Sunday, June 16

Eric Billigmeier: Fearfully familiar fate for football

Sixteen years old without a care in the world except who the Bruins played in football on Saturday. That was me in 1989. After purchasing my first car that year, my first thought was not of the beckoning, scenic highways of America. No, it was more along the lines of, “Cool, now I can get to the Rose Bowl by myself.” Basically speaking, my very happiness depended on the Bruin gridders.

Poor fool.

The year 1989 has been bounding around my noggin lately, as a result of the, ahem, performance of the 1994 UCLA footballers. Now, I don’t hark back with similar UCLA-wins-or-Mom-catches-hell-for-a-week emotions. Because, as a few of you know, I couldn’t give two rat dookies what happened last Saturday in Seattle – maybe one, but most certainly not any more than that.

Sure, I admit I threw some inanimate objects – including my roommate – across the apartment at certain junctures Saturday. (Fourth down and short. Seventy-two thousand maniacal fans barking against you. Time for … an audible? Are you serious?)

But still, my reaction to Washington, 1994 was nowhere near that of, say, Tennessee, 1989. And not even in the same universe as USC, 1988 and ’87. Yet while my heart feels more stable (and less attached to UCLA’s fortunes) this year than ever before, my gut keeps yanking me back to the last football season of the 1980s. As hard as I try, I can’t get away from that 3-7-1 feeling.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before …

UCLA football at its pinnacle. Confidence riding high. Good deal of talent returning. Upon first (and second and third) collision with a quality opponent, Bruins get ripped a new, um, earhole.

Fairly accurate description of this year’s bunch, yes? Well, for those of you who didn’t realize we had a football team before you came to campus (perhaps there are a few Cornhuskers out there who would claim we still don’t), the preceding message was brought to you by the Society for Reminiscing About the Worst Year in UCLA Football History (that’s 1989 for all the slow types out there).

I’m the president of that club, probably because I’ve metamorphosed into a bit of an emotional masochist of late. But don’t you agree, ye historians?

Here’s a fun game for those who can remember back to the mid-high school era. Hold up both hands and start counting the similarities between the 1989 and 1994 seasons/teams. With each comparison, lower one finger. I bet when you’re done, you end up eating straight off the plate.

Here’s my version:

Left thumb – High expectations. In 1989, the Bruins were coming off one of their most spectacular seasons ever, having held the No. 1 ranking for a week in 1988 and ranked sixth to kick off ’89. This year, UCLA entered play eight months removed from a Rose Bowl appearance. Plus, the Bruins had their quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate wide receiver returning for their senior seasons.

Right thumb – Major losses to the NFL draft, but optimism not particularly dashed. Five years ago, UCLA watched seven players go pro, including five in the first four rounds. Among them Sir Aikman and everybody’s favorite role model, Darryl Henley. This past spring, five more Bruins flew the coop, all in the initial five rounds.

Left index – Season opens with Tennessee. (I cheated, that was an easy one. Hey, I’ve gotta come up with 10 of these, so cut me some slack).

Right index – Early-season squeaker against horse-crud-opponent. In ’89, it was the beloved San Diego State Aztecs, bless their hearts, who took us to the wire but fell, 28-25. Those poor bastards, they’ll probably never find a way to beat a Pac-10 team - oops, sorry, Cal.

This season, we almost (should have, perhaps?) fell to mighty Southern Methodist, the proud alma mater of Eric Dickerson, Craig James and my Uncle Tim.

Left middle – Performance in September match-up with a highly-regarded national power gives cause for optimism. Five seasons back, the Bruins hung tight, losing 24-23 at Ann Arbor against a Michigan club then ranked fifth in the country. This year? How about Tennessee? So we know now that they suck eggs. Nobody knew that on September 3. As far as we could all tell then, the close call this year in the season opener was a great win over a doggone good football team.

Right middle – Bruins take one on the chin from cross-sectional rival. In ’89, the Volunteers spanked UCLA in Pasadena, 24-6. Granted, Tennessee was unranked at the time and not nearly as worshiped as the 1994 Nebraska club that handed the Bruins their collective lunch last month. But it’s food for thought, at least.

Left ring – Uh, Terry Donahue was the coach. (So I cheated twice. Sue me.)

Right ring – In first real test of conference schedule, Bruins look doggedly piss-poor. Arizona provided the 42-7, eye-opening thumping five years back. This year, it was the booooo! Washington boooooo! State boooooo! Cougars. Did someone hear complaints about the UCLA crowd’s behavior? Twenty-one points for the Palousers, zero for the just-plain-losers.

All that leaves is a pair of pinkies. If any of you Bruins were following along, you might want to save those last two fingers for the Oregon State game, when – if you put on another Wazzu-like performance at the Rose Bowl – the students (if any choose to show up) will undoubtedly let you have it once again.

Scary as it is to admit in a “Defending Pac-10 Champions” year, 3-7-1 just doesn’t seem all that far away right now.

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