- Rick Reilly, Columnist, ESPN.com
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There are two major college football coaches in L.A.: Pete Carroll at USC and Rick Neuheisel at UCLA.
One of them is bouncy and beloved by his players. Once tagged as a complete failure, he's made his way back to the top ranks. He's fun and feisty, cocky and confident, always sprinting hither and yon and pointing fingers in maybe a few too many faces. He's a proven winner, a stadium-filler, a leader people make drum circles around.
The other is Pete Carroll.
Yeah, Neuheisel has a lot of nerve moving into Pete Carroll's town. Carroll has the highest winning percentage among active FBS coaches. He's 88-15 at USC. He's NEVER lost in November. But what might put a pea under USC's mattresses is this: In style, energy, and cool, Neuheisel might as well be Carroll's knockoff little brother. And like any annoying little brother, Neuheisel has tried everything to get Carroll to notice him.
"It's like we're fishing," Neuheisel says. "We can feel them messing with the lure. We're trying to get them to bite."
He's thrown out lots of bait. He hired offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who helped Carroll win two national titles at USC before they had a falling-out. Chow is Carroll's sore spot, and Neuheisel knows it. He likes to say, "Norm had two Heisman Trophy winners at USC!" Not "Pete had." Not "USC had."
The first week on the job, he announced, "We'll take back the city!" Then he appeared on a poster pointing to some great beyond, saying, "The Football Monopoly in Los Angeles is Officially Over!" Which some USC fan reprinted, adding the word "There," to make it look like Neuheisel was pointing toward Troy and saying "The Football Monopoly in Los Angeles is Officially Over There!"
"Funny," says Neuheisel, who is beginning his second season in Westwood. "But you know what? I think it's a call to arms for our folks to get behind us, support us. This thing isn't as far away as people think."
(Clearing throat noise.) Uh, timeout for a sanity break?
USC has beaten UCLA nine of the past 10 games.
USC hasn't finished out of the top four nationally in seven years.
UCLA hasn't sniffed a Pac-10 title in a decade.
Not far away? It's a round-trip ticket to Mars.
"Not really," Neuheisel insists. "Since my freshman year [at UCLA in '79], the rivalry is 15-14-1 [USC]. This is do-able."
And just for the record: QB Neuheisel and a severely underdog 1983 Bruins team whipped USC his senior year and went on to win the Rose Bowl. "I've seen it happen here before!"
Neuheisel, 48, is as optimistic as a little girl opening a pony-shaped present. He's the Monty Python knight who'll bite your legs off if you'll only get close enough. He's Lane Kiffin Lite.
"I told Pete, 'I just want you to know I hope there'll be a day when we're not just competing for the town. We're competing for the big prize, the huge prize.' And Pete said, 'The media will never let it happen. Two teams from one town? No way.' And I said, 'Stranger things have happened. Remember the state of Florida for a while?'"
Do you love it? This from a guy who, six years ago, was fired at Washington for lying about betting in an NCAA hoops pool. ("I don't even swim in pools anymore," he says.) Who, two years ago, was the offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens, which is something like being the hair coordinator for Carrot Top. Who last year lost 59-0 to BYU on the way to a 4-8 rookie season.
I drove across town to see if big brother was hearing a faint noise from Westwood. Carroll wouldn't even sniff.
"He knows you boogie-boarded the Hermosa Beach pier," I said. "But he says he'll whip you at golf."
"I believe it!" Carroll said. "I don't play."
But Neuheisel and his little plastic spoon might actually be digging a tiny hole in Mount USC. For instance, Neuheisel had the 14th-best 2009 recruiting class, according to Rivals.com. Unfortunately, Carroll had the fourth.
And he's got UCLA fans starting to froth. After all, they point out, in his second year at Colorado, Neuheisel went 10-2. In his second year at Washington, he went 11-1. And yes, he went 4-8 in his first year at UCLA, but Carroll went 6-6 in his first at USC.
Plus, Neuheisel is nearly 10 years younger than Carroll. He plays the guitar, likes to go inner-tubing down rivers, recruits players and boosters and media like he's on an amphetamine drip. "There's 13 million people in L.A. and no pro football! There's room for both of us!"
Then again, Carroll, 57, looks 37. He runs patterns -- often for an hour -- after practice. He makes 2 a.m. sojourns into the center of the Crips-Bloods gang wars to talk peace and hope. He runs a funnel for great high school players straight to the NFL, with 56 draftees so far. With his long hair facing some permanent unseen wind machine, his mug ever-tan, the man is a fountain of cool.
So how does Wonder Boy plan to topple all that?
Maybe this is how: Last year, the two bumped into each other at Inglewood High School, recruiting the same player. The story goes that Carroll said to Neuheisel, "The UCLA coach is out recruiting an L.A. kid? Crazy."
To which Neuheisel said, "Won't be the last," and walked away.
Reel, reel, reel.
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5hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann