The Contested Leadership of Football Coaches of Color

Posted on October 29, 2011 by


UCLA Bruins Football.

Every season without fail, I get excited and amped up for it.  We win a few games, even pull off a few upsets.

Then the rest of the season happens.  Disappointing performances, punctuated by close and blowout losses seasoned with random wins against mediocre teams, just for effect.

The fact that “we” haven’t been good since 2005, I usually hop off the bandwagon by mid-October.

Maybe I watch a little of the annual Battle for the Victory Bell against SC, but in my time of fandom, it’s likely turned out to be a slaughterfest in favor of the boys in red from South LA (incidentally across from where my street-toughened Waddles, the mommy, handles shit as a school nurse in the most dangerous neighborhood in LA).

UCLA football wasn’t always that bad.  I do remember bits and pieces of when they were good.  There was Skip Hicks.  There was Cade McNown.  There was DeShaun Foster.  There was a 7-year streak of beating USC.  There was a 20-game win streak from 1997-1998.

But those days are so 12 years ago.  Now, were seeing half-full stadiums, coaching meltdowns, fights, and tons and tons of losses.

Every high school/college program goes through those rough seasons.  UCLA is no exception.  But it’s been a good 6 years now since we had one of our better seasons and 5 years since we’ve beat USC.

The only things to hope for is the recruitment of talent, proper deployment of the talent, and a leadership that will grow that talent and eventually pave the way to team success.

A Tale of Two Coaches:  Rick Neuheisel and Karl Dorrell

Usually in college football, the most visible symbol of that guiding leadership is the head coach.

The incumbent coach of UCLA, Rick Neuheisel, has had the worst and only losing record in UCLA history in his 4 years.  His current record is 18 wins and 26 losses.  For a relatively well-resourced institution like UCLA and given the history of every UCLA coach having winning records, the record is wildly unacceptable.

Prior to him, there was Karl Dorrell who had a record of 35 wins and 27 losses, that gap in losses, being driven apart on the strength of a single 10 win 2-loss season, which saw a thrashing at the hands of USC.  Karl Dorrell wasn’t the greatest coach and I had the feeling he couldn’t quite cut it at that particular moment in his career.

Before his exit in 2007, he took quite the beating on a popular UCLA Bruins blog called BruinsNation.

I thought the comments from the bloggers were extreme.  And this is from someone who peruses tons of comments on articles, blogs, message boards related to sports.  That blog is the most antagonist and close-minded group of fans I’ve seen.

Dorrell was blamed for “destroying a program.”  He was  labeled a “fraud.”   He was called upon to “prove himself” thru what the bloggers called a “show me” season.  His only crime was just not being good enough to coach.

The comments were “extreme” in the sense that I doubted they would talk the same way about a white coach.

Karl Dorrell is black.  One of few in college football.  The comments made about him were not racist per se, but they tended to talk about him like he wasn’t trying his best for UCLA.

Karl Dorrell was just wanted out and gone as early as his 3rd season.  He’d been largely seen as unqualified, and raw;  he did not have any coaching experience.  However, I think the BruinsNation ilk went overboard when they developed two websites dedicated just to his eventual ouster.  When you Google “Dump Karl Dorrell” you still see ipetitions, a blog called Fire Karl Dorrell, and even a Facebook page called Dump Dorrell, Hire Neuheisel.

In the present day, we have Rick Neuheisel.  Rick Neuheisel is the whitest-looking coach I’ve ever seen.

In the 1980s, Rick Neuheisel had been a bit of a prototypical-rise-to-fame story.  He started as a walk-on, became a starter, and won a Rose Bowl.  Interestingly enough, Karl Dorrell was a wide receiver for those teams, a “typical” position for quick, fast-running black guys, which for many does not translate an association with “capable leader.” In sharp contrast, Neuheisel’s story as this rise-to-fame quarterback, a leader, predisposed many fans to wanting him to succeed that much more as a coach.

Four years later, he’s the most failed football coach at UCLA.

But you might miss that if you gandered at the milieu of fan comments about him compared to the ones about Dorrell on BruinsNation.

Firstly, when you Google search “Dump Rick Neuheisel,” there are no petitions, blogs dedicated to his ouster, but rather columns and articles from websites.

Yes, there are some calls for Rick Neuheisel to resign.  However, more often than not, they aren’t the directed, furious, calls.  Some have this idea that they even want to retain him.

I’d mentioned that the bloggers had demanded of Karl Dorrell to have a “show me season”.  Fair enough.

But perhaps the standard is not so fair when you consider what happened to the insinuation of instituting the same thing for Rick Neuheisel.

