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TOLEDO: `I'D RATHER LOSE A GAME'.

Byline: KEVIN MODESTI

Bob Toledo tried Wednesday to eliminate any question that he's mad as hell about the UCLA football team's rapidly expanding rap sheet.

``I'd rather lose a game than have a guy hit a guy in the mouth,'' the head coach told me, clearly and forcefully, on the campus practice field. ``I really would.''

The remaining question is what took him so long.

Until now, Toledo's public response to two years' worth of players' assault charges, drunken-driving convictions, improper gift-taking and handicapped-parking scandals has been to try to minimize the incidents' magnitude.

He has made excuses for his players, saying they were in wrong places at wrong times, saying they threw punches only in self-defense, saying barroom drunks sometimes will pick fights with athletes. He has made the trouble sound like old news, talking about how one of the fights took place way back in 2000, talking about how one involved a freshman who hadn't yet joined the team. He has accentuated the positive, noting he has ``over a hundred players doing the right thing, but we had a couple making a bad decision and they get all the attention.''

He has assured fans that, despite the rash of bad news - most recently Ricky Manning's arrest Aug. 27 and Shane Lehmann's battery conviction Tuesday - UCLA players preparing for Saturday's season opener against Colorado State at the Rose Bowl ``will not be distracted.''

When maybe they should be distracted.

Toledo's instinct has been to protect himself from the scandals by downplaying them and by suggesting that kids will be kids and there's little a football coach can do to prevent it.

All he has done is dig himself a deeper hole as isolated incidents have bled together to form a pattern of misbehavior.

The only good thing to be said for Toledo's mixed, measured response to the off-the-field problems is that it was the logical extension of his reaction to the Bruins' on-the-field problems the past three seasons.

Having failed to take responsibility for what went wrong Saturday afternoon, why would he take the blame for what went wrong Saturday night?

The impression grew that although Toledo suspended players when he had to, he was too willing to shrug, to accept a brawl or two as the price of running a football program so close to the mean streets of Westwood Village, to see a barroom punch-up as only a little worse than a practice-field scuffle.

But there are encouraging signs.

At his pre-fall-camp news conference three weeks ago, Toledo alluded so often to his own mistakes last season - without specifying what exactly those mistakes were - that he seemed to be trying to make up for lost time.

And then, Wednesday, when I told him I didn't think he'd been strident enough in condemning the Westwood crime wave, he set out to rectify the situation in no uncertain terms.

``I don't like it. I'm disappointed in it,'' Toledo said after a late-afternoon practice session. ``It's easy to say, `It happens all over the country,' but people don't care about that and I really don't either. I care about us.''

Until now, he had said exactly that, ``It happens all over the country.''

``I am upset. I am upset,'' Toledo said. ``I'm not going to rant and rave publicly. But I do it in that (team) meeting room. You know, I have suspended guys. I have kicked guys off the team. You know, I have principles, too.''

He said he has tried to stick up for his players, out of loyalty.

``We don't have a bunch of thugs, we have good kids. I've been a lot of other places where they have a lot worse kids,'' said Toledo, who has coached college football at San Francisco State, UC Riverside, USC, Pacific, Oregon and Texas A&M (so whom do you suppose he's referring to?). ``But we've had a series of events that have made it look bad.''

Offensive lineman Lehmann's no-contest plea to a misdemeanor battery charge, the result of a fight last spring at a Westwood bar where he had been employed as a bouncer. Two-time all-Pacific-10 Conference cornerback Manning's surrendering to police after a felony arrest warrant had been issued over an April fight outside the same Westwood bar where Lehmann got in trouble. Fights involving linebacker Audie Attar (kicked off the team), freshman defensive lineman C.J. Niusulu (facing a felony battery charge) and defensive end Asi Faoa (guilty of assault). Quarterback Cory Paus' drunken-driving convictions. Tailback DeShaun Foster's ill-gotten SUV.

The campus handicapped-parking abuses by 19 players.

Who can say the Bruins' rap sheet would be shorter if they had somebody other than Toledo as head coach? Maybe there is no recruit-screening procedure, no team rule, no disciplinary measure that Toledo could initiate that would keep boys from being boys. But he has to remove any suspicion in the minds of players, recruits and their parents, university administrators and NCAA enforcement officials that breaking the pattern is a low priority.

``I'd rather lose a game than have a guy hit a guy in the mouth.''

Sounds like a good start.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 5, 2002
Words:854
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