Ranking 20 Years of UCLA Defensive Coordinators

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Nov 2, 2013; Pasadena, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins coach Jim Mora reacts during the game against the Colorado Buffaloes at Rose Bowl. UCLA defeated Colorado 45-23. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Despite some good UCLA Football defensive teams and plenty of legendary defensive players you’ll be telling your kids about, I’d argue that the Bruins are still largely known to the casual fan as perennially bad at defense.

This is both unfair – because it’s inaccurate and ignores the stretches where defense carried the team – and yet understandable – because of some very high profile defensive disasters and a lack of a consistent defensive identity or a tenured defensive coordinator.

UCLA Bruins
UCLA Bruins /

UCLA Bruins

This post will evaluate and rank each of UCLA’s defensive coordinators (DCs) since Terry Donahue left after the 1995 season. I choose this cutoff point because Donahue’s tenure was so long and his personality was so stamped on his teams that it would be difficult to single out any of his coordinators for influencing their unit’s culture and performance. Additionally, the 1996 season is far enough back give us a range of DCs and a healthy appreciation of the Bruins’ defensive (d)evolutions.

The list of coordinators we will be ranking:

  • Rocky Long | 1996-1997
  • Nick Aliotti | 1998
  • Bob Field | 1999-2000
  • Phil Snow | 2001-2002
  • Larry Kerr | 2003-2005
  • DeWayne Walker | 2006-2008
  • Chuck Bullough | 2009-2010
  • Joe Tresey | 2011
  • Lou Spanos | 2012-2013
  • Jeff Ulbrich | 2014

We’re ranking coordinators rather than seasons, so each coordinator will be assessed by the totality of his body of work. Factors that I will consider include statistics – scoring defense (SD), total defense (TD), Defensive Fremeau Efficiency Index (DFEI), Defensive S&P+ (DS&P+) ratings; strength of schedule (SOS); number of NFL-drafted players on defense; and notable defensive performances, both good and bad. That said, there’s no rubric here. In the end, my rankings are entirely subjective and bordering on arbitrary.

These rankings are entirely subjective and bordering on arbitrary.

A note on the statistics: DFEI and Def. S&P+ come from the work of Brian Fremeau and Bill Connelly of FootballOutsiders. DFEI is a measure of possession-by-possession efficiency in preventing opponent scores. Def. S&P+ is a play-by-play combined metric of efficiency and points-per-play. I’m looking at how the defenses ranked in these metrics rather than the specific value, so the details of how they’re calculated aren’t that important for this piece, but I do recommend familiarizing yourself with these statistics as part of the next/current wave of college football analytics.

Additionally, stats are harder to find the further back I go. So I won’t be able to provide all of the stats for all of the DCs. The value of my analysis should be judged accordingly.

We’ll work our way from the bottom up, starting with the worst UCLA defensive coordinator of the past twenty years.

Next: The Worst