Sunday, July 21

Tanner’s Take: Maybe champions are really made in Palo Alto


The UCLA Athletics marketing department has a challenge ahead.

For 21 years, every piece of promotional material – even the athletics home page until Monday – proudly touted the Bruins’ place atop the collegiate world with the most NCAA championships in history.

Those days are very nearly over.

A recent dry spell of only five national championships over as many years left the doors open for Stanford to come in and snag partial ownership of that coveted title. While the Cardinal conquest isn’t complete – the Pac-12 schools are now locked at 113 championships – the momentum is certainly not in Westwood.

The Bruins have held the distinction of ultimate NCAA champion since 1996, when they overtook the USC Trojans for the first time in the rival programs’ histories.

The power appears to be shifting again, and UCLA fans should be asking themselves a key question: Are champions really made here?

Let’s start with some perspective: 113 national championships is an incredible historical feat. Five titles since 2012 is also nothing to frown at, but when Stanford tallied 11 in that same span – all in sports UCLA also competes in – it might be time for a bit of an evaluation.

For far too long, any criticism after an all-too-common UCLA letdown could be shut down by a quick response that, hey, at least the Bruins had the most national championships. It was the ultimate fallback.

But the women’s water polo team’s loss to Stanford over the weekend continued a trend of recent disappointments that put UCLA in this position.

Coach Brandon Brooks’ program alone has fallen to the Cardinal in each of its past three trips to the championship match.

If Brooks’ squad had won two of those three, the national championship race would stand at a comfortable 115-111 margin and this column likely wouldn’t be written until 2020. But here we are. And it’s time for UCLA Athletics to take a serious look internally to figure out what needs to change going forward.

Pointing to cases of trophies from decades past is simply an attempt to distract fans with shiny objects. It’s a feel-good tactic that masks the mediocrity of an athletic department that hasn’t figured out how to win recently.

Winning isn’t everything. I get that. But most Bruin coaches have higher salaries than my professors. Donors are pouring millions of dollars into new buildings and fancy amenities for a tiny subset of the student body. Many students themselves are paying hundreds of dollars to support the high-profile teams.

It’s frustrating not to get a return on that investment, especially when the university and the athletic department collectively lack a sense of urgency. There’s more competition in college athletics these days, so nobody should expect programs to win at the pace they did in the last century. But Stanford has clearly adjusted and adapted.

How about a renewed commitment to turning failing programs around? Or should we continue to pretend UCLA track and field wasn’t a perennial powerhouse back in the day?

The past five years, specifically, have seen programs like men’s soccer bring in a revolving door of stellar recruiting classes, only to deliver disappointingly mediocre finishes time and time again. History is a selling point for recruits – and ticket-paying fans – until it isn’t.

The criticism doesn’t fall on one person, or program, alone. There’s probably a good case to make that Athletic Director Dan Guerrero is the problem. There’s just as good of an argument that, above all, this goes back to the players and coaches themselves.

Ultimately, it’s an issue the department must address across the board, whether that means taking a hard look at who is coaching UCLA’s teams or at the administrators that are making the decisions.

The marketing department doesn’t have much of a choice but to adapt. I can promise that “No. 2 in national championships” won’t have the same ring. But in the end the real challenge isn’t going to be for marketing directors working on branding campaigns in the J.D. Morgan Center.

The wake-up call will be for coaches, players and administrators who must collectively take the blame for a fall from power – a reality check that no Bruin fan really wanted.

Click here to view a high quality version of the graphic with this story.

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Alumni director

Walters is the Alumni director. He was editor in chief in 2016-17. Previously, he was an assistant editor in the Sports Department and has covered men's soccer, men's volleyball and men's water polo.

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  • RoycePowell

    Spot on review of the current athletic situation at UCLA….Stanford has already won 4 NCs this sports season alone and will be competitive for #114 in baseball and men’s golf….Enough with the marketing smoke and mirrors and fluff…we need to get the drive and hunger back. Track & Field has been a joke…Jorge Salcedo has taken year after year of top recruiting classes and created an average culture. Our baseball team, after an incredible NC year a few years back, is a solid .500 program every year now. Women’s volleyball has not performed well recently as well as our men’s vb team. Lot’s to talk about but more to actually do. Dan G is going to have to change his marketing motto to “Championships Made Up North”…or “Donuts Made Here”….Go Bruins!!!!

  • MichaelPCole

    Thank you for writing this. There has been a finger in a leaking dam for far too long.i might add that Ucla athletic department also lost out on championships when they eliminated men’s swimming and gymnastics to comply with Title IX. The elimination of gymnastics was especially detrimental as we had just won a National Championship a year or two before. If we continued with that sport there would likely be 5 more. As for the elimination of swimming, that had the unintended effect of making the women’s team good but never great. If they consulted anyone, they would have found out that one needs both programs to recruit the best athletes. Hence, women’s swimming will never compete for top honors.

  • Dunc Wilson

    It starts and ends with the expectations at the top. If you’re satisfied with the good ol’ college try; if you’re satisfied with “good showings”; if you’re proud of red ribbons, then UCLA is the school you’ll always enjoy supporting. We got room for ya!!

    There’s been an effort over the last ten years or so to get rid of the old Morgan Center faithful – thankfully. You can’t find many more people there that think the “UCLA way” is the best way. You won’t find many sports hiring good-old Bruins (because Bruins know best, right?) anymore. There seems to be new root gaining footing there; Young minds with fresh perspectives. But there’s still a few who have been there far too long – holding on to out-dated structures, beliefs and appreciations for red ribbons. Unfortunately, the guy calling the shots there sadly takes great pleasure patting everyone on the back despite the long string of losses.

    This will become a marketing failure any minute now – Stanford’s in another gear. A transition at the top is urgent now. Just imagine the quality of the resumes UCLA would receive for the Athletic Director opening? Better to do this while UCLA can claim top honors.

    Dan, it’s time my man. It’s totally OK to retire now and hands the reigns to a hungrier, younger, more talented professional.

  • Denis Furlong

    You failed to mention that while UCLA fields 23 teams (10 Men and 13 Women’s) across all sports, Stanford fields 36! 16 Men’s teams and 20 Women’s teams give you a lot of chances to win. Squash? Synchronized Swimming? Lightweight Rowing? Fencing? Sailing? Yes, Stanford field NCAA Teams in these and many other sports. I don’t think any other college in the country has 36 sports. Maybe Army? Just saying….