Few things are more indicative of USC's rise than the slumping fortunes of the Pac-10's two other great powers: UCLA and Washington. Both have won national titles, Washington's most recent earned memorably in 1991. However much like the delicate balancing act between Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma discussed earlier, the rise of one Pac-10 power seems to tip the others severely which makes sense given the limited west coast recruiting talent pool.
There's simply not much depth of football talent out west once you move beyond California's many pockets of humanity. Everyone recruits nationally nowadays, but traditionally only USC, UCLA and to a lesser extent Washington have had much pull outside of the western United States.
Additionally, when USC reaches levels like it has currently --- something akin to a football supernova -- it seems to suck up all nearby matter and talent. Thus, the slumps on the field and in recruiting for these two respected programs.
UCLA's decline is more obvious. By default, being in Los Angeles at a trendy public school is going to work in your favor, even in lean years. However, UCLA's recruiting pull has shrunk of late. From 1999 to 2002, they finished 14th, 17th, 12th and 9th in the Phil Steele consensus of top 25 recruiting classes. Then, the real decline began once it was clear that Bob Toledo's firing and the hiring of new coach Karl Dorrell could not do enough to keep up with USC's Jones.
UCLA's consensus rankings went to 23rd, unranked, 19th and 21st the last four years. It's not catastrophic, but a clear drop for certain.
Dorrell and outgoing defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker finally posted a pair of solid recruiting classes, better than the rankings, but it was too late for both. New coach Rick Neuheisel did little with some of those good young players this year, but their presence alone should help him, particularly in the secondary, in the coming years. However, he's also the guy who was part of Colorado's gradual recruiting decline. Even with his recruiters' rep, the NFL talent and recruiting rankings have seemed to decline at each stop including Washington which we'll discuss next.
UCLA's main holes of late have clearly been at the offensive line. Karl Dorrell's pro-style offense was always stop-and-go, but diminished returns along the line will ruin any offense and what happened last year between line injuries, limited depth and quarterback injuries was a virtual cave-in. UCLA's last offensive lineman taken in the NFL draft was Kris Farris way back in 1999. Not good. Much hope rests on the arm of quarterback recruit Richard Breuhaut to beat out several disappointing quarterbacks and thrive in Norm Chow's offense.
Up north, Washington is not a program that has ever consistently been among the elite in recruiting rankings. However, they're a program with a winning history over the decades, periods of regional dominance, some national titles and Rose Bowl berths, and offering an opportunity to get away from Los Angeles for a lot of recruits.
Between some troubling situations, bad coaching hires and the rise of USC and regional peers Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State, Washington's taken a hard fall. They've shown up in Phil Steele's consensus top 25 recruiting rankings just three times in the last nine years: 14th in 2001, 18th in 2002 and 21st in 2004.
Coach Jim Lambright wasn't a flop, but between 1993 and 1998 he never won more than nine games as Don James' successor. Restless, Washington faithful cast their lot with youthful, guitar-toting Rick Neuheisel. He took them from 6-6 to 7-5 to 11-1, and then back down to 8-4 and 7-6 before departing amid gambling and recruiting scandals. He was succeeded by the even-shakier, though clean, duo of Keith Gilbertson and Tyrone Willingham.
And that's where Washington stands today, a stunning 0-12 record that pushed Willingham out the door.
Although his records were pedestrian, Lambright appears to have kept the cupboard relatively full. It was certainly full enough to deliver the core of a team Neuheisel directed to an 11-win Rose Bowl season in his third year. But like at Colorado, Neuheisel's players have largely disappointed.
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Washington had a great run of quarterbacks, with Marques Tuiasosopo (recruited under Lambright), Cody Pickett and Isaiah Stanback, all drafted, solid college performers. Neuheisel failed to surround them with enough quality players to maintain a winning pace.
His departure poisoned the program, evidenced by its rapid decline. How many programs in the modern game have gone from 11 wins to one in just four seasons? And how many have then followed that with two, five, four and zero win seasons. Certainly none of Washington's prestige.
Neuheisel is the main culprit, but he shares blame with Lambright and the rise of USC and other regional powers as collaborating factors. Washington's been at its best pulling quality players out of Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area and Seattle. There just aren't as many good players coming their way from those areas when USC gets as good as it is and others like Oregon have built steady contacts that help them land good players like Jeremiah Johnson out of Los Angeles' Dorsey High School.