Karl Dorrell Biography
Criticized Father's Study Habits, Guided Careers of Future Pro Players
One of just a few African-American head football coaches serving at Division I college programs in the mid-2000s, Karl Dorrell faced doubters on a variety of fronts when he took the helm for the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Bruins in the fall of 2003. Dorrell was not yet 40 years old at the time, and the plum UCLA post was his first head coaching job. In his first two years, however, Dorrell made significant strides toward rebuilding UCLA's floundering football program. Just as importantly, he set his team on a path toward discipline, focus, and good behavior.
Dorrell's leadership skills were evident even when he was a child growing up in San Diego, California. A native of Alameda in the northern part of the state, Dorrell moved south with his family as his father John's career in the United States Navy required. Dorrell's skills in logistical thinking may have come from his father, who was chief petty officer on an aircraft carrier. By the time he was eight or nine, Dorrell was not only quarterbacking his neighborhood street football team but also putting together written playbooks. His motivational talents surfaced as he talked friends into completing the hilly sections of his newspaper delivery route for him, telling them that they would strengthen their leg muscles by climbing San Diego's hills.
Criticized Father's Study Habits
John Dorrell instilled a sense of discipline in his son—so much so that sometimes it was the son who did the disciplining. "I remember when I was retiring from the Navy and taking some math classes at Grossmont College," the elder Dorrell told Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune. "Karl sat down one night to help me with my homework and became very impatient with me. He knew I hadn't studied." At San Diego's Helix High School, Karl Dorrell was a standout in several sports. He led the football squad to a sectional title as a junior in 1980 and was named honorable mention All-America in 1981. Prior to graduating in 1982 he was courted by several colleges, including San Diego State University, but chose to attend UCLA.
Beginning his athletic career at UCLA in both football and basketball, Dorrell soon began to focus on football and to improve dramatically, playing at the position of wide receiver. As a sophomore in 1983 he caught 26 passes for 390 yards and six touchdowns, adding five catches and two touchdowns in UCLA's 45-9 Rose Bowl victory over Illinois. He had already played on the team's 1982 Rose Bowl-winning squad, and after a year lost to injuries he paced the Bruins to a Rose Bowl win once again in 1985. When he graduated in 1987, he ranked second in UCLA team history in pass receptions with 108, and fourth in total receiving yards gained with 1,517.
A computer enthusiast, Dorrell looked forward to a career with the IBM corporation after graduation. But UCLA coach Terry Donahue encouraged his detail-oriented star to think about a coaching career himself after a short stint with pro football's Dallas Cowboys ended with an injury. "He said, 'Karl, as a young minority coach, you'll climb the ladder so fast, you won't know what hit you,'" Dorrell recalled to Graney. Dorrell became a graduate assistant under Donahue and quickly moved on to a receivers coach slot at the University of Central Florida in 1989. There, he helped shape the skills of future National Football League (NFL) stalwart Shawn Jefferson.
Guided Careers of Future
Donahue's prophecy came true as Dorrell quickly ascended to new coaching positions, generally gaining more responsibility or moving to a larger school. He became offensive coordinator at the University of Northern Arizona in 1990 and 1991, wide receivers coach at the University of Colorado in 1992 and 1993, wide receivers coach at Arizona State University in 1994, offensive coordinator at Colorado from 1995 through 1998, and offensive coordinator at the University of Washington in 1999. His rising career resulted not from his minority status, however, but from the stellar performances of his players on the field; over the course of his collegiate career prior to coming to UCLA, Dorrell coached six receivers who went on to play in the NFL. Three became first-round draft picks. Helping steer the Colorado Buffaloes to five postseason bowl appearances in the 1990s, he raised the total number of bowl games he participated in as a player or coach to 12.
After stints with the Denver Broncos training camp coaching staff under the auspices of the NFL's Minority Coaching Fellowship Program in 1993 and 1999, Dorrell joined the Broncos full time in 2000 as wide receivers coach. The players for whom he was responsible—receivers Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith—turned in franchise-record performances during his first year. Thrust into the pro spotlight, Dorrell also dealt with personal tragedy: his sister Debra died of colon cancer at age 46, and he donated stem cells in the course of his brother Kent's battle against leukemia. The last words Dorrell's sister spoke to him, he told Graney, were "Your dream will come true. You're going to be a head coach."
That dream was realized on December 18, 2002, Dorrell's 39th birthday, when he was hired as UCLA's head coach to replace Bob Toledo. The appointment of Dorrell, who had never held a head coaching job, to one of the top jobs in the college football world was a surprise to many, but UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero pointed out Dorrell's UCLA roots to Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Guerrero wanted a coach who "knows something about rivalries …and the importance of those kinds of things in a city like Los Angeles." Bruin fans, for example, were deeply disturbed by UCLA's four consecutive losses to the University of Southern California (USC) under Toledo.
Away from Trouble
With off-the-field player behavior said to be part of the reason for Toledo's firing, Dorrell set clear boundaries from the start. His first words at his first UCLA team meeting, according to Matt Hayes of The Sporting News, were "Don't jeopardize your integrity." The approach paid off, even as crimes by players for other teams were making headlines around the country. "We've had one transgression among over 100 players since the time Karl came in here last spring," Guerrero told USA Today in the fall of 2003. "The word is out in terms of what the expectation is for the student-athletes and what we want as a program overall."
On the field, Dorrell's results weren't so immediate. After an opening-game loss to Colorado and a 1-2 start, however, UCLA won four straight games. They were in contention for a bowl slot in the stretch run but finished with a 6-7 record after a string of five late-season losses including one to arch-rival USC. Dorrell, dissatisfied with his own performance, declined a one-year contract extension, telling Lonnie White of the Los Angeles Times that "In my mind, we did not accomplish enough of our goals."
Several players on the Bruins' offense made strong showings, however, and Dorrell's second season brought promising signs of improvement. After a discouraging loss to Oklahoma State in the season opener, UCLA once again put together a streak of four straight victories. They finished 6-5 overall and, despite being picked to finish eighth in the Pacific 10 Conference, finished fifth with a 4-4 league record. Most encouraging was a close 29-24 loss to a powerhouse USC squad. UCLA went to the Las Vegas Bowl on December 23, losing a 24-21 heartbreaker to Wyoming. After having turned down a contract extension the previous year, Dorrell now agreed to a two-year addition running through the year 2010. "It takes a great deal of patience and perseverance before you start seeing the fruits of your labor," Dorrell told White. "We're starting to get ourselves out of the clouds and we're starting to see the reason why we do things a certain way."
Los Angeles Times, November 12, 2004, p. D1; December 18, 2004, p. D1; December 20, 2004, p. D1.
San Diego Union-Tribune, December 19, 2002, p. D1; August 29, 2003, p. D1; September 5, 2004, p. C11.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 12, 2003, p. D10.
Sporting News, November 10, 2003, p. 68.
USA Today, September 4, 2003, p. C3.
"Karl Dorrell," UCLA Bruins, http://uclabruins.collegesports.com/sports/m-footbl/mtt/dorrell_karl00.html (June 9, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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