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Evolution of a Coach-Karl Dorrell

[Ed---My apologies in advance.  This entry is loooooooong]

I have a theory about first-time head coaches who have never held a coordinator position: they're either projects or rejects. Both are uncomfortable fates, with little promise of success. A project has two possible outcomes---he can tread water for a while but eventually fail, or he can tread water and eventually thrive. A reject will swiftly fall on his face.

I erroneously went into writing this thinking that UCLA head football coach Karl Dorrell had not been a coordinator before his ascent to the title of head coach. Luckily, I did some homework and realized he had been a coordinator (at Northern Arizona, Colorado and the University of Washington), and avoided making a terrible fool of myself. However, the inaccurate "never been a coordinator" tag has dogged him for reasons I will get into later.

I think Dorrell's a project. He hasn't been an abject failure, but tumult and turnover have marked his UCLA tenure.

The Karl Dorrell Coaching Resume

After a successful stint as a receiver at UCLA (1982-1986)
that saw him finish second in all-time receptions (108), Dorrell played for one year (1987) on the Dallas Cowboys' practice squad.  He was later placed on the injured reserve which effectively was the end of his brief NFL career.

From there he went on to be a Graduate Assistant at UCLA (1988), then was hired as the Wide Receivers coach at the University of Central Florida (1989).

From 1990 to 1991, he was the Offensive Coordinator and Wide Receiver's coach at Northern Arizona.

From 1992 to 1993, he coached the wide receivers at Arizona State.

Dorrell got his first big break, becoming the Offensive Coordinator and Wide Receivers coach at Colorado from 1995 to 1998 under former UCLA quarterback Rick Neuheisel. When Neuheisel went to the University of Washington, Dorrell followed, once again holding title of Offensive Coordinator and Wide Receiver's coach during the 1999 season.

In the year 2000, Dorrell moved onto the NFL, coaching wide receivers for the Denver Broncos. He would hold that position again in 2001, before his true big break in 2002 as the new head coach of the UCLA Bruins.

Resume Analysis

Coaches make all kinds of moves in their careers. It's a competitive business and sometimes guys are just trying to stay employed and in the game, chasing paychecks and keeping their names on people's minds. However, we can attempt to make some judgments about KD's coaching aptitude and style through his career moves.

Of little surprise, the former receiver has often held a position as receivers coach. It's a decent job, allowing one to do a lot of hands-on coaching while also interacting with offensive coordinators and learning an employer's offensive philosophies and schemes. But it's still a "position" job.

The natural path for most coaches wanting to be head coaches is to start out as GA's, or Graduate Assistants, then be hired as position coaches, and then ascend to the role of offensive or defensive coordinator. Once a coordinator, a coach is given a lot more credibility as a possible head coach because he has jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops up to that point in his career, paid his dues, and also learned to manage a roster and an offense and also hold great responsibility as the right hand man to the head coach.

Dorrell's ascent to head coach was a little unusual in that he's held coordinating jobs but never been given a lot of respect for holding those positions. On the surface any derision towards his coaching experience (seven years of coordinating experience) is asinine, but it might have its merits.

What stands out to me about Dorrell's coordinating experience is the following:

  • He is not an innovator---When he was hired at UCLA, the press clippings mostly harped about his desire to install the "West Coast Offense". Nowhere were there mentions of "Dorrellian" twists to the West Coast, it's as if he'd simply absorbed what had developed under tutors like Rick Neuheisel and Mike Shanahan without adding to the mix.
  • Quirky OC duties---This may be a reach, but KD's never been strictly an OC. He's always been an OC and receivers coach. That's a bit unusual. Most OC's, to my knowledge, tend to worry just about the offense, or might add the title of quarterbacks coach. But in all seven seasons where he's been the OC of a team, Karl Dorrell's also coached the receivers.
  • Independence---This is what I alluded to earlier. For the five seasons he ran the offense at Colorado and Washington, Dorrell was also under the employ of one Rick Neuheisel. Right or wrong, Neuheisel has been given credit as an offensive guru of sorts. If that's the case, chances are Dorrell's been given questionable coaching latitude by his boss. There are questions as to how independent he has been as an OC; whether he's been in charge of creating and implementing an offense, or whether he was just the manager and puppet for the head coach and what the big man wanted out of the offense. I don't have the answer to that.

