A. Daily News:
"It's a tradition, so I'm OK with it," [interim head coach Mike] Johnson said. "Last week prepared them. We were going to do third down, and last week, we had two days where we did third down, so we're good."
"This is another spring ball for them, so you have a lot of time, a lot of practices. We were ready to go today, but it's not the end all. We'll have everything ready for Illinois. … Instead of having six days, we'll have five."
Predictably, not everyone was quite so laid-back. A handful of younger players made a brief return to the practice field later on, including junior quarterback Kevin Prince, who called the persistence of the stunt "disappointing," and junior running back Johnathan Franklin — a team captain — who promised that next year, when he's a senior, "It won't be happening."
But don't take their word for it. Take his new head coach's. From the Los Angeles Times:
Zero tolerance is UCLA Coach Jim Mora's stand on the Bruins' tradition of going "over the wall."
"It's completely unacceptable and will not be part of the program going forward," Mora said. "It's a privilege, not a right, to play football for the UCLA Bruins. With the commitment you make when you sign on there comes a commitment to do what is asked of you by your coaches on a daily basis. I can just tell you in no uncertain terms that that tradition will not be part of tradition going forward."
Mora said he and Athletic Director Dan Guerrero discussed such matters during the interview process.
"We both agree that the culture of UCLA football needs to change," Mora said. [...] "My general feeling is if they feel they want to skip out on practice and skip over the wall, they might as well keep going because they are not a part of what I want to be part of."
You know you've got a long row to hoe when your first display of "changing the culture" is convincing players to stick around for all of the practices. Then again, UCLA didn't break a 54-year streak of exclusively "in the family" hires to preserve the status quo. It did it for… well, for "grit," or whatever it was that Mora's predecessors clearly lacked.
For the record, former Bruin teammates Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel didn't like the "over the wall" thing, either, even though their old classmates began the tradition in 1980: Per the L.A. Times, Dorrell usually scheduled the skip day in advance, and Neuheisel tried offering seniors their own day off, to no avail. They couldn't stop it. They could barely contain it. By his last season Neuheisel openly wondered if he was the only who still cared, and judging from his team's spotty record, he may have been.
If nothing else, at least Mora arrives pointing his finger in the right direction. Now, we'll see how well "the culture" responds to a little tough love.