UCLA Football Under Terry Donahue – 1996-2015

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Oct 11, 2014; Pasadena, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins helmets during the game against the Oregon Ducks at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Over Thanksgiving, Jack Wang of the LA Daily News dropped a bombshell. In an exclusive interview, former UCLA Football Head Coach Terry Donahue admitted that he regrets having retired so abruptly from UCLA in 1995 and that he wishes he would have continued to coach the Bruins.

Go read the piece for more details on how and why he stepped down and his thoughts on why he wishes he’d have stayed and where UCLA Football is now.

For me, the mind reels with hypothetical possibilities. What would UCLA have been like if Donahue had stayed on? So I’ve crafted my preferred alternate timeline, envisioning the what-ifs and could-have-beens. Some background and framing notes before we move forward:

  • It may be a bit of a stretch, but I’m having Donahue retire at the end of this season. At 71, that’s probably a bit old; 2015 would have been his 40th year at the helm for UCLA. But he is still in good health and you can see by his words that he remains passionate about the program.
  • We are conditioned to think of the trajectory of the UCLA Football program as declining from 1999-2011 and then rebounding in 2012. But remember that at the time of Donahue’s resignation, UCLA had been on a more-or-less steady incline since the mid-sixties. So this alternate timeline is going to start from a higher baseline than we might be used to, living in the post-Karl Dorrell/Rick Neuheisel world in which we do.

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  • In this timeline, Donahue follows through with his stated intention (from the interview) to pressure the school to aggressively emphasize and fully support the football program with the express goal of ‘win[ning] a national championship, to get UCLA up into the very elite echelon of college football.’ This would include state-of-the-art facilities, increased pay for assistant coaches, and an all-around more actively engaged athletic department.
  • Football-wise, the thing to keep in mind with Donahue is that he was above all concerned with consistency and stability. He wasn’t going to take unnecessary risks or run up the score. He would play for overtime rather than risk a loss stretching for the regulation win. His balanced offenses relied on good quarterbacks, a strong running game, and a solid offensive line. His defenses emphasized shutting down the opponent’s passing game.

We won’t be hitting every year in this 20-year stretch, only the key ones. Without further ado, let’s journey through UCLA Football, 1996-2015; what could have been!

Next: 1995