Under ideal conditions, a coach is given independence to do his job. This independence reveals the temperament and abilities of that coach. It puts a spotlight on his skills and his weaknesses and leaves little to the imagination. But with Dorrell's career, these questions around his independence means we're left a little unsure what his true abilities are. Just how good of an offensive coach is he, for example? Was it Dorrell or Neuheisel or both directing the attacks at Colorado and Washington.

Another question---was his move to the NFL the right one? His entire experience to that point had been in the college ranks, and he'd held coordinating duties for a few pretty good offenses. Normally a move to the NFL is considered a career upgrade, but he took a positional coaching job and not a coordinator's job. It's hard to tell if that's a positive career move, a lateral move or a negative one.

Finally that jump from Broncos receivers coach to UCLA head coach looked like one of those "you skipped a step" moves where maybe a guy went from the straightforward positional gig all the way to upper management without the usual inbetween of holding a coordinator position.

I don't have an issue with his career moves, but they're interesting and maybe point to some of the problems (to be discussed in the next part of this entry) he's encountered during his three-year run at UCLA.

Now, to Dorrell's UCLA career.

Karl Dorrell's Season-By-Season Record at UCLA

  • 2003: 6-7
  • 2004: 6-6
  • 2005: 10-2

Numbers aside, UCLA is a team that has improved from year-to-year under Karl Dorrell. Some have argued last year's record was inflated by a friendly schedule, but in my eyes they were also a better team than the 2003 and 2004 squads. That's a surprising revalation when one factors in the lackluster recruiting efforts turned in by Dorrell. Dorrell coached a handful of quality, veteran, high-profile Bob Toledo recruits his first season, then went out and recruited some lowly regarded classes on his own. Things are looking better for UCLA's recruiting this year, but the previous modest recruiting hauls should have dragged his 2005 team down. The opposite has happened, however.

In my eyes, this points to an improving coach. I'm not saying he's a great coach, or even a highly competent one---merely one who has gotten better at his job.

The biggest evidence of improvement, in my eyes, is how he's dealt with his players. Last fall I remember reading some of the usual flowery preseason writeups about the various teams around the country, and was floored by a few of the UCLA stories I was reading. They talked about how coach Dorrell had changed from a benevolent but not very warm or socially comfortable coach to one who could relate to his players.

It was evident in reading the articles that the players had wanted more of their coach the prior two seasons. But for whatever reason he'd been inaccessible or disinterested in playing to the people part of the business: doing things like relating to his players, learning about their lives, their families, their troubles and their joys. It's as if he'd never gotten the memo that any management job requires a lot of people skills.

However, his simple act of opening up, of being a friend to his players, went a long way in building trust and enthusiasm within the program. The guys now had a reason to play for him.

What this tells me is that 1)his coaching resume had failed him in preparation for a head coaching job and 2)he was learning on the job. I give lots of credit to Karl Dorrell for fixing a ridiculously fundamental error of his. He recognized the problem and after two years could make a positive change to himself and his style that helped the program and his career.

However, point No. 1 is of critical importance. I was a bit long-winded in the resume section above, but it was an attempt to lead into this point. It is my guess that Karl Dorrell's resume wasn't as respectable as one would think. Yes, he'd held a coordinator's job (considered necessary preparation for any future head coach), but I think he'd been sheltered from certain managerial tasks that more independent coordinators had to learn in order to do their jobs effectively. That may be why Karl Dorrell didn't come to the UCLA job with the awareness that he needed better people skills---his "preparation" in his other coaching stops had not imparted upon him some of the more obvious skills to survive.

Another area of improvement has been in his handling of coaching hires. To put it midly, the coaching turnover at UCLA has been messy each and every year under Dorrell.

