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'Dorrellian' back in style in Westwood

By Ivan Maisel

LOS ANGELES -- When Karl Dorrell played wide receiver at UCLA in the mid-1980s, the coaches created an adjective to describe a player who did everything, from pulling on his socks to executing his assignments, with the precision of a diamond cutter.

"Dorrellian," recalled Homer Smith, the offensive coordinator of those teams. "He was a very exacting player. If you did your job really well, it was Dorrellian."

Dorrellian is back in style in Westwood. After four seasons of running in place under coach Bob Toledo, who followed consecutive 10-2 seasons in 1997-98 with a record of 25-23, the Bruins have a coach who plans to compensate for his lack of head coaching experience with his ability to teach and to lead.

Karl Dorrell
Karl Dorrell spent three years as wide receivers coach in Denver before returning to his alma mater.
Dorrell, 39, came to UCLA as the prototype of an African-American head coaching candidate. That is, he had a resume that touched all the bases, and he needed a university to believe in him. Dorrell spent seven seasons as an offensive coordinator on the I-AA and I-A level. He moved to the pros as the wide receivers coach for the Denver Broncos for the last three seasons.

UCLA knew Dorrell, which made all the difference. He had played on three winning Rose Bowl teams for coach Terry Donahue. Dorrell gave the NFL one year, then returned to UCLA to prepare himself for a sales job with IBM in the spring of 1988. Donahue asked Dorrell to help out by coaching the wideouts during spring ball. It took Dorrell one day to realize he would never sell computers.

The biggest thing that hooked me," Dorrell said, "is that I was able to help guys right away with technique. The respect that you get right away, if you help them right away, you got 'em. Even though they played behind me, I never paid much attention to them. I was worried about my career. They called me Karl. They didn't call me coach. I got that utmost respect right away. That got me going, right from the start."

Dorrell spent that 1988 season as a graduate assistant, then left for his first full-time coaching gig at Central Florida. He didn't return to campus until he went after the job. Though the J.D. Morgan Center, where his office is, has been expanded and overhauled, and there are plenty of beautiful new buildings, Dorrell found some of the comforts of home.

"A lot of the support people in the athletic department are still here," Dorrell said. "It's exciting to see them. The campus, I've always enjoyed. Fatburger is still down the street. That was one of the first things I thought of. Tommy's Burgers are still here. That was one of the late-night things we used to do. You eat a Tommy's Burger now, that's at least five workouts. I can't digest those things at two in the morning like I used to. As a college kid, your body takes a lot of things."

Dorrell is an example of how the system should work, which is damning when you consider that he became only the fourth African-American head coach among 117 I-A schools. Charging him with CWB (coaching while black) may have been the least of Dorrell's concerns. In football society, no group is taken less seriously than wide receivers.

It may not be true that Dorrell is the only wide receiver who has gone on to become a current I-A head coach. But it's safe to suggest that you could hold a banquet for that group at a drive-thru window. Dorrell couldn't think of any others. It took me five minutes to come up with Bear Bryant. Smith, who's been in the game for five decades or so, thought of Raymond Berry, the former New England Patriots coach.

"Wide receivers are spread out," Smith said. "They are not involved in blocking. They never get the overview. Even a lineman gets an overview."

There's another reason wide receivers haven't been head coaching material. Think, Michael Irvin, Leader of Men. No one ever suggests giving Keyshawn Johnson the damn whistle. Quarterbacks lead. Linemen analyze. Safeties see the whole field. Wide receivers run their routes, block safeties, and if they're smart, run back to the huddle.

Except under Smith, who coached the quarterbacks and wide receivers together. "When you're working on a passing play," Smith said, "you don't want someone else coaching the receivers and trying to decide whose fault it is. You want a person who can correct the problem without deciding whose fault it is."

Smith remembered Dorrell as "always collected and composed. He wasn't a loner, but very much a individual." Put another way, Dorrell wasn't the typical wideout. He learned from Smith how to read defenses as if he were under center, a big reason why he graduated tied for second in career receptions as a Bruin with 108 (that total is now tied for ninth).

"I've always approached the game as a quarterback," Dorrell said. "I taught the receivers why they have to do certain things because [of] what the quarterback is reading. When they line up at the line of scrimmage, and they pre-snap read a two-deep, they understand what the quarterback is thinking and what he expects the wide receiver to do. You're teaching both those positions the same way. You benefit them by teaching football."

In the NFL, coaches are unencumbered by the NCAA's 20-hour rule, passed in attempt to preserve the players' free time. Dorrell had more time to coach, but less time to be a mentor. He is looking forward to the 20-hour rule.

Referring to the Broncos, he said, "That time away from football, they are basically out of the door, going home." Dorrell's long-fingered hands, the mitts of a wideout, are outstretched as he makes his point. "It's not, 'How's life? How's your family? How are you eating? Did you see the nutritionist? How's class?' Academics, doing workouts, making sure that they are OK -- you're interested in them personally. That's the part of the relationship that you don't have in the NFL. We're much more interested in their lives here."

Spring football will begin in a month. The Bruins wide receivers and quarterbacks will meet together. The offense will be divided into two meetings: the running game and the throwing game. For a team that underachieved in each of the last four autumns, the new standard is simple. The Bruins will be expected to be Dorrellian.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at He can be reached at

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