LOS ANGELES -- The UCLA seniors rode high on the shoulders of their teammates last week, a sendoff traditionally reserved for the last on-campus practice of the season every year.
They beamed with wide smiles as the underclassmen thanked the seniors for a job well done by parading them off the field toward the locker room.
For much of the past decade, the tradition was carried on as more of an honorary tribute to players who had endured four or five tough years doing the daily grind of football and school. This year, however, there was a little more spring in the step of those carrying their teammates and a little more pride in the smiles.
This senior class is going out on a higher note than just about any other in 12 years. UCLA (9-4) plays Baylor (7-5) on Thursday night in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego as a program pointed toward success. The departing seniors deserve much of the credit after persevering through a roller-coaster past four years before finally pushing the program to the brink of something special.
This was arguably UCLA’s most successful season since the 1998 Rose Bowl championship team. Only the 10-win 2005 season would come close, but that year did not include a victory over USC and this year did, which automatically vaults it up a couple of notches on the prestige scale in Westwood.
So, after fighting for respect and struggling for three or four years to get the UCLA program back on track after a long stay in the clutches of mediocrity, this year’s senior class will go out confident that they did a little extra something to deserve the shoulder-ride sendoff.
“This is what I came to UCLA to do,” said running back Johnathan Franklin, who will leave as UCLA’s all-time leading rusher and single-season rushing record holder. “Turn this program around and take it to a place that it will be remembered.”
The program clearly needed turning around. Since last winning the conference title in 1998, UCLA had gone 81-80 and hadn’t finished higher than third in the Pac-10/12. From 2008 to 2011, the first years of many of this year’s senior class, the Bruins were 21-30 and had a winning record only when they went 7-6 in 2009.
For the past few years, the players have talked about changing the culture and turning the program around, but never seemed to be able to do it. This year, the Bruins defeated USC to end a five-year drought against their crosstown rival and definitively won the Pac-12 South title.
“Of course there are doubts,” tight end Joseph Fauria said. “When you are 4-8, 6-7, whatever our records were, there is a little doubt. But you keep grinding, keep working and keep trying your best. In the end it worked out in the end and I’m glad it happened. There is no better feeling than being part of a program that isn’t doing so hot and changing it.”
The No. 17 Bruins are now firmly entrenched in the top 25 rankings and with new coach Jim Mora at the helm and with a strong core of young freshmen -- including quarterback Brett Hundley -- leading the way, they are now viewed as a legitimate team on the rise.
Those are things the outgoing seniors are sad to be leaving, but knowing the program is in a better place helps ease the sting of not being a part of what may be to come.
“I wish I had one more year,” safety Andrew Abbott said. “I’d give anything to play with these coaches for one more year. It is cool to be a senior and being a part of a program that’s changing. I tell people all the time that there is something special going on at UCLA. I tell recruits that they’d be a fool not to come here and enjoy what’s going on.”
The senior leaders played a big role in getting the team to this point. Players such as Franklin and Abbott as well as fellow captains Damien Holmes, David Allen and Jeff Locke and offensive lineman Jeff Baca each took command of their position groups and made sure everyone was buying in to the goals of the team and the methods needed to reach those goals.
Many of them had been recruited to UCLA by Karl Dorrell and his staff, played most of their careers during Rick Neuheisel’s tenure and will leave just as Mora came in and laid the groundwork for a new era in UCLA football.
Mora, in his first season, said he often sought out his seniors to help guide him this season as he transitioned from a 25-year career at the NFL level to his first season at the college level.
“I relied on them a lot,” Mora said. “I had a lot of questions for them about how they had done things, what needed to change, what didn’t need to change. They’ve proven themselves to be trustworthy guys so when they’ve given me advice -- which I’m not afraid to take -- it’s something that I can put stock in.”
The seniors, of course, had a lot of questions for Mora, too. Any time a new coaching staff comes in, it’s only natural to wonder if they want to put their own guys in and start rebuilding with the younger players.
Mora made it clear that he would play the players who deserved to play, regardless of class. Every position became an open competition and no seniors were frozen out.
“That was great because sometimes when you hear you have a new staff, you question are they just going to go to the young guys or are they going to forget about the seniors,” Franklin said. “It’s such a blessing that Coach Mora was behind us and he wanted us to be a part of this and he gave us the opportunity to lead this team.”
The seniors have one last chance to lead it. If the Bruins can cap their turnaround season with a victory against Baylor, it would give them a school-record-tying 10 wins. It would not only punctuate the successful season, but validate it and provide a springboard into next season.
A loss would mean three consecutive losses to end the season and fuel offseason questions about whether or not UCLA has really gotten over the hump.
“If we win this game, the talk for next year will be UCLA is back,” Abbott said. “If we lose, it’s going to be ‘Oh, they have this to work on and that to work on, they might be good, they might be third in the Pac-12.' We want to be projected first. As seniors we want to leave this on a good note and make sure the younger guys don’t have to deal with that in the offseason.”
Nobody is claiming that UCLA is now suddenly a national power. Back-to-back losses to Stanford this season show that the Bruins are still a notch below the national elite, but nine wins, including victories over Nebraska, USC and Arizona show that the program is at least headed in the right direction as the current senior class takes the field for one last game.
“This is just the start,” cornerback Aaron Hester said. “This program has so much potential and next year and the years that come are really going to show the new culture and how Coach Mora really gets down.”