Karl Dorrell's Coaching Staff Changes

Original staff:

OC Steve Axman, DC/LB's Larry Kerr, OL Mark Weber (Six-year holdover from Bob Toledo staff), DL Don Johnston (three-year holdover from Toledo staff), WR's John Embree, RB's Eric Bienemy, TE's Gary Bernardi (nine-year holdover from Toledo staff), Secondary Gary DeLoach, OLB/Nickleback Brian Schneider

Karl Dorrell, ever the loyal Bruin, held onto a few UCLA loyalists including the line coaches for his first staff in 2003. It was an unimaginative group outside of the talented Bienemy, who he had met while at Colorado. I think this group pointed to Dorrell's weak connections. Weak connections on their own can be shored up with a well prepared agenda and imaginative coaching (see Dan Hawkins), but when quality assistants are a priority, it helps to have a coach who has made a lot of stops and a lot of friends.

January 2003 Changes:

Fired OL coach Weber (holdover) and TE coach Bernardi (holdover).

Hired OL coach Tom Cable, WR coach Dino Babers

Moved WR coach Embree to TE's

Interpretation: Holding onto Weber and Bernardi backfired, signs of a coach in over his head at this point. Coordinators retained, but the fact that position coaches were fired means that if things didn't improve, coordinators were next.

February 2003 Changes:

Karl Dorrell declines contract extension/rollover

OC Axman leaves the program

OL coach Cable promoted to OC

Jim Svoboda hired to coach QB's

Interpretation: Ouch. Looks like KD couldn't find a quality coordinator and with his hands tied, promoted Cable. However, there's some new blood in Cable, Babers and Svoboda.

December 2004 Changes:

Karl Dorrell signs two-year contract extension

Interpretation: The AD's happier than he was last year

February 2005 Changes:

DL coach Don Johnston hired by Chicago Bears

Hired DL coach Thurmond Moore

Interpretation: Inconclusive.

November 2005 Changes:

QB coach Svoboda named a Broyles Award semifinalist

RB's coach Eric Bienemy retained after entertaining job offer with University of Texas


Positive signs! Svoboda proves a shrewd hire, and Bienemy is a rising star from the original staff.

January 2006 Changes:

RB's coach Eric Bienemy hired by Minnesota Vikings

DC/LB's coach Kerr fired

WR coach Dino Babers promoted to RB coach/Recruiting Coordinator

Hired WR coach D.J. McCarthy

Hired DC DeWayne Walker


It is reported that Bienemy took the Minnesota job to be closer to the Mayo clinic for family reasons. Another Dorrell coordinator is axed, and NFL-savvy but mercenary styled DC Walker hired to replace him. Dorrell's early hires obviously plagued his team's on-field performance, as nearly the entire original staff has now been repositioned or replaced. Dorrell's hiring acument appears to be improving, but again it's evidence that he's had to learn on the job instead of hitting the ground running, to incorporate a tired cliche.

February 2006 Changes:

OC Cable heads to the NFL right after signing day

Hired LB coach Chuck Bullough

TE coach Embree ???

Moved Special Teams/Safeties coach Schneider to TE coach

Did not retain DL coach Thurmond Moore

Hired DL coach Todd Howard

Hired veteran OL/Assistant Head Coach Jim Colletto

Promoted QB coach Svoboda to OC/QB's

Schneider ???

Hired John Wristen to Special Teams/Tight Ends coach


Lots of things going on here! Karl Dorrell has completely revamped his coaching staff. Svoboda has risen swiftly up the ranks, but may be a reach as an OC hire. Colletto could be a very shrewd hire as he's been around the block, has great connections and knows the game and is not holding a coordinator's job. The Cable departure is questionable given its proximity to signing day for recruits.

My apologies for the lengthy presentation about the crazy coaching changes that have gone on under Karl Dorrell, but I think they tell the story of a coach who has made a lot of mistakes early on as a head coach but has improved in his coaching hires. He lost several assistants to the NFL, which is normally a badge of honor for a head coach because it says his assistants are of high quality and coveted by The League.


