Foster looks to change culture, results at UCLA

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
The Sporting Tribune's Arash Markazi sat down with UCLA football coach DeShaun Foster for an exclusive interview about his team.

LOS ANGELES – DeShaun Foster laughed as he walked into his penthouse-sized office on the third floor of the Wasserman Football Center at UCLA.

He had just wrapped up meeting a group of eighth graders and couldn’t stop thinking about one of them who was a USC fan, raised in a household that despised UCLA.

“I asked him what was the score the last time USC played UCLA,” Foster said. “I asked him what was the score the last two times UCLA went to the Coliseum.”

UCLA defeated USC, 38-20, last season and the Bruins beat the Trojans, 62-33, in their previous meeting at the Coliseum, giving them two straight wins on USC’s home field. In the never-ending and ever-changing world of recruiting sometimes the most impactful thing is simply pointing at the scoreboard.

The crosstown rivalry with USC is always on Foster’s mind as he sits on his sprawling couch overlooking UCLA’s practice fields. There’s a California license plate resting above a cabinet that reads, “KILL SC.” When Foster committed to UCLA out of Tustin High School in 1998, the Bruins were in the midst of an eight-game winning streak over USC. In his first season at UCLA, the Bruins won the Pac-10 Conference championship, played in the Rose Bowl and were ranked as high as third in the country going into the last week of the regular season. It’s a level the program hasn’t reached since but one Foster is hoping to recapture after being named the head football coach earlier this year.

Foster recently sat down with The Sporting Tribune for a wide-ranging interview about returning to UCLA for his dream job and his plans for the football program this season and in the future.

There’s a photo on your desk taken the day you were announced as the new head coach at UCLA. Take me back to that day. What was that day like for you?

Emotional. I don’t normally cry but I was just overwhelmed with emotion. It was just a true dream come true. You always have those type of expectations in terms of what you want to do but you truly don’t know if it’s obtainable, especially at my university. It was really just something that was a true blessing. I was so overwhelmed with just joy and the support of everybody that was in that room. Seeing the ex-athletes, my teammates that came that I hadn’t seen in years, the donors, and everyone from the school that came by it was just amazing. It was something that I had been dreaming about when I first started coaching. I thought it would be awesome to one day be the head coach at UCLA but it’s just talk and lip service until it happens. To really truly see it happen and know that it’s attainable was amazing. It’s a dream come true.

How were you offered the job? Who was with you that day?  

Everybody, my whole family, was at my house the day I got the job. It was Super Bowl Sunday. I remember getting the phone call from Martin (Jarmond, UCLA’s director of Athletics). That’s when I motioned to my wife, like, “Come here.” I didn’t want to scream it out because there were other people at the house. Once Martin said to come over to the house after the game that’s when I thought I had this job. My wife was just so ecstatic. She prayed for me and I told my parents. They were there when I committed to UCLA as a player and now, they were with me when UCLA extended an offer to be the team’s head coach. It was crazy.

Before becoming UCLA’s head coach, you had accepted an assistant coaching position with the Las Vegas Raiders. Were you in the process of moving to Las Vegas?  

I was supposed to fly out to Vegas the next day after the Super Bowl. My flight was that next Monday, so the very next day I was supposed to be flying out to Vegas. It was an opportunity to support one of my best friends (Raiders head coach Antonio Pierce). I turned down probably 11 other NFL jobs during that time. I just thought it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. Antonio Pierce being a first-time head coach in the NFL, extending an offer to me to be the running backs coach, it was a no-brainer.

How big is culture as you look to build your program at UCLA and do you look at what Antonio Pierce did at the end of last season with the Raiders when he took over as a first-time head coach. Is that something you two have talked about?

We talked about that a little bit because he was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing here. It was almost like following his blueprint without even really asking him about it. I was very excited and it was awesome that he got the job. He was the one who actually told me, ‘You’re going to be the next head coach at UCLA.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, bro. I’m not sure about that.’ I didn’t know. It happened so fast but he saw something. He just knew I was going to be the next head coach of this team.

Were you surprised how things played out in terms of the timing and how quickly everything came together?

A little bit because it was at a different time. Coaching changes in college aren’t happening in February. The timing of it is what made it weird.

When you got introduced to the team as the head coach, the reaction of the players was priceless. What was that moment like for you?