BruinsNation:  Always in Search of a Leading Person of Color to Blame

The mere mention of a “show me, season” for Rick Neuheisel was quickly shot down by the very blogger, Nestor, who’d posted that Karl Dorrell needed to “prove himself” in 2007.  Instead of sharing frustration with the season, the blogger labeled the poster who made the comment “a quitter” and hinted that he best vacate the blog.

In other words, the fan questioning Rick Neuheisel wasn’t a “true UCLA fan.”  Meanwhile, somehow you were a “true UCLA fan” at BruinsNation if you participated in the unabashed bashing of Karl Dorrell.

Whenever Karl Dorrell’s Bruins lost games, the losses were his alone, and pinned on his perceived incompetency.  Whenever Rick Neuheisel’s Bruins lost games, the losses were everyone and the UCLA Bruin family’s losses.

With Dorrell there is just a sense that fans were pissed off.  With Neuheisel, there is a sense that fans are merely disappointed.

Everyone and their moms at BruinsNation was more or less happy with going for Rick Neuheisel as the spirited leader for the Bruins back in 2007.

This, despite a spotty record which saw him violate rules and lead his teams to progressively worse seasons.

Reactions to his hire from that blog were very optimistic.  Comments centered around how Rick Neuheisel would establish himself as a great, charismatic leader.   By implication as a leader, he would not need to cater to whatever then-defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker would demand. All the decisions would rest on what Rick Neuheisel alone wanted, as opposed to what politics dictated.  Here’s some reactions from back in 2007:

After all that was batted around by the Chow and Walker (CHOKER) factions, we have ourselves a coach with successful head coaching experience.

It’s a good thing Rick is so enthusiastic, because he’s got a hell of a cleanup job to do. – tydides

There must be no question who is calling the shots. There will be no power struggle, because if DW stays he must have no power, and will only be there by the good graces of RN, not because the administration wants him.

DW must be “under consideration” for this job by RN. –tydides

Needless to say, I’M JACKED!  And relieved.  I’ve always felt that RN was the logical choice, though I have to say that several of you had me happily prepared for a Mike Leach or June Jones announcement.

My fervent wish now is that RN can effectively and SUCCESSFULLY lead this program for 20 years.  Finally having a legacy coach, a la Paterno, Bowden, Osborne or Bryant, would ice my cake. – secondgenbruin

…A massive thanks to Dan Guerrero for keeping his word and hiring a successful experienced head coach. Not my first choice but he fits the bill.  We can now shut down the site in the next week or so.  2 long years … but Im effing happy to say Mission Accomplished!!!!! Go Bruins!!! – Bruincore, editor of Dumpdorrell, website previously dedicated to haranguing head coach Karl Dorrell

I would have charged only about $500 to “find” RN for UCLA.

What did UCLA paid that firm?

Anyway, welcome back to Bruin Nation, Rick.  We’ll be all rooting for you, a REAL COACH for a change. – bluegold

Even after the worst season since 1934, BruinsNation fans have even continued extracting positives from Neuheisel’s tenure.  Some fans have made comments about the talent level he’s recruited,  “at least the cupboard’s not bare“.  Interestingly enough when someone challenged that comment, the same BruinsNation blogger, Nestor, got mad and threatened to throw out the the commenter.

Instead of outrage directed at Rick Neuheisel, BruinsNation has found ways to distribute blame.

There is a contingent of people on the blog who think that it wasn’t all Rick Neuheisel’s fault for sucking as a coach.  In the mind of these bloggers, it was actually the work of his subordinates that were preventing him from achieving his full potential.  The other subordinates in question, incidentally a Chinese guy and a black guy.  One commenter said that keeping coordinators Norm Chow and Dewayne Walker were detrimental to the progress of Rick Neuheisel.  They didn’t allow Rick Neuheisel to “establish his own imprint.”  Never mind that Norm Chow’s coached NFL quarterbacks Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Phillip Rivers, and some other USC quarterbacks who made us look silly.  Never mind that DeWayne Walker presided over a defense that held then-#2 USC to just 10 points.

In the latest hullabaloo, the BruinsNation have since re-focused their angry activist energies on firing the Athletic Director, Dan Guerrero.  Yep, a Latino.  We’ve covered the blaming of an Asian guy, a black guy, another black guy, we were due for this one.  Of course BruinsNation is the only blog where this is actually a serious topic of discussion.

