Tuesday, August 23, 2005 | LOS ANGELES – Karl Dorrell is addressing the media, wearing UCLA’s colors in the usual coaching outfit of a white polo shirt, long blue shorts and athletic shoes, as he talks about his team and its season opener on Sept. 3 at San Diego State.
I’m trying to picture UCLA’s head coach in San Diego State’s red and black colors, because all that has separated him from casting his future with the Aztecs a couple of times in the past were the twists and turns of history.
In 1982, he was on his way to San Diego State from La Mesa’s Helix High to play wide receiver. But that was before then-UCLA head coach Terry Donahue made a successful last-second recruiting pitch.
Three years ago, he was an assistant coach with the Denver Broncos when he was one of five finalists for the San Diego State job that went to Tom Craft.
Good thing Craft got the job for everyone involved, too.
For now Dorrell is coaching at his alma mater, having landed the UCLA job when it came open in 2003. Imagine his angst just one year into the SDSU job when the UCLA position opened up.
“I’m a proud alumnus, and the UCLA job is very important to me,” Dorrell said. “But I was fond of the San Diego State program, too, growing up in San Diego. They were successful when Claude Gilbert was the coach. It was fun watching Craig Penrose and all those great receivers.”
As natural as it might seem, it’s rare when an alum has a chance to be the head coach at his alma mater. That’s because money influences big-time college sports, and the timing of being prepared to accept such a job when it opens rarely match up.
Now Craft and Dorrell, oddly enough, find themselves in similar positions of needing wins in their season opener to set the tone for the remainder of the season and keep speculation about their job security at bay.
UCLA is coming off a 6-6 season, with a bowl game loss to Wyoming. That won’t do when your cross-town neighbor in the Pac-10, USC, is seeking a third straight national title.
San Diego State is coming off a 4-7 season, which won’t do for a program that hasn’t been to a bowl game since 1998 and needs to live up to its potential while in the Pac-10 shadow of USC and UCLA.
“I know Tom Craft, and he’s a very good coach,” Dorrell said. “I don’t know the defensive coordinator (Thom Kaumeyer), but I know he’s a good coach. The ramifications of competing against them, that’s part of the deal.”
But Dorrell and Craft aren’t just trying to save their jobs. They’re trying to establish a brighter future for their alma mater.
Craft, from his first day on the job, began teaching his players about San Diego State’s tradition, telling them that this is the school of New York Jets coach Herm Edwards, Carolina Panthers coach John Fox – both were Craft teammates – and legendary players such as Willie Buchanon, Haven Moses and Brian Sipe.
Dorrell, noticing a lack of camaraderie among his players, instituted Football 101 this summer. It wasn’t so much as a classroom setting as a time for players to stay on campus as they worked out together and got to know each other.
“Coach Dorrell wanted to attack this thing from every angle,” said Nathan Skaggs, a redshirt freshman defensive lineman from San Diego’s Rancho Bernardo High. “We’re definitely a closer team. We communicate with each other. When I got here, the seniors didn’t talk to the younger guys. Now we communicate with each other. That’s what we’re going for.”
UCLA senior wide receiver Junior Taylor explained Dorrell’s commitment to rebuilding UCLA by tapping the No. 8 on the chest of his powder-blue jersey. Dorrell wore No. 8 for a team that won the Rose Bowl three times in his five seasons at the school.
“He looks at me sometimes and smiles, and it’s a little show of confidence he has in me,” Taylor said. “Being an alum is special to him. It must be amazing to come back to the school you played at and made a name for yourself and be the coach.”
Just ask Karl Dorrell. Or Tom Craft. They’re two of the few in college football who know.
Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). You can e-mail him at