UCLA hires DeShaun Foster as its football coach

UCLA went with a familiar, beloved name in selecting the football coach to lead it into a new era. The Bruins hired DeShaun Foster.

The former star running back for the school who appeared in its last Rose Bowl game will replace Chip Kelly, the school announced Monday after completing a warp-speed search that lasted less than 72 hours and included 11 interviews and correspondence with more than 20 potential candidates.

While galvanizing a large swath of the fan base, not to mention current players loyal to Foster as the team’s longtime running backs coach, the move comes with considerable risk. It will give UCLA the least experienced head coach in the Big Ten as it transitions into the conference in August and is reminiscent of the school’s hiring of Karl Dorrell more than two decades ago.

Like Dorrell, who was hired by UCLA in 2003 at a time when he was the Denver Broncos’ wide receivers coach, the 44-year-old Foster has worked only as a position coach and never called plays. Dorrell went on to coach for five largely uninspiring seasons before his dismissal.

Foster will be introduced at a news conference late Tuesday morning inside Pauley Pavilion’s Pavilion Club.

UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond cited Foster’s integrity, energy, passion and ability to develop players in making his decision, though another factor might have been just as significant. When he informed players about the hiring, Jarmond teased the move by saying, “We didn’t get somebody that wants to be a Bruin — we got a Bruin. Come on out, coach.”

Foster then entered the meeting room to raucous applause, several players bounding out of their seats to embrace him.

The move will save the Bruins money because it will allow them to largely keep their current coaching staff intact rather than pay buyouts as part of a complete overhaul. Foster also presumably came cheaper than some of the more established candidates UCLA considered, though terms of his five-year contract were not immediately available.

Foster will need to hire an offensive coordinator in addition to a tight ends coach and running backs coach after Foster vacated the latter role to take the same post with the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders before running a reverse back to his alma mater. Another opening was created Monday when UCLA inside linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. reportedly agreed to take a job with the Washington Commanders as their linebackers coach.

“This is a dream come true,” Foster, a member of the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “I always envisioned being a Bruin ever since I was young, and now being the head coach at my alma mater is such a surreal feeling, and I’m grateful for this opportunity. The foundation of this program will be built on discipline, respect and enthusiasm. These are phenomenal young men, and I’m excited to hit the ground running.”

Foster’s hiring will probably satisfy the UCLA players who backed his candidacy on social media and prevent a mass exodus among players whose 30-day clock to enter the transfer portal started ticking upon Kelly’s departure late last week. The Bruins could return almost every top offensive player, including quarterback Ethan Garbers, running back T.J. Harden and wide receiver J.Michael Sturdivant.

Harden retweeted the announcement of Foster’s hiring, adding, “Thank you!!!” Tweeted Garbers: “Perfect man for the job! We are going to have something special in Westwood! We need the fans [sic] support!!”

Known for having a mellow, reserved personality, Foster will need to significantly energize the Bruins’ recruiting and name, image and likeness efforts that had sagged under his predecessor. UCLA’s most recent recruiting class — including transfers — is ranked No. 59 nationally by 247Sports.com, giving the Bruins their worst rating since the rise of recruiting services before the turn of the century.

Not long after news of Foster’s hiring was announced, he received an endorsement from Jason Negro, the coach of Southern California prep football power St. John Bosco.

“I think it’s a great hire,” Negro told The Times. “I’m excited for DeShaun. He and I have had a great relationship. I appreciate the way he recruits. I appreciate his honesty. He knows Los Angeles and Orange counties.”

Foster’s position had routinely been the best on the team over the last seven years as the Bruins cycled through several running backs who would go on to play in the NFL, including Zach Charbonnet, Joshua Kelley and Demetric Felton Jr. The Bruins led the Pac-12 in rushing in each of the last two seasons, averaging 237.2 yards per game during the 2022 season, when Foster was nominated for the Broyles Award that goes to the nation’s top college assistant coach.

The success of Kelley and Felton, in particular, was a reflection of Foster’s skill in developing players considering that Kelley arrived as a walk-on transfer from UC Davis and Felton started his college career as a wide receiver.

“He wasn’t known as a tireless grinder on the recruiting trail and didn’t win a lot of battles for the great, elite running backs out there,” said Greg Biggins, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports.com said of Foster. “But he did a great job of developing the guys he did get. I think he’s a really, really good running backs coach, an NFL-level running backs coach and developer of talent.”

Born in Charlotte, N.C., Foster unleashed a punishing running style at Tustin High before signing with UCLA, where he scored three touchdowns in his first rivalry game against USC in 1998, a victory that capped the Bruins’ school-record 20-game winning streak. He played in the Rose Bowl loss to Wisconsin at the end of that season and finished his career in second place on the school’s all-time list in touchdowns scored (44), third in rushing yards (3,194) and fifth in scoring (266 points).

His college career was not devoid of controversy. The summer before his junior season, Foster was issued a $250 ticket for possession of marijuana in Ventura County. A little more than a year later, with UCLA at 6-2 and still contending for a major bowl game, Foster was found to have been driving an SUV owned by actor-director Eric Laneuville. UCLA suspended the Heisman Trophy candidate for the season’s final three games for violating NCAA extra-benefits rules and the Bruins lost two of their final three games.

Foster went on to be selected in the second round of the NFL draft and spent a combined seven seasons with the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers. His 33-yard touchdown run for the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the New England Patriots ranks as the sixth-longest scoring run in the history of the big game.

Foster started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at UCLA under Jim Mora from 2013 to 2015 before spending one season under Kliff Kingsbury as Texas Tech’s running backs coach. In 2017, Foster returned to UCLA as running backs coach under Mora and was retained by Kelly when he was hired later that year.

Foster was known for developing deep interpersonal relationships with players in a way that his boss did not prior to Kelly’s departure last week to take Ohio State’s offensive coordinator job. But the challenge facing Foster goes far beyond making friends.

He’ll have to pick someone to install a new offense and bolster a defense that is losing star edge rushers Laiatu Latu and twins Grayson and Gabriel Murphy to the NFL. UCLA also faces a frightening 2024 schedule that includes games against Louisiana State, Penn State, Oregon, Washington and USC.

UCLA is betting that a onetime star known for never being dragged down easily can lead the way once more.

Times staff writer Eric Sondheimer contributed to this report.

First appeared on www.latimes.com

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