Dan Guerrerro is the Athletic Director. Who the fuck talks about an Athletic Director?  As in the guy responsible also for a winning basketball program, a winning baseball program, a winning track team, hell the most title wins in his tenure than any other school.  And the drums are beating loud as ever for his ouster…at BruinsNation and some site called Occupy UCLA Athletics, which is basically a petition to fire a fairly successful guy.

The dumbest suggestion I’ve seen and hasn’t been shot down is the idea of firing Dan Guerrero, successful with every other sport but football, and retaining the losingest coach in UCLA history, just to see “how he does” as if Guerrero is some kind of contagious bad influence on Rick Neuheisel.

If what Guerrero does for other sports is considered “bad”, then maybe he needs to spread more of what he has onto Rick Neuheisel.

Dan Guerrero is painted on Bruinsnation as an “enemy,” he’s seen as an outsider as opposed to someone whom people wish success and would want to help.  Interestingly, this “movement” is energized by a poster named “MexiBruin.”  This brings up questions of whether he’s trying to overcompensate how Mexican and non-biased he’s not.  He’s collected over 1,000 signatures.

I can’t name another athletic director in the NCAA, nor are they really a topic of discussion by college football pundits, but what do I know, I don’t blog for BruinsNation.

Back in 2007, my pick for head coach had been Norm Chow.  Him being Asian, and a very ripe 60 years old, he was perceived as “not having the personality” and perhaps over the hill to be “head coaching material.”

Rick Neuheisel ended up hiring Norm Chow as the offensive coordinator, a position he’d been very familiar with for over 30+ years.  Sure enough in his least successful 3 years as Offensive coordinator, he ended up baring the brunt of the criticism on UCLA’s offense up until his departure last year with many rumors of how Neuheisel and Chow butted heads.

In the end, Chow exited from UCLA stage left to the BruinsNation ambivalence, while Neuheisel may soon follow.


I talk about and unconsciously analyze sports because they represent a collection and interface of important symbols for many people.  Personally, I’ve become attached to the Chicago Bulls, FC Barcelona, Chicago Bears, Chicago Cubs, Michigan Wolverines football teams because they symbolize what I’d been loyal to since I was a kid.

Sports are where dramas are played out.  They have characters, stories, tensions, and conflicts, all settled in a matter of 2-4 hours.   Sports is the fantasy of meritocracy played out in public, where who “makes it” or “earns it” can be established relatively quickly and painlessly.   They are also a vehicle for many to pontificate about what “should” be done to suceed, who “should” win, who deserves blame.  Teams and individual players can be a representation, if not an extension of fan’s moral values in everyday life.  Sports is an arena where those values and morals represented by teams, indvidual players, and morals, clash.

Football at the college and pro level is a vehicle for those moral values to clash over and over.

These teams and individual players are symbols who are seen by tons of people.  They are a common reference point for aspects of American culture.  The symbols are always argued over.  Sports fans, whether online or in person argue all the time about who should be playing where, who needs to play more, who needs to play less, who should lead the team.

Team leaders are especially a contentious topic, particularly in regards to quarterbacks and head coaches in football.  We’ve lamented the fact that there is a lack of support for black quarterbacks at both the college and professional level.  When Rush Limbaugh was with ESPN for a brief period, of course he had to make comments about a successful black quarterback named Donovan McNabb:

 “I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.

I realize that Limbaugh is just one TV personality, but he voiced what people probably do want to say.  Fans, most of whom want to think of themselves as being “smarter” than Rush, usually say it in a way that they believe excuses them from being considered racist.   If you just take away the sentence of “The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.”, then you get a paragraph you hear all the time and might see on any other blog.

“I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.

The credit for the team’s success is attributed to anyone else, “in spite of” the leader’s incompetence.  The Eagles won in spite of Donovan McNabb.  The Bruins beat #2 USC in spite of  Karl Dorrell and didn’t even do it as well as Jim Harbaugh did at Stanford.

Over the years, there has been much written about highlighting the paucity of black coaches in both college and professional football.

What has been established as “normal” as in “normally successful”, if not “natural” is a dynamic where the white guy is perceived as the ultimate if not “real” leader.

Everyone else everyone else seems to be considered “temporary”, and somehow “not real”, “less complete”, and/or “less than.”  Transient renters passing by, rather than permanent residents.  They are perceived to be less than authentic.  It’s a drama we see writ large with President Barack Obama and the many times he has to prove that he’s not Muslim and that he is indeed a citizen of the United States.

Usually if the leader in question is  seen as  less than “authentic”, fans are not likely to identify with them.  And if fans don’t identify with them, they likely look at the coach as another object to be ostracized, crticized, rather than a subject to be sympathized with, and understood.