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That's vindication, spelled with a $

3/14/2005

And so, boys and girls, the word of the week is "vindicated." Vindicated is what Rick Neuheisel said he felt