The main focus of this entry was to analyze one first-time head coaches career-to-date.  I don't have answers to some of the questions I posed in here and I'll readily admit much of what is written above is conjecture based on how I interpret the data presented.  However, I think it paints a picture of a coach who fits my projects/rejects theory, even if he isn't eligible by the definition outlined earlier.

I feel Karl Dorrell is a good coach.  He has many flaws (for another day, another entry) of which any UCLA fan will gladly explain to you.  However, I also feel he's someone who was a reach hire who has overcome some of the inherent obstacles of a man in his position to make himself a better coach and his team a better team.  A certain segment of UCLA fans has viewed him as a complete incompetent, which I feel is unfair and inaccurate.  He's become a saltier coach and while he may not survive long at UCLA, will be the better for the experience.  It's always neat to watch athletes develop before our very eyes, but coaches are also learning and developing and this entry has documented the development and evolution of one such coach: UCLA's Karl Dorrell.

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Reader Comments (15)

If Dorrell is still learning, someone should teach him of the necessity of having a run defense.

I'm not really certain that this years team was any better, but certainly they were luckier. But, senior led teams often are. With four games decided by 7 or less points, three of them against teams with a losing records, they were 1 or 2 plays from having another mediocre record. Next year they are just as likely to go the other way.
April 11, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick
Very interesting article! Nice post.
April 11, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDR U
How many wins do you see UCLA having next year? My prediction is 7. But, I wouldn't be surprised by 5, nor by 8.
April 11, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick
Well, here's the schedule

9/2 vs. Utah-Favored
9/9 vs. Rice-Favored
9/23 @ Washington-Favored
9/30 vs. Stanford-Favored
10/7 vs. Arizona-Unsure, but 4th home game in 5 probably means the Bruins are favored here
10/14 @ Oregon-Underdog
10/21 Notre Dame-Underdog
10/28 vs. WSU-Favored
11/4 @ Cal-Underdog
11/11 vs. Oregon State-Favored
11/18 @ ASU-Underdog
12/2 vs. USC-Underdog

With just a quick glance it looks like 6 wins, 5 losses and a tossup.

If the Bruins are better than expected, you can probably chalk up wins against all but USC and ND---and ASU, Cal and Oregon move to tossups which means UCLA probably grabs 1 or 2 of those, putting the win total at 8 or 9.

The big thing is not to play to the level of WSU or Arizona, who can run hot and cold. The best coaching staffs in the Pac-10 also reside at the current conference powers: USC, Cal and Oregon. UCLA is "back" if they start rolling over everyone but the power three and starts taking games from them as well.
April 11, 2006 | Registered CommenterCFR
A few comments and corrections..

" Holding onto Weber and Bernardi backfired, signs of a coach in over his head at this point. Coordinators retained, but the fact that position coaches were fired."

Giving Weber and Bernardi a chance isn't a sign of a coach over his head. He obviously thought they could do the job to his satisfaction and when it didn't work out he made changes. Maybe there were other signs of him being in over his head but I don't think this was one of them.Axman, the offensive coordinator was not retained as you indicate above.

"February 2003 Changes:

Karl Dorrell declines contract extension/rollover

OC Axman leaves the program

OL coach Cable promoted to OC

Jim Svoboda hired to coach QB's

Interpretation: Ouch. Looks like KD couldn't find a quality coordinator and with his hands tied, promoted Cable. However, there's some new blood in Cable, Babers and Svoboda."

Tom Cable was hired as the offensive coordinator AND offensive line coach. He wasn't the offensive line coach that got promoted. Cable and Axman were never on the staff at the same time as you infer under your Feb 2003 changes. Also Cable was Karl's first choice as OC when he got the job but he was not available because he was the head coach at the universit of Idaho.

