Plaschke: Making UCLA football relevant again needs to be at top of Martin Jarmond's to-do list

Bill Plaschke
LA Times
Martin Jarmond was officially hired by UCLA as their new athletic director on Tuesday. <span class="copyright">(Steven Senne / Associated Press)</span>
Martin Jarmond was officially hired by UCLA as their new athletic director on Tuesday. (Steven Senne / Associated Press)

In one of his first official acts as the new UCLA athletic director, Martin Jarmond phoned Chip Kelly.

Here’s hoping his first official words to the Bruins' famous football coach went something like this:

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Jarmond is young, energetic, and engaging enough to convince UCLA officials to give him a six-year contract worth an average of $1.4 million annually without ever personally meeting him.

But none of that matters if he doesn’t fix football.

Jarmond, 40, from Boston College, is known as a terrific fundraiser and forward thinker who can inspire rowdy students and stately boosters alike.

But nobody will care if he doesn’t deal with the lifeless elephant in the room belonging to Kelly.

“Obviously football is very important,” Jarmond told The Times’ Ben Bolch on Wednesday in an introductory interview that replaced a pandemic-prohibited news conference. “We need football to be successful; I’m committed to winning in football and basketball.”

Basketball is cool. Basketball is in good hands. Mick Cronin is working it. The Bruins won 11 of their last 14 games before the shutdown and Pauley Pavilion became alive again.

Football is the problem. Football is a mess. Football is a train wreck engineered by a seemingly untouchable $23.5-million former genius who has done little besides losing games and alienating fans.

If Cronin is the pleasant housewarming gift from retiring athletic director Dan Guerrero, Jarmond will soon discover that Kelly is that ignored crack in the foundation.

Guerrero famously hired him, richly paid him, gave him complete control, then stood idly by as Kelly lost 17 of his first 24 games while playing in front of the smallest Rose Bowl crowds in history.

Jarmond needs to stick his nose in there and see what’s up.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly watches the Bruins lose to Utah in a largely empty Rose Bowl on Oct. 26, 2018. <span class="copyright">(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)</span>
UCLA coach Chip Kelly watches the Bruins lose to Utah in a largely empty Rose Bowl on Oct. 26, 2018. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Football is too important economically for the new guy to stand on ceremony. Football’s revenue shortfalls affect too many other UCLA teams — the ones that actually win national championships — for the boss to defer to the legend.

“I’m looking forward to learning and getting in and understanding from Chip how I can help him and the program be successful,” Jarmond told Bolch, adding, “The one thing I can tell you is, I’m going to lock arms with him and try to make sure I’m doing everything I can to help football be successful; you have to do that — that’s nonnegotiable.”

That "lock arms" stuff is nice, except Kelly can have an exceptionally tight grip. Tough questions need to be asked, and Jarmond needs to hold his ground and ask them, and that’s what needs to be nonnegotiable.

Why is Kelly so reluctant to make changes to a system that has yet to win a nonconference game and is 0-4 against Group of Five opponents? Why did he just give a new contract to longtime buddy Jerry Azzinaro even though the Azzinaro-led defense has finished ranked 100th or worse in his two years there? What’s with training-table costs that are five times the price paid by his predecessor?

And why have more than 70 players left the program with eligibility remaining since Kelly arrived? Even with NFL departures and those with medical issues, that’s a lot of defectors.

Jarmond said his initial conversation with Kelly was positive, but of course it was.

“It was a great conversation, he’s excited for me and I’m looking forward to working with him,” said Jarmond, later adding, “I’ve heard great things about him from people in the industry.”

Jarmond also gained Kelly intel from the coach he just hired at Boston College, Jeff Hafley, a former Kelly assistant with the San Francisco 49ers.

“He shared some thoughts about Chip and I’m just looking forward to getting there and working with him,” Jarmond said.

Jarmond should not be fooled by talk of past Kelly glories, even though he was actually witness to one of those moments. The only time he’s ever been inside the Rose Bowl was for the 2010 Rose Bowl game between Ohio State and Kelly’s Oregon Ducks.

Ohio State won, but Kelly’s program was on the verge of becoming a national power, and the game drew 93,963.

If Jarmond walked into that same venue in the last two years, he would see a lost team awash in a torrent of boos and thousands of empty seats.

When then-coach Jim Mora was at the height of his popularity six years ago, UCLA was raking in $20 million in ticket revenue. Last season, the Bruins’ revenue dropped to $9 million, which is, coincidentally, the same figure as Kelly’s buyout.

Something has to change. Kelly needs to adjust. His system needs to evolve. Somebody outside the program needs to get involved. That somebody needs to be Jarmond. Somebody needs to ensure that the clock on Kelly’s tenure is now ticking. Again, Jarmond.

“Just like Chip would tell you, we want to win more games than we lose, obviously,” Jarmond said.

That’s an awfully modest goal for the new leader of an athletic program in this town. In most other situations, that statement would be criticized. But right now, it seems reasonable. That’s how far the UCLA football program has fallen.

Welcome to Westwood, Martin Jarmond. Introducing you to Chip Kelly. Now lock those arms and let the wrestling begin.

What to Read Next