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August 7, 2008
Neuheisel happy to have another chance
» Rivals.com Preseason Countdown - No. 43: UCLA Bruins
LOS ANGELES – Over the past five years, Rick Neuheisel spent his Saturdays like many of us.
He would work in the morning, in his case for the Baltimore Ravens. He would watch his sons play youth football. Then he'd sit on the couch and watch college football until 2 a.m., furiously switching from channel to channel.
"I was a junkie," Neuheisel said.
As a former college coach, Neuheisel saw the college games through a different eye. Besides coaching from his couch, he constantly looked for teams to lose. Every coach on the hot seat meant a possible chance for Neuheisel.
"I loved it, but I'd start to feel guilty because I didn't want anybody to win," Neuheisel said. "I was hoping for opportunities to get back in. I'd go, 'I'm a terrible person. That's one of my buddies and I'm not happy when he's winning because there's a job that's not going to open up.' "
The opportunity came when Neuheisel's alma mater fired Karl Dorrell at the end of the season. After five years of exile, Neuheisel is back in the college game. UCLA hopes Neuheisel's return will end the Bruins' exile from the Pac-10 elite.
Since Washington fired him after the 2002 season, Neuheisel, 47, has plotted his return to college. At times, he had to consider the possibility no one in college would take a coach with his past.
Nevertheless, he asked Dorrell about the vacant offensive coordinator position at UCLA a year ago. He interviewed at Georgia Tech. And if Norm Chow – who interviewed with the Bruins – was given the UCLA job, Neuheisel said he would have sought the coordinator's position. Instead, UCLA hired Neuheisel, who in turn hired Chow as his offensive coordinator.
"I thought about it all the time," Neuheisel said. "I'm a big believer in charting your destiny and how you're going to get there. You keep thinking about what needs to happen before it happens. This wasn't the furthest thing from my mind. At times, it consumed me."
UCLA has been grasping for relevance of its own. Since the Bruins' last Pac-10 title in 1998, UCLA is 61-48 overall and 38-36 in the conference. Making UCLA's situation more pressing is the rise of crosstown rival USC over the same period. UCLA has only one win over the Trojans in the past nine meetings.
From a public relations standpoint, Neuheisel already has revived the Los Angeles rivalry. The first shot came when Neuheisel hired Chow, who was the architect of USC's two national championship offenses. In recruiting, Neuheisel signed the No. 2 class in the Pac-10, behind USC. Despite a shortened recruiting calendar for the new staff, Neuheisel signed the nation's No. 13 class, the highest-ranked class for UCLA since 2002.
He also seems to relish his role as underdog to the Trojans. At Pac-10 Media Day in July, Neuheisel indirectly pressed USC coach Pete Carroll into talking about the rivalry and the Dec. 6 meeting between the teams.
By the end of Media Day, the questions about UCLA and Neuheisel's comments seemed to rankle Carroll. "He says what he's got to say," Carroll said. "They're just words."
If Neuheisel is looking to fire up his players, the mission has been accomplished. His enthusiasm has rubbed off on the team.
"He changed the program around," defensive tackle Brigham Harwell said. "My first impression is that he's like a young player. He really brought excitement back. Every day is high energy. This program is going to rise."
The energy and optimism comes at a price. In hiring Neuheisel, UCLA needed to look beyond the coach's past. The NCAA placed Colorado on two years' probation after it found the Buffaloes committed 50 minor violations during Neuheisel's tenure. Controversy followed him to Washington, when – before his first practice with the Huskies – he was accused of improper contact with his former players at Colorado. Then, after his first signing day at Washington, Neuheisel was reprimanded by the Pac-10 for publicly criticizing the coaches at Oregon and UCLA for negative recruiting. Then, during his tenure with the Huskies, Washington imposed penalties on itself for violations in recruiting.
In a Seattle Times series this offseason, the newspaper revealed a "disturbing level of criminal conduct and hooliganism" on the Neuheisel-coached Huskies team that reached the 2001 Rose Bowl. The Times reported a dozen members of the team were arrested or charged with a crime that season, and a dozen other players ran afoul of the law in other seasons.
After the 2002 season, Neuheisel told Washington officials he did not interview for the San Francisco 49ers job when, in fact, he did. Then, it was discovered he participated in an NCAA Tournament pool with friends and neighbors, which was called a violation of the NCAA's rules against gambling. Washington fired him in June 2003.
"It didn't need to go down that way, but it is in the past and hopefully everybody has learned from it. I certainly have and we move on."
Neuheisel later was cleared of wrongdoing in the gambling incident and settled with the NCAA and Washington in 2005 for $4.5 million.
Neuheisel and UCLA officials say the past is past.
"I looked Rick in the eye, he looked me in the eye, and we conveyed very clearly what our thoughts were," UCLA director of athletics Dan Guerrero told The Los Angeles Times in December. "This happened five to 10 years ago, and he said he is much wiser and more mature."
Neuheisel's primary problem now is finding ways to get UCLA into the end zone. On the next-to-last day of spring practice, his top two quarterbacks went down with injuries during a non-contact drill: Patrick Cowan sustained a season-ending torn ACL and Ben Olson broke his foot. Olson since has been cleared to practice.
Tailback Kahlil Bell, who ran for 795 yards last season, returns after missing the final five games and spring ball after a knee injury. But he'll run behind a line that is in shambles. Tackle Micah Kia is the only lineman who will start at the same position he played last season, and depth is dangerously thin.
"I'm not sure yet what we do well," Neuheisel said. "We have to find it. There will be some trial and error, but we have to find it."
It might not be an easy first season back in the game. But at least Neuheisel will be watching from the sideline rather than his living room.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.