UCLA's 'Friday Night Lights' showcases DeShaun Foster's vision of competitive fun

LOS ANGELES, CA - March 15, 2024: UCLA head coach Deshaun Foster talks with the media after UCLA football's annual Pro Day. (Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

For a few hours, UCLA football was once again a player in a sports landscape that had practically abandoned it.

Fans jammed one side of a parking lot overlooking the Bruins’ practice field. Parents and donors packed the terrace of the Wasserman Football Center. Hundreds of high school recruits and former players milled about on the field, some bopping to the pulsating music.

For a few hours, UCLA football embraced a community.

Kids got their faces painted. Students played cornhole. Everyone was riveted by a fire twirler.

For a few hours, UCLA football was back to being fun.

“Blake Glessner, for the Rose Bowl!” onetime Bruins linebacker-turned-play-by-play announcer Shea Pitts bellowed through a microphone as the team’s kicker lined up for a field-goal attempt accompanied by imaginary stakes.

Read more: Five takeaways from the midpoint of UCLA spring football practice

Watching the kick sail through the uprights, Pitts added, “Perfect snap! Perfect kick!”

UCLA’s “Friday Night Lights” event was part carnival, part football practice, completely lively.

“I’m just excited that my vision actually turned out to be pretty good,” coach DeShaun Foster said afterward. “I was just missing the Ferris wheel.”

Who knows whether UCLA football will win or lose under its new coach, but there's no debating that Foster has relentlessly sought to revive interest in a program that had set record attendance lows under predecessor Chip Kelly while extending a major bowl game drought that has surpassed a quarter century.

Judging by the turnout of a few thousand Friday night, Foster continues to win the offseason. Prominent alumni included Josh Kelley, Laiatu Latu, Cassius Marsh and Quentin Lake, with some former players telling Foster they wished the Bruins had staged this event when they were on the team. In what amounted to a clever recruiting pitch, Pitts interviewed Latu — a probable first-round pick in next week’s NFL draft — about what it was like to play for new defensive coordinator Ikaika Malloe.

Continuing a new tradition, the Bruins started the practice with a competition period featuring one-on-one battles. Foster had unveiled the matchups with great fanfare to his players earlier in the day, their headshots superimposed on those of warriors. When it was revealed that tight ends coach Jerry Neuheisel would take on safeties coach Brian Norwood, a raucous chant of “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” broke out inside the meeting room.

“I kind of asked them, like, who do you want go against?” Foster said of his process in setting the matchups between his players. “Who have you had a little something with on the field?”

Read more: UCLA's defense suffers huge blow with star lineman Jay Toia entering transfer portal

The receivers routinely burned the defensive backs. After Titus Mokiao-Atimalala beat K.J. Wallace by snagging a deep pass from Ethan Garbers inside the five-yard line, the rest of the offense ran over to swarm Mokiao-Atimalala in celebration. Fans who didn’t have a good vantage point could watch on a giant video board positioned behind the end zone.

Only a few weeks after being awarded a scholarship, defensive back Kanye Clark was given the challenge of defending top slot receiver Logan Loya. The teammates got tangled up, resulting in pass interference on Clark, before Loya won the rematch by hauling in a pass.

In perhaps the most encouraging development of the roughly two-hour practice, Garbers continued to shine the way he had over the preceding handful of sessions.

“Ethan’s balling right now,” Foster said of his presumed starting quarterback.

The practice ended with that highly anticipated showdown between Neuheisel and Norwood … in rock-paper-scissors. With the entire team gathered around and loudly taking sides, Norwood prevailed in a best-of-three.

Foster said he told his players that he’s just an older version of them, visualizing what they would want in a situation like this.

“I’m just trying to make it fun, man,” Foster said. “Football’s a fun sport, it’s an awesome game, it changes people’s lives, and hopefully we can continue this going and my guys can enjoy this and make it to the pros and keep going.”

The competition spilled over to the media afterward, Foster challenging reporters to tell the best story about what they had seen. As he scanned the throng of fans who lingered, the coach looked like a proud father whose entire family had shown up at a reunion.

“I just like the fact that the city’s behind us, you know what I mean?” Foster said.

What could the coach do for an encore? He guaranteed the Bruins would top this with the spring game on April 27 at the Rose Bowl that will be preceded by a UCLA men’s soccer game against Liga Premier U23 Select.

“Hopefully,” Foster said, “we can get these people into the Rose Bowl next weekend and then build that into the season.”


Foster said he remained in touch with Jay Toia after the star defensive lineman entered the transfer portal Thursday and left open the possibility of a return.

“I don’t have a problem with him seeing what’s out there,” Foster said, “and hopefully Monday will be a good day” with news that Toia had changed his mind.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.