Bruins addicted to the comebacks

It begins innocently.

We never intended to be at this place. Should we do this? Wow, I don't know. It is dangerous, isn't it? I mean, the authorities have warned us over and over, haven't they? It is perfectly legal, after all. Is it addictive? Could we get in trouble? Will there be unintended consequences?

After agonizing, gut-wrenching deliberations and much shaking of heads we relent … just a taste, we say … then the ecstasy … our best high yet … no harm done. The next temptation invariably comes along, maybe as early as a week later. Again, we struggle with the guilt and all our programming, but once more we give in. This time it is just a little easier to let it happen, and the high is even better than before.

Now people begin to praise us for our addiction. The media is using phrases like "relentless warriors," "heroes" and "cardiac kids," with amplifiers like "gritty,"
"courageous" and "unselfish." We are hooked. We are becoming famous here! In today's culture there is nothing better than that, is there?

The intoxicant to which I refer is not of the street variety. It is not a hallucinogen, weed or meth. It doesn't come in a bottle, can, keg or a prescription container. It is this year's college football drug of choice … the delirium of the comeback victory. It is habit-forming, addictive, contagious … and deadly.

Teams are vulnerable to the narcotic when they know they are pretty good, then use that knowledge as an excuse for poor preparation. They relax just a little at practice. They waltz through their dog-day, first-half performances in the cocksure belief that they can put the accelerator down in the fourth quarter to come away with another epic win. If the team leaders or coaches don't jerk the men back to reality, the result will be a habit that results in losses at the worst possible times, losses that destroy seasons.

Drug Counselor
I stood in a state of shock on the sideline at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. A rookie with the Green Bay Packers, I was the long snapper, the wedge buster and anything else required by special-teams assignments. As such I was usually positioned next to our head coach, Vince Lombardi. When the ball was about to change hands or when we were required to kick, he would nod toward the special-teamers and we would jog to our positions on the field.

Halftime was near and the Lions were destroying us. They were the only team that did not seem to be intimidated by the world champion Packers or by our formidable coach. The score was 21-3. Wayne Rasmussen had just returned an interception off Bart Starr for a touchdown, and the crowd was exploding in a frenzy reserved for the special whippings their team occasionally put on the Packers.

As the Lions' irreverent, all-pro, nearly blind defensive tackle Alex Karras walked by us toward his bench (the benches were on the same sideline) he squinted with his tiny eyes, fixed on Lombardi and queried, "How ya like that, you fat [bleepin' bleep]?"

I gasped and dared a glance at coach, expecting lightning to be called down on Karras. I am not making this up. Here is what Lombardi did: He looked at Alex and smiled. He did not say a word; he smiled, not the famous toothy grin, but a slight smile. I didn't understand until many years later, when I began to think about great comebacks and their origins.

The half ended and we made our way into the cramped, dreary locker room and waited. I was terrified of Lombardi in the best of circumstances and dreaded the awful tongue-lashing that was sure to come. Even the many all-pros on our team seemed more subdued than usual. We waited. And we waited. Our coach never showed up. Adjustments were made, ankles retaped, hushed conversations were carried on, but no Lombardi.

At length, when halftime was almost over, we saw him step in from the baseball dugout, which was the entrance to the locker room. He surveyed the room, did that little half smile again, and quietly spoke. "Men, we are the Green Bay Packers," he said without a trace of rancor. That's all. Then he turned on his heel and walked back out through the dugout.

We ran the Detroit Lions out of their stadium in the second half. The final score was 31-21, but it could have been worse. It only took me 40 years to understand that smile. When he saw Karras' smirk and listened to his bombast, he knew that Alex thought the game was over. The Lions thought we were finished. Lombardi knew we had them, so he simply took his great football team and aimed it at the unsuspecting opponents.

He also understood the attendant dangers of "comeback addiction." The next week he was merciless. He railed about our first-half performance and made it clear that we would not be allowed to play that way. It never happened again while I played for him. Our drug counselor performed an intervention, and we were simply not allowed to get hooked.

Just Say No
While this season has been loaded with marvelous comebacks from Texas, USC, Penn State, Notre Dame, Tennessee and others, only one top-ranked team seems to have succumbed to the addictive process.

The UCLA Bruins have let Washington, Washington State and Stanford take leads of 10, 17 and 21 points, respectively, in the fourth quarter. Those three teams are a combined 3-12 in Pac-10 games. UCLA allowed a good California team to lead by 12, also in the fourth quarter.

The Bruins then proceeded to win all four by tallying a combined 83-19 score in the fourth quarter and overtime! I don't know how far back we keep records about such things, but I doubt there has ever been anything to match it for comeback wins. These guys are hooked on the comeback drug.

In order to bring his charges from narcolepsy to brilliance in the early stages of remaining games with Arizona, Arizona State and USC, coach Karl Dorrell has to do at least two things:

1. Accept responsibility.
2. Cure the most obvious issue affecting early performance.

He has done the first, and in so doing has proven himself worthy of his leadership role. He points out that his team is now being taken seriously and is being hit with the best shot from every opponent. He's right, and that is important.

What is much more important is that he is not allowing anyone on his staff or team to bask in the glory of top-five rankings or praise from onlookers. Within the context of his personality and level of experience, he is holding his staff and team accountable. He says, "It's just us not getting it done, it really is."

He doesn't have to be Vince Lombardi. He does have to be Karl Dorrell and tell the truth. What coach Dorrell is doing this minute will make an indelible imprint on his program for years to come.

The second requirement will be almost as important and involves technical football. The glaring deficiencies in performance have come in poor beginnings in the first and third quarters and in run defense.

The Bruins are dominant in the second and fourth quarters but have been outscored in the first and third. In football, the ultimate team sport, how you start is almost as important as how you finish. The coaches and team leaders must get this across to the squad in practice. I detest clichés, but one is inescapable if you wish to be a champion: You really do play exactly like you practice.

Finally, a championship football team does not rank last in its conference in run defense -- ever. UCLA allows 212.4 rushing yards per game and a staggering 4.9 yards per carry. By contrast, across town those hated Trojans are yielding 3.1 yards per carry and 107.6 yards per game. If a team cannot stop the run, it simply will not win championships.

This will be the most difficult aspect to address, because the solution is not only in practicing but also in practicing hard. It means best on best, first-string offense against
first-string defense. Simulating live game conditions -- requiring defenders to take on good blockers, get off blocks and tackle good backs -- always involves risk. I have never found another way to correct this deficiency. Making good decisions in this area will determine the outcome of the UCLA football season.

The intervention has begun and the addiction must be arrested now if the Bruins are to be champs.

ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. His Center Stage examinations appear each week during the college football season.