"Svoboda has risen swiftly up the ranks, but may be a reach as an OC hire"

This "reach" as an OC hire was a former division II offensive coordinator of the year whose teams led all of division II in scoring in 1998 and 2000.

Who helped you with your research for this article?
April 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterRoblo
ALL of the data was in UCLA's own athletic department releases about the various coach roster moves.
April 12, 2006 | Registered CommenterCFR
Maybe the data was interpreted incorrectly or it was confusing. As a die hard Bruin fan and close follower of the program, I can guarantee everything I wrote was true in terms of the staff changes. Interesting article however.
April 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterRoblo
Karl Dorrell was and still is a reach as a head coach.. of his original staff... he wasn't even the most qualified for the job... he was just an ex-Bruin... his first year... he was an absolute deer in headlights on the sideline... didn't know how to act... didn't know how to be a "head coach"..... so certainly he was bound to improve.... his sideline demeanor improved... but his people skills continue to be flawed... his staff turnover is direct correlation to that... show me a lot of staff turnover on a successful team and i'll show you a jerk running the show...this year's staff turnover.... other than a couple of firings.... everyone else wanted out.... did they land head coaching jobs... no coordinators jobs... no... they took position coaching jobs in the nfl or at other less successful schools....they couldn't get out of UCLA quick enough... what many bruin fans don't want to hear or know... is that many of the coaches who were let go by Dorrell.... or those who left are very good coaches... this year's team... like it's coach... will be average at best... and a loss to Utah in week one.... would not be a surprise...
April 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBRUINWATCH
Bruinwatch, your assumptions about the coaching changes are, to say the least, based on your own wild speculation. Here is a breakdown of who left:

Bieniemy (RBs) left to be RB coach on the Vikings - this is a step up

Embree (TEs) left to be TE coach for the Chiefs - this is also a step up

Cable (OC/OL) left to be the OL coach of the Falcons - a debatable step up

Schneider (LBs) went to Iowa St. - wanted a smaller town environment, in order to spend more time with his family

Except for Wristen (TE coach), every single one of the assistant coaches that KD brought in this year have NFL coaching experience. Colletto was the OL coach for the Raiders and took a STEP DOWN to coach the OL at UCLA. I don't think these people would jump on a sinking ship with a "jerk running the show", as you put it.

I won't debate that KD certainly had to learn on the job when he first got here, but to state the things you did regarding the coaching turnover this past year is simply put, incorrect.
April 13, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBlue
i want to hump KD.
April 13, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatt
"i want to hump KD"

April 13, 2006 | Registered CommenterCFR
nice job. i didn't like the hire of kd originally and i'm still a little skeptical that he'll be the long term answer but i do agree that he's grown in the job.

he made some big mistakes on his initial staff but that's not all that surprising for someone as young as kd -- as you mention he lacked connections. he was also handcuffed a little. he had to retain bernardi who was toledo's recruiting coordinator for recruiting continuity. guerrero also kind of forced him into the axman hire once cable declined the oc position by insisting that kd have a former head coach on his staff (bad move by dg -- if you don't trust a guy enough to hire his own staff, then don't give him the job in the first place).
April 14, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterdc
April 14, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBRUINWATCH
You are completely wrong. Coach Dorrell will be a great coach and be at UCLA for years. This is his obsession. There are two types of coaches. Off/Def geniuses like Pete Carroll or Steve Spurrier. Then there are CEO coaches like Bowden or Switzer. Dorrell is a CEO type coach. Asst coaches will come and go every other year. He has an eye for coaching talent. The NFL repeatedly has stated that they have an eye on Dorrell for an executive position and they closely watch his moves. He has also improved in every aspect, every year. Recruiting is up. He personally took on the signing of Ben Olson. Coach Svoboda is considered an upcoming genius. I'll be surprised if he is here longer than two years. Watch UCLA again surprise this year with 9 or more wins with a very tough schedule. The man desires to make UCLA great.
April 15, 2006 | Unregistered Commentersamseva
only time will tell... but good luck on the nine wins thing... talk to you in November...
April 17, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterbruinwatch

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