I’m glad someone was there to capture it because you can’t explain it. That’s the number one thing people say to me when I meet them outside of here. They say I saw the meeting when they introduced you and the way that the players reacted was unbelievable. I didn’t expect that. I knew how the offense felt about me because I had been around them but to see how the defense responded and how everybody ran down there it was just so surreal. It’s hard to put it into words. I was very glad and it just makes you feel good to know people do see how I feel about them and how I value them and how I coach them and they want me to be able to coach them.

College sports is a business where you have coaches leaving for better jobs and players changing schools for better opportunities but this job feels like something more to you because it is your alma mater and your dream job. It doesn’t feel like a stepping stone to a better job. Is that how you feel?

Yes. I want people to know that this isn’t a stepping stone. This is the final stone. This is it. If I’m not the head coach here for the next 20 years, I didn’t do it right. I’m not doing this to propel myself somewhere else. I’m at the top of the game right here at UCLA. It’s the school that I played for ,where I bled out there on that field. I went to class and graduated. I’m a walking blueprint for these guys and what they want to obtain. You can get your degree, play in the NFL and make your dreams come true. I couldn’t be more blessed to be in this position and I just want to take it head on and enjoy it.

There are people who will say you’ve never been a head coach before but you’ve succeeded in the past when doing something for the first time. You started at UCLA as a freshman, your first carry in the NFL went for over 60 yards and you still have one of the top five touchdown runs in your first Super Bowl. How are you able to fast track the learning curve most have to go through when doing something for the first time?

It’s my self-confidence. I truly believe in myself and I believe in the process. I know people use that line all the time, ‘believe in the process,’ but path is the path. I got into coaching but I didn’t want anything handed to me. I wanted to truly earn my way so I was an undergrad coach for two years, I was a GA in my third year and a player development coach before I got the Texas Tech running backs coach job. I wanted to get rid of the football mystique that they give you as an athlete and as a player and truly be DeShaun Foster. I think I did a pretty good job just developing my running backs and getting them to the NFL and helping them reach their goal and it has catapulted me into the head coaching job here at UCLA.

The lifeblood of any program is recruiting and the players you get to join your program. You seem to have embraced that this spring with a Friday Night Lights practice and the Spring Showcase at the Rose Bowl. How important has recruiting been to you and how important is it to what you want to do?

Name me one Hall of Fame coach that didn’t have Hall of Fame players. It’s a player driven league. You got to have athletes so I want to just make sure people know that the times have changed here UCLA. Come see it. Come be a part. Come feel the energy that we have in practice. I always read everybody’s articles after practice to see who’s really describing the atmosphere because it’s truly epic out there. I want to see who’s actually capturing that and being able to tell the people because it’s hard for me to put it into words. I tell everyone just come out and see it because you can feel it. You can truly feel the family, the energy that we have. The more that we can do that and bring everyone together, this train isn’t going to be able to be stopped.

How has this new Wasserman Football Center helped with recruiting and doing what you want to do to reshape the football program?

It’s huge. You have to combat things differently. We don’t have an on-campus stadium but we play at the Rose Bowl. I think our players are truly blessed here with the food that they get, the dorms that they get, this building that they get t come to every day. They value our academics highly. It’s the No. 1 public institute but they’ve done an amazing job of making the athletic part just as successful as the academic part.

You mentioned you don’t have an on-campus stadium but you do play at the Rose Bowl, which recently underwent a $200 million renovation, and is considered one of football’s cathedrals. How has that helped in recruiting?

It’s huge. There’s so much history there. It’s stuff that kids’ parents and grandparents have seen and it’s something that you want to be a part of. There’s some who say the Rose Bowl is so far from campus but it’s the Rose Bowl. There’s nothing like it. It speaks for itself. Nobody else plays in a stadium with a name like that, that’s iconic around the world. When you hear Rose Bowl, you think of the history. I just want to get it to the point where you hear Rose Bowl, you think UCLA Bruins. I think we have enough buzz right now that people are going to come out to the Rose Bowl to watch us and give us an opportunity to show them something. I think that’s the only thing we need. Just give us an opportunity to show you what kind of product we’re putting out there on the field and that’s going to make you want to be involved with what we’re doing. That’s why I have a lot of this stuff open so people see what we’re doing and are invested in the program. If you don’t know something, you might not want to be involved with it. If you can’t see it, you might not want to be involved in it so I want everyone to see it. I want to open things up so people see what we’re doing and connect with us and connect with the players on a personal level. That will make them more invested and make them want to be involved.

