Christon Chronicles: Successful year awaits UCLA Athletics after challenges of pandemic
(Ashley Shue-Lih Ko/Daily Bruin)
By Jon Christon
June 6, 2021 7:39 p.m.
How lucky am I?
Last year, in this same column, my predecessor talked about the uncertainty of UCLA Athletics for the 2020-2021 school year. He discussed the challenges ahead of the Bruin community because of the COVID-19 pandemic and wondered if there would even be any sports to write about.
It’s safe to say I’m in a different situation entering my time as Sports editor.
Not only are sports back in full swing, but UCLA is on the verge of another golden age.
Starting from the top, Athletics Director Martin Jarmond already looks like a slam-dunk hire. He won his first national championship with men’s water polo before the ink dried on his contract, and his first major move bringing Jordan Brand to Westwood made waves among fans and athletes alike.
But even above Jarmond, things are moving in the right direction. Ineffective Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott was replaced with George Kliavkoff, whose introductory press conference was dedicated to his plans to get the conference more exposure and success. He discussed the expansion of the Pac-12 Networks and also ways for the Conference of Champions to compete more on the biggest stage against other Power Five conferences.
UCLA, however, doesn’t need this kind of help for most of its sports already. The Bruins added one national championship with the aforementioned men’s water polo title, and multiple teams, like beach volleyball and women’s water polo, made it all the way to their respective championship games. A number of other teams also made memorable postseason runs.
Perhaps no other run will be remembered more than men’s basketball’s Final Four journey that captivated the country. But the success won’t end with just the one unlikely trip deep into March.
The Bruins are set up for the future and ranked preseason No. 1 in a number of polls, while Westwood is also the future home to multiple five-star recruits. Mick Cronin is building something special, and the past success of UCLA men’s basketball appears to be back on the horizon.
Though Cronin isn’t the only basketball coach in Westwood building something significant. Cori Close has led the women’s basketball team to six NCAA tournaments and has finished within the top five of the Pac-12 for six consecutive years. Close has also reloaded this offseason, picking up nine recruits in just a two-month stretch after the season ended to help the Bruins get right back in the thick of things next year.
Even the sports that had down years are back on the upswing. Gymnastics finished with its worst ranking since 2006 this past season, but has a ton of young talent. Coach Chris Waller has been doing work on the recruiting trail for UCLA’s arguably most popular team.
I could go on and on, but the point is obvious – every UCLA team can make the case they are on the verge of big success. Stanford currently has the lead in all-time national championships, but I wouldn’t put it past the Bruins to challenge the Cardinal and potentially take the lead within the next few years.
However, with great talent comes great responsibility – UCLA must take advantage of this success for a number of reasons.
First, this is an unprecedented opportunity for the university. The Athletics department lost money in each of the last two years, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made matters worse. With success from athletics, the school can recoup its losses.
Take men’s basketball for example – its Final Four run helped the Pac-12 make nearly $40 million in NCAA tournament unit shares that will be distributed to the 12 member schools. This is on top of all of the exposure the Bruins got that will lead to increased season ticket sales and UCLA-branded Johnny Juzang jerseys flying off the shelves.
From the perspective of the athletes themselves, UCLA can do them a great service. Student-athletes’ ability to profit off their name and image likeness has been a prominent national talking point and will be voted on in Congress in the near future.
If UCLA lives up to its potential across all of its sports, a number of the big-name Bruins could potentially be rewarded for their talents for the first time ever.
Finally, the Bruin faithful must be rewarded for staying committed through the thick and thin of the pandemic. With students being ushered back to Westwood after a challenging year away, the least UCLA can do is reward them with a good product, especially with the announcement that graduating seniors will be offered a Den Pass for the 2021-2022 season.
The point is, everybody needs this – the school, the athletes, the students, the fan base and the entire Bruin community.
It’s time for UCLA Athletics to live up to its potential.