UCLA joining Big Ten could usher in a new era of UCLA football success


UCLA joining Big Ten could usher in a new era of UCLA football success

(Photo: Getty)

We know that BBS (Battered Bruin Syndrome) is very real. It’s the mindset that there’s always something that’s holding UCLA sports down — especially UCLA football.

If we are completely logical, it is irrational. It’s like saying if you flip a coin and it comes up tails 20 times in a row, the chances that it will show tails on your next coin toss increase.

Now that UCLA is joining the Big Ten and reaping all the future benefits of such a move, it might be time to get over the BBS and realize that there are some compelling factors that might make you think UCLA is going short could be ending an unprecedented era in his sport — particularly UCLA football.

To follow the logic, we need to start by establishing some basic facts about UCLA football:

— It has more benefits than most college football programs.

— Because these advantages outweigh the disadvantages it has has pretty much allowed UCLA to be the #2 program in the Pac-12 for the last 50 years.

— It did this while underfunded. A very fundamental tenet of UCLA football is that the program is offered at a discount compared to other top 20 college football programs. It never really had any money.

That was really your UCLA football program until about 7-8 years ago when there was a sea change in the UCLA athletic department. Eventually, attitudes changed about the resources the football program needs to be successful. UCLA really made a decision to fundraise. It became clear that if it hoped to even come close to keeping up with the cost of living in college football, it would have to raise some money. Indeed, UCLA’s own advantages and the relatively easy success it’s had for decades was its own bane; Since it was quite successful working on a tight budget, the powerful never thought that raising money was necessary to be competitive. But the ever-escalating reality of doing business in college football eventually brought UCLA to a realization: It needed more money to stay competitive.

In the mid-2010s, the Wooden Athletic Fund’s Director’s Circle level numbered only a few dozen. But then UCLA got into fundraising. Within a few years, there were over 200 UCLA donors who were at least Director Circle level donors ($25,000 annually).

So UCLA finally came to its senses, and the lumbering old athletic department stepped into the present and shook off the shackles of the lumbering university.

It raised money and modernized facilities steeply. It built the Wasserman Football Center, the $65 million facility that is considered by far one of the best college football facilities in the West. This was followed by the construction of the Mo Ostin Basketball Center, which cost another $35 million. Yes, there were obviously some top donors, but UCLA was truly conducting a serious fundraiser among a legion of UCLA donors for the first time.

Then, in 2017, it did something many old Bruins felt out of character, and something they thought they’d never see in their lives: UCLA went out and fielded the No. 1 coaching contender enter the market, chip kelly. And it paid him a national top 20 salary.

UCLA football had a couple of great years under Jim Mora before its program went a little south. When things were going well with Mora, it led the Pac-12 in attending conferences. So there were signs that UCLA could be a hot ticket — it had some resources, it could attract fans, and it had a great, coveted coach.

Things were looking up — and it seemed like UCLA was on the brink of a new era in its football program.

But then two pretty unlikely things happened: Chip Kelly had the worst three years to start coaching in UCLA history, and this little thing called Covid. Two phenomena that were impossible to predict. Seriously, how poorly Kelly did in those first three years was probably harder to predict than Covid.

Add in one more pretty unlikely thing: Under Armor failed to honor its $250 million apparel deal with UCLA. While some might say they could have seen this coming, most would say that seeing it coming wasn’t that easy.

So, as UCLA was just beginning to enter a new era in its football history, it was thrown back by some unusual events that might never happen, let alone a few years apart.

The combination of the three plunged UCLA into unprecedented debt. The athletic department, which had previously been one of the best in the West to balance a budget, ran an $80 million deficit.

And if that wasn’t enough to insanely stop UCLA football from keeping up with the rest of the country, along came a little thing called the NIL. NIL absolutely created its own arms race and contributed to the greater arms race in college football. There were programs in the SEC with boosters that immediately raised (ah-hem) millions of dollars to pay their players, and therefore their recruits. On the shores of UCLA, UCLA donors experienced donor fatigue after supporting UCLA through their fundraiser, and then felt a little unfulfilled and not nearly as generous because of the results under Chip Kelly. So it stumbled a bit, but then it got hit once by Under Armor and then beaten by Covid. The ‘new’ UCLA, with the albatross of Covid/Kelly debt around its neck, discovered its ceiling. It simply didn’t have the resources to, at least initially, run a NIL campaign at the pace of the country’s top 20.

If you had asked me about all of these things about the future of UCLA football two weeks ago, I’d honestly say it was a little bleak. The past few months has definitely revealed that a lucrative NIL program is needed for the continued success of any program in the new era of college football. And I couldn’t see where UCLA would get the money to be even remotely competitive in the NIL market. Not only was donor money tight, but the management of the football program had decided to completely ignore the realities of NIL.

Then, miraculously, the Big Ten threw a lifeline to UCLA last Monday. The rundown here is real: UCLA’s entry into the Big Ten will give it an influx of life-saving cash — and a chance within a few years to pay off all that debt and be in the NIL market and therefore competitive in the field.

Although around 2017 it looked like we’d be watching a UCLA football program for the first time with money, we’ve never seen it. But now the dream – and the opportunity – has been restored. Well, there’s definitely a chance we could.

With the TV market deal the Big Ten can get, UCLA could see over $70 million to $100 million as part of the conference. To put it in perspective, the Pac-12 distributed just $19.8 million to each of its members in fiscal 2021. In other years, the maximum was about $45 million. Realistically, between 2021 and 2024, UCLA could see a difference of $50 million to $80 million more in its bank account. This is life changing and life saving.

The debt can be paid off. We don’t see why UCLA wouldn’t be able to switch a portion of their annual donations from the program to NIL. UCLA now has a chance to compete in the NIL market.

We already wrote a story a few days ago about how UCLA’s move to the Big Ten could dramatically improve UCLA’s recruitment (HERE).

There’s definitely a logical way now to envision UCLA football using the new money to be competitive in the Big Ten and nationally. When the UCLA football program has top 20 funding in college football, it can combine that with benefits it has that other programs don’t have — those benefits that have sustained it for decades without the money.

Then here’s the thing: We’ve never seen a UCLA football program actually win at a respectable level when it has all of these resources. When UCLA starts winning on a decent clip, it generates more momentum, more money, more support — the likes of which we’ve never seen.

There’s a version of the UCLA football program out there, possibly in the future, that we don’t know about and really can’t imagine. You can’t imagine it because you’ve never seen it before, but also because the possibilities are endless. The ceiling was raised quite a bit.

Well, of course it couldn’t happen. There are always limiting factors that could prevent this. Who could have foreseen a pandemic? And admit it, many of you didn’t predict Kelly’s dismal start to his coaching career. And yes, all BBS sufferers, there seems to be a curse on UCLA football at times. Yes, there are still many things that could stand in the way of UCLA’s success, and perhaps its own self-sabotage is one of them.

But right now, there’s a very legitimate chance that UCLA football could go beyond what we’ve ever seen or even imagined, which is vastly different than the program’s future a week and a half ago.

Remember: Given that UCLA began to transform before Covid and Kelly’s first three years, combine the natural advantages it always had, and now Big Ten membership (and money), stands a real chance that we could be on the verge of a new era in UCLA football like we’ve never seen before.

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