Bruins are Neuheisel's team now
The third-year UCLA coach gets to begin a year of promise with his own recruits
PASADENA, Calif. -- Rick Neuheisel is comfortable now. He is on a first-name basis with all the campus personnel and doesn't feel like he's got to make a good first impression anymore. He's been in the living rooms of most of his players, recruited them out of high school, and been the guy they called and said "yes" to on signing day.
These UCLA Bruins are now his UCLA Bruins. It's comforting in a way, but it also means the unofficial clock to produce a winner has started ticking. His predecessor in Westwood, Karl Dorrell, was given only five years to make things good again before he was fired. Neuheisel is entering his third season.
Neuheisel seems to know this as clearly as anyone, and yet when he was asked about it Thursday at the Pac-10's media day at the Rose Bowl, he leaned back in his chair, thought for a second, then calmly said he didn't mind the pressure at all.
"We're in a deliver business," Neuheisel said. "I've got a sense of calm, not hurrying to get it done. If it doesn't get done, that'll work itself out. If somebody decides there's a better person for UCLA football in terms of leadership, they'll let me know.
"But I am excited about the challenge that this season presents, and I'm so fond of the guys in our program. I know what they want, so we're going to do it together. We're going to figure out a way to be a UCLA team that not only our fans are proud of but everybody else has to take notice of."
We've heard Neuheisel's relentlessly positive schtick before. He said it for his players as much as anyone, so they'd believe this all was going some place better during his first two seasons, when he was left to coach a noticeably thin and talent-poor group.
But whenever he spoke of his vision, it was always in the ever-receeding future, off in the distance as something to strive for and work toward.
Now, all of a sudden, he's begun using the present tense.
"I believe we're going to be better than people believe and I don't mind saying it," Neuheisel said. "I don't mind telling [All-American safety] Rahim [Moore] and his teammates that our expectations are higher and they should be.
"We're in Year 3, we've done a lot of research, we've done a lot of development, the kids have all bought in. It's time to play."
After losing seven of their 11 starters on defense, including All-American defensive tackle Brian Price (who was the 35th overall pick in this year's NFL draft), the Bruins were picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10's preseason media poll.
It didn't help that they have one of their most difficult schedules in years with road games at Kansas State (Sept. 4) and Texas (Sept. 25) and a home date with Houston (Sept. 18).
Last season, the Bruins were picked seventh in the preseason poll and Neuheisel spent media day saying he would consider a postseason berth (essentially, at least six wins) a successful season.
This year, despite the losses to graduation or the NFL draft, Neuheisel struck a much more confident public tone.
"Be better than we were last year. I want the momentum to keep going," he said.
Neuheisel said he took only "minitrips" during the offseason. Recruiting, planning and researching have become all-consuming and all-season in college football these days.
With nine starters back on what was one of the lowest-scoring offenses in the country last season, Neuheisel figured things could break one of two ways: The offense would simply improve with experience, or the offense would plateau and keep having the same problems.
Instead of letting things evolve on their own, Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow decided to add a few wrinkles to the offense, simply to see whether change for the sake of change would be a spark.
After studying several of the nation's top offenses, and doggedly evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the Bruins' current personnel, Neuheisel and Chow found their way to Reno, Nevada, to learn about the "pistol offense" from Wolfpack coach Chris Ault.
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The Bruins installed it as a set during spring practice, and Neuheisel was encouraged enough by the results to talk about it publicly at media day.
"Norm and I had a conversation after last year that we had to do some things differently to expect different results," Neuheisel said. "So we went out there and studied different programs and ideas.
"We always can go back and do what we did and hope we're just a little bit better. But I went through this before at the University of Washington, where we couldn't move the ball, and all it took was just this magic, this little spark of making defenses play something every down to create the opportunity to exploit them in other places."
The pistol will be merely a tool in the Bruins' kit, not an every-down call. But the fact Neuheisel and Chow are beginning to add to their playbook after two seasons of simply trying to get everyone to learn all the plays in the old one shows how far UCLA has come.
It's Year 3. Everyone knows the plays. Everyone knows Rick Neuheisel by now. The time for introductions and laying groundwork is over.
Neuheisel knows as well as everyone else that it's time for the old quarterback to stand in the pocket and start delivering.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com.