This is not your ordinary national championship contender. The coach is a sentimentalist who fosters unity in teary team meetings and show-cases trick plays in open practices that look like county fairs, minus the livestock. The quarterback tosses touchdown passes and his cookies, and he thinks his Heisman Trophy candidacy is, frankly, a pain in the butt. His best wide receiver is more accomplished at volleyball than football, and his best offensive lineman would rather debate the merits of Saving Private Ryan than the theories of Buddy Ryan. The leader of the defense is a 23-year-old fifth-year senior who lives with his grandmother, while many of his cohorts are so young that they view the title chase as if they were fans and not participants. "Before we played Arizona [on Oct. 10] a couple of us were watching Texas A&M beating Nebraska, and all of a sudden I'm saying, 'I think this is good, I think this is good for us,' " says sophomore linebacker Tony White. "It's so weird. I'm used to just watching those games for pleasure."
In short, UCLA is a blast of fresh air in a sport whose aristocracy (Nebraska; the Big Ten holy trinity of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State; half the SEC; Florida State and Notre Dame, to name the most pedigreed) treats a championship run with the solemnity of a grand jury appearance. Compared to those teams, UCLA is Disneyland in pads.
Last Saturday in the Bruins' locker room at the Rose Bowl, senior kicker Chris Sailer was among the last players to finish dressing. A stocky former high school soccer player with a crew cut, muttonchop sideburns and a grunge goatee, Sailer had ended a fabulously wild 41-38 victory over previously undefeated Oregon with a 24-yard field goal on UCLA's first overtime possession. That kick came after Sailer, on the last play in regulation time, yanked a 21-yard wedge shot wide left, which came after Bruins quarterback Cade McNown had completed a miraculous 53-yard pass to his backup, Drew Bennett (lined up at wideout on a Hail Mary play), which came just one play after the Ducks had finished a 65-yard drive to tie the game at 38-38 with 22 seconds left, which came after McNown had thrown a 60-yard pass to erstwhile middle blocker Danny Farmer, a member of UCLA's 1998 national championship volleyball team, for a touchdown, which came after...anyway, you get the idea.
Sailer is blessed with the coolness usually reserved for a bass guitar player. It served him well in surviving the moments between his miss and his make, and it served him even better on the game-winning kick, when he saw holder Joey Strycula grab a wide snap and place the ball at almost a 45-degree angle to the ground. ("I like it straight up and down," Sailer would say after the game, "but Joey did a great job to get it as straight as he did.") Sailer's calm even persisted in the on-field celebration that followed, during which he was more relieved than jubilant.
Now he finished dressing and hauled his duffel bag out of his wooden cubicle. He carefully folded a copy of the game program and prepared to place it inside the bag. "I usually do keep the program, but I'm definitely keeping this one," he said, letting the magazine unfold to show his picture on the cover.
Until further notice, undefeated and second-ranked UCLA is the freshest face of the season. The Bruins and No. 4 Kansas State are relative newcomers to the business of title contention, but UCLA brings uncommon flash to the chase for a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. Bowing to the possibility that the bloodless computers (and bloody voters) of the virgin Bowl Championship Series will punish them for playing only 10 games, the Bruins caved in and agreed last week to reschedule their game against Miami, originally set for Sept. 26 but postponed because of the approach of Hurricane Georges. UCLA had been reluctant to reschedule the game, which will now be played on Dec. 5 and which Bruins coach Bob Toledo resignedly refers to as the Hurricane Bowl, because the Bruins' season would otherwise end two weeks earlier and an additional game seemed meaningless. The point is that UCLA is playing—and planning—like a team in the hunt for the national title.
It should be. It has the most explosive offense in the country, which helps offset a young, vulnerable defense, and it has won 15 consecutive games, the longest streak in the country. The Bruins have neither a nemesis (such as Ohio State's Michigan) nor a big brother (Kansas State's Nebraska). They do have an unmistakable team synergy, of the variety that visited Northwestern in 1995 and Arizona State in '96.
UCLA's chemistry was forged a year ago when the Bruins overcame brutal season-opening losses to eventual Pac-10 co-champion Washington State (37-34) and eventual SEC champ Tennessee (30-24) and finished with 10 consecutive wins. They opened this year with victories over Texas, Houston and Washington State, but Toledo sensed that something was missing. At a team meeting in a Tucson hotel on the night before the game against Arizona, Toledo brought his 11 struggling defensive linemen in front of the team and challenged them individually by reading off their weak statistics. When he reached Vae Tata, a fifth-year senior reserve who was seriously hurt in a 1997 automobile accident, Toledo choked up. "I suddenly flashed back to seeing Vae in the hospital," says Toledo. He began crying, and Tata began crying, and soon most of the Bruins were crying. "Tears of joy, tears of sadness, tears of excitement," said Farmer. "It was complicated stuff, it brought us together as a team."
The emotional meeting was in character for Toledo, who has embraced the UCLA job with all the vigor of a career coaching junkie given a second chance to run a team—which is exactly what he is. In 1979, at age 33, Toledo was named coach at Pacific. It was a dead-end job that offered little hope of success, and Toledo won just 14 games in four years before resigning at the end of the '82 season. "We were never going to turn the corner," says Toledo.
For the ensuing decade he was an assistant at Oregon and Texas A&M. After the 1994 Cotton Bowl, Toledo was fired as offensive coordinator by Aggies coach R.C. Slocum. "I was a scapegoat," Toledo says, an assessment Slocum now confirms. Terry Donahue hired Toledo as Bruins offensive coordinator before the '94 season and then retired after the '95 season. After trying to hire a high-profile coach from outside the program failed, UCLA chose Toledo. It was a far better situation than Pacific, but one still fraught with potential failure. Donahue had reached one Rose Bowl in the previous 10 years and had gone 12-11 in his last two seasons. He called his teams the Gutty Little Bruins, a cute nickname that damned them as overmatched dreamers.