Rick Neuheisel's time running out
The UCLA coach talks like a man fighting for his career, a position that he relishes
He had to call from a strange number, which I might not have answered except that he called exactly when he said he would.
"I had to use my wife's phone," Rick Neuheisel explained. "Mine's all out of juice."
For the past month he's been a traveling salesman, selling his program all over the country. Day and night, in person and over the phone, sleeping only when it's not polite to be calling recruits or their family or when he's on a plane.
"Nobody enjoys recruiting more than me," he said. "I absolutely love it. Meeting new families, selling and sharing UCLA and my vision for where we can go."
Neuheisel has always been great in the living room. Funny, charismatic, passionate and positive. If football games where played in front of a recruit and his family, he'd have nothing to worry about.
Only this year it's a little harder.
Not much except recruiting has gone right in the three years Neuheisel has been UCLA's coach. His Bruins are just 15-22, with two 4-8 seasons sandwiching one mildly bright spot: a 7-6 record and an EagleBank Bowl win in 2009.
And now he also has to sell a program that's been looking for a new defensive coordinator and wide receivers coach for more than a month, that may or may not have an offensive coordinator, and still seems to be figuring out how to divorce or amicably demote Norm Chow.
UCLA's poor record is on Neuheisel. But the delay in hiring the coordinators and sorting out Chow's situation seems more procedural and bureaucratic than passive-aggressive.
"There's a protocol that is part of the university system that requires a by-the-book approach," he said carefully.
"Sometimes that keeps you from reaching full potential. But in the long run I think there's advantages to it because it's going to make sure that you don't fall into any pitfalls by taking shortcuts."
The closer you read that quote, the more Neuheisel sounds like a man trying to make the best of a frustrating situation.
Which is a shame considering this is likely his make-or-break year.
If this is going to be his last stand, and Neuheisel didn't even deny the heat of the seat he'll be sitting on next season, he should be able to do it his way, unencumbered by outside opinions, influences or issues.
From the day he was hired, it felt like UCLA put training wheels on him. He jumped on board with the idea of hiring Chow and defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker, but it was never his idea.
His relationship with Chow has always been civil and professional, but it was clear early on that the two offensive-minded coaches weren't meshing well.
That's not an indictment of Chow or Neuheisel, just reality. Great offensive minds often work best when left alone and given as much autonomy as possible. And if you look at Chow's history, he's always done best when paired with a defensive-minded head coach.
Now, after three seasons of frustrating sputtering on offense, Neuheisel has decided to go in another direction.
"I have the utmost respect for Norm," he said. "But it hasn't worked. That's why we're going to need a reorganization.
"We've tried a number of things and certainly you can make the case for, 'If this guy had stayed healthy or that guy stayed healthy,' but putting that aside, we just haven't been as clean an operation as we need to be to be successful at this time in the Pac-10, and soon to be the Pac-12.
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"I have made clear to Norm that I'm looking at a lot of different options and the likelihood is that he would take a different role."
That's about as far as Neuheisel has gone in saying that Chow probably won't be UCLA's offensive coordinator next year.
It's just strange and frustrating that he can't go farther when it's pretty clear he's made up his mind not to retain Chow as his offensive coordinator.
"For all those nervous or frustrated about signing day, I just want them to calm down and just know that somehow, someway that this will end up good for UCLA," he said.
"It has to."
That last part isn't coach-speak. Every ounce of Neuheisel believes that he's the guy to turn UCLA around and return it to the glory days.
He'll believe it even if he gets fired after this season.
"When you have [an] error, you've got to fix it," he said. "The question is whether you get enough time to do it.
"If somewhere down the road they decide they have to go in another direction, I'll be OK with that because I'll know that I did my very best. But I'll also know that they pulled the plug too soon because this would've worked."
He has to believe that or he couldn't walk into living rooms anymore or use up the battery on his cell phone every day.
"I just go back in my life," he said. "People forget, even though I finally got the starting job [as UCLA's quarterback] as a senior, I was benched. I was playing nervous and trying to keep a job and, all of a sudden, Steve Bono got hurt and I played my best football the next seven games. When I just let a little caution go to the wind, when there's a little adversity, that's when things start going for me.
"If people think I've only got one more year to do it, that's usually a good sign for me."
Neuheisel believes that wholeheartedly.
He's been selling it to every recruit who invites him in and takes his call.
But belief has never been the problem.
And the games aren't played in living rooms.
It's time for UCLA to start winning, or belief is all Neuheisel will have left.
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.
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