Saturday's contest against Cal is UCLA's annual homecoming game. The occasion forces us to confront the possibility, laughable though it may seem, of far-flung alumni voluntarily traveling to Los Angeles - "coming home," if you will - for the purpose of watching the Bruins play football. One finds it hard to believe such people exist. Any UCLA fan whose spirit hadn't already been crushed into powder by more than a decade's worth of football awfulness surely came to his or her senses after last week's colossally embarrassing 36-point loss at Arizona. Coming against a 1-5 team that had lost 10 straight games to FBS opponents and featuring a mini-brawl for which the Pac-12 Conference suspended six Bruin players, it was the type of catastrophe that can finish the careers of both coaches and athletic directors. The only silver lining is that it left putative homecomers with just enough time to realize their awful mistake and amend their travel plans.
The Arizona debacle effectively brought the Rick Neuheisel era to an end. He's still the coach, but he has no future with the program. Though AD Dan Guerrero has stated that Neuheisel is safe until season's end, word in Bruinland is that it's more of a week-to-week thing. Pressure from major financial boosters, whose support is especially critical these days because of the ongoing renovation of Pauley Pavilion, could force Guerrero's hand and lead to a midseason coaching change. In any event, at this point it's purely a question of timing. Come December, if not before, UCLA will be back in the market for a new head coach and looking wearily ahead to yet another rebuilding project.
Why Neuheisel has failed in Westwood is difficult to puzzle out. At Colorado and Washington his teams piled up impressive win totals. In 2000 he won the Rose Bowl with a Huskies squad that ranks among the best in Pac-10 history. True, the victories dried up a bit toward the end of his tenures in Boulder and Seattle, but his worst years with those programs are comparable to the best he's managed at UCLA. The problem isn't talent: three of his four recruiting classes have been top 15 nationally. Off-the-field distractions have been few and minor. The conditions for success have been in place. This really should've worked out.
What's clear is that Neuheisel has misfired on some big strategic calls. The Pistol offense, installed before the 2010 season, hasn't matured into a potent attack. Quarterbacks Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut are ill-suited to run it, and the focus on converting UCLA into a ground-based team has sapped all dynamism from the passing game. On the other side of the ball, the hiring of defensive coordinator Joe Tresey has been a sickening disaster. Bruin fans have seen a lot of bad D over the years, but I think this is the first time we can honestly say that the UCLA defense is good at nothing. Tackling, covering receivers, rushing the passer, shedding blocks.... in every category one might use to evaluate defensive play, the Bruins have failed comprehensively.
Neuheisel is now in a caretaker role. Wins and losses are no longer the main concern. What's important isn't that the Bruins stagger to six victories and an F-list bowl game but that the program be as healthy as possible when Neuheisel's successor takes over. For the most part, that means the kids need to play. The seniors have given a lot of themselves to the program and deserve our thanks and respect, but more reps need to be funneled to guys who stand a chance of being leaders on the next good UCLA team. Running backs Jordon James and Malcom Jones should start getting more than spot duty. Sophomore D-line prospects Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Iuta Tepa should be elevated to first string. Eric Kendricks should be the full-time weakside linebacker.
Where possible, though, guys who are redshirting should continue to redshirt. There's little point burning a year of eligibility when the team's obviously going nowhere in the short term. Quarterback Brett Hundley and wide receiver Devin Lucien present the toughest calls on this score because at their positions depth is almost nil. Prince is always just a zone-read away from another injury, which would force Neuheisel either to pop the cork on Hundley or roll with untested junior Nick Crissman. Unless he's totally out of his depth, Crissman should be the choice so that Hundley has a four-year future with the new coach. As for Lucien, he might be pressed into service this week because an incredible four Bruin receivers are suspended. Encouragingly, Neuheisel has said that burning a redshirt is a decision he'll make in close consultation with a player and his family and that he'll do so only if it's in the kid's best interests.
At the moment, Neuheisel is the easy target for fans' displeasure. But the UCLA community can't delude itself into believing that a coaching change will usher in a new golden age. Bruin football hasn't been in the national-title hunt, or even much in the conference-title hunt, since 1998. The rot that infects the program is resilient and institutional. It grows and festers in an athletic department that's been unwilling to pay for top-notch facilities or the most sought-after coaches and that uses admissions standards as a spurious excuse for underachievement. The time has come for some high-level soul-searching. This time next year Neuheisel will be gone, but unless there's a shift in the culture of UCLA football and the resources devoted to it, there will be more homecomings just as dreary as this one.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.