LOS ANGELES -- Warning: USC students and alumni should go to our college football page right now because the following paragraphs will not be at all pleasant.
Jim Caple at UCLA
The Search For Mr. and Miss Bracket
"This is where it's at," proclaims Christopher Rose, a devout UCLA fan wearing Bruin colors from head (blue-dyed hair) to toe (yellow sneakers) in the middle of Bruin Plaza. "This is UCLA. This is California. Look at the weather! It's the middle of winter and I'm wearing a T-shirt and shorts! Why would you not want to come to UCLA?"
OK, Rose is a little over the top. This is the middle of March, not the middle of winter, unless you live in some godforsaken place such as North Dakota, Minnesota or upstate New York, in which case, it's both. But his point is well taken. Frankly, I don't know why any college recruit would choose another school after visiting this campus.
UCLA is the second stop in our Mr. and Miss Bracket contest and I may just stop the tour here and enroll. As Rose says, this is most definitely where it's at. There are so many beautiful students here, I bet Matt Leinart may sneak over to pick up chicks. Even Larry Brown probably had to think long and hard before leaving as coach in 1981.
(Note: If there are still any USC students reading, I really advise to stop because it only gets much worse.)
What makes UCLA special? Begin with the directions. To reach most college campuses you take some exit off state Highway 12 or L Street or some such bland arterial. UCLA, however, is listed on a Web site offering directions to homes of the movie stars (James Dean went here, after all) and it says to drive south on Rodeo Drive and turn west on Wilshire Boulevard.
That's good, but an even better way to get here is to be 6-foot-7 with the ability to score from inside the paint or from beyond the arc.
Then there is that little matter of the weather. Gonzaga is so accustomed to cold weather that I arrived there in a snowstorm but nonetheless all the students were wearing shorts.
I arrive at Bruin Plaza on a cloudless day with temperatures in the low to mid-60s with the sky just a shade or two deeper than the Bruins' home jerseys. And yet the students are so spoiled by the climate here that most of them are wearing pants and fleece hoodies. Some are wearing UGG boots. A couple are even wearing scarves.
I keep expecting to see some students build a bonfire, not to celebrate another NCAA appearance, but to huddle around for warmth.
|Mr. and Miss Bracket Contest|
• Buckheit: Home, sweet home
• Video: Searching UConn
• Caple: Orange love
• Video: Searching Tennessee
• Caple: Bleeding UCLA blue
• Video: Searching UCLA
• Caple: Go Zags or bust
• Video: Searching Gonzaga
• Caple: The Search begins
My colleague Mary and I set up the tryouts in Bruin Plaza and watch a seemingly endless stream of athletes saunter past us all afternoon. Which isn't surprising, really, given UCLA's athletic prowess in just about every sport. The Bruins have won 97 NCAA national team championships, more than any other school (my humble alma mater, Washington, has a modest four). Or at least 97 was the number listed in the school hall of fame.
For all I know, UCLA might have added a swimming or volleyball title while I was eating a fish taco in the campus food court. As it is, there is an entire room filled with UCLA championship trophies in what must be the most dazzling collection of gold outside Rickey Henderson's closet.
How dominant is the UCLA athletic department? It had at least 50 athletes at the 2004 Olympics and its alumni have won approximately 100 gold medals in Olympic history.
And it's not just the sheer quantity that's overwhelming, it's the quality. Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Arthur Ashe, Jackie Joyner-Kersee they all walked the palm tree-lined paths here. Just when you finish studying the John Wooden trophy case and figuring collegiate legends don't get any bigger than that, you see that the next case is devoted to Jackie Robinson.
Need a rousing school fight song? Composer John Williams is an alumnus.
Want a recruiting video? So is Francis Ford Coppola. Not that you really need a recruiting video -- this is a college so desirable that even Bart Simpson went to school here (Nancy Cartwright, voice of the world's most notorious student, attended UCLA).
John Wayne may have played football at USC but he died here, which partly makes up for the gridiron deaths UCLA has suffered at Southern Cal's hands.
(Don Liebig for ESPN.com.)
And if you want college basketball, well, there is no place better.
I've been to Kansas, Duke and North Carolina, but for someone who grew up on the West Coast during the '60s and '70s, college basketball's holy land will always be Westwood. Forty-one-year-old Pauley Pavilion may lack the Hoosiers-like charm of Allen Fieldhouse or Cameron Indoor Stadium, but it's magical walking in and seeing all those national championship banners hanging there like a Lew Alcindor sky hook. I feel the urge to kneel and face the basket for morning and afternoon prayers, or at least for an eight-clap.
I know other schools may have larger, more passionate fan bases these days, but then again, UCLA students have better things to do than camp outside the gym in a smelly tent for two months solid (like, hello? the beach?). But they camp out here too, and were doing it long ago, when Mike Krzyzewski's haircut was considered rather stylish.
As USC fans would be only too happy to tell you, the Bruins haven't hung a basketball championship banner from the rafters in a decade. But they're a No. 2 seed this week and hopes are high. "This is the start of the dynasty,'' Rose says. "If we don't win it this year, we'll win it next year.''
I could go on, but I need to finish up before someone reports me to the NCAA for recruiting violations. Besides, I have to get to the registrar's office.
And if any USC fan did make it this far, I advise consoling yourself with sweets thoughts of football.
Photo credits: Don Liebig for ESPN.com. Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is on sale at bookstores nationwide. It also can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com. Sound off to Page 2 here.