You were at UCLA when L.A. was a UCLA football town in the sense that UCLA beat USC eight straight times, were the Pac-10 champions, Top 5 team and playing in the Rose Bowl. It hasn’t been that way in over 25 years. What would it mean to get the program back to that level when you were a player?

I know our players are probably tired about hearing about when I was playing but they always say, ‘Coach, we want it to be like when you were playing.’ We just have to put a good product out there. If you put a good product out there, they will come. It won’t matter the distance between campus and the Rose Bowl. If we’re playing good ball, people will come. I think we’re doing a good job of getting the momentum of people getting behind us.

NIL has changed college sports in so many ways. It’s now a business more so than ever before in terms of what you can provide players off the field. How much will you lean on being in Los Angeles and the sports and entertainment capital of the world when it comes to recruiting?

A lot. You have to. You would be stupid not to take advantage of Los Angeles. There are a lot of Bruins in different fields. Let’s give them access. Let’s use that access. Matt Barnes, for example, said you can use my platform anytime you want. Whatever you want to do, just let me know and I got you. That’s the kind of support you get here at UCLA. The sky’s the limit for us. We’re changing things. We’re trending in the right direction. It’s going how I wanted it to go so far. I’m excited.

Another part of college sports now is the transfer portal and the possibility of losing players after one season. How big is culture and the culture you’re building here and wanting to roll with players that want to be here?

It’s huge when you’re talking about the guys that want to be here. If you want to be here that means you’re going to run through a wall for your teammates. You have a level of buy-in where you’re into this. It’s hard if somebody doesn’t want to be a part of the program. It’s hard to get them to buy-in. One person then becomes two because he might take somebody with him. I think as long as you’re upfront with these kids, coaching them hard every day and treating them fairly, everything will be fine. It’s a very tough sport. Like we said earlier, recruiting is huge. It plays a huge role in this. I’m just excited, going into Big 10 for the first time. I’m excited to be playing new teams and playing in new stadiums. This is going to be exciting.  

One of the first things people see when they walk into your office is that “KILL SC” California license plate. How big is that rivalry with USC now that both schools are moving to the Big 10 Conference?

They’re right there. It’s a big rivalry. I was just in there with some eighth graders and one of them was like, ‘What about USC?’ And I just asked him, ‘What was the score last year?’ That’s it. There’s nothing else to say. The scoreboard is the score. That’ it. It’s fun banter but it’s very competitive. We’re so close. Most of the kids over there either played with or against our kids growing up in school. A lot of families are split between UCLA and USC so it’s a true family affair. It’s fun to go out there and play against somebody that you might have called your brother a couple years ago. I just love that it’s a true rivalry and it’s not just during the season. It’s year-round and I’m just excited for the rest of the world to see it.

When you walk into the football facility, there’s no question that this is a Jordan Brand school when you see the Jumpman logo on the practice fields and throughout that facility. How big has that connection been when you’re talking about recruiting kids that might decide on a school based on shoes and apparel?

That’s huge. We had a different brand before (Under Armour) and that was tough. Yeah. That was tough. This speaks a little bit more to us being in L.A. and just the market value. You know, kids loved Jordan and that’s why we put it all over the building.

Kids watching the NFL now or at least over the past six seasons want to be like Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and the Kansas City Chiefs and your new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy was their offensive coordinator. How much has he helped so far in recruiting and changing the culture?

He has helped a lot. Coach Bieniemy is amazing. He’s someone I lean on. It was just great to be able to get such a veteran coach to come in here and help out with the program and the sky’s the limit the offense to an accountability level that’s unmatched.

What’s your mindset going into your first season as a head coach and the program’s first season in the Big 10 Conference?

I don’t want to say we just want to be competitive but I truly just want my guys to get out there and play hard every game. I think if we cover that and play hard and play disciplined, the wins will come. It’s just a style of play that I would like for us to go out there play with. You know that you’ve just been in a fight, in a battle when you play us. You played a true game against these guys and it was tough. I just want to make sure that the effort is out there and you never look out there on the field and say we didn’t want to play. You will never see that. I just want you to see these guys locked in and see how hard they are playing. I want us to be the type of team that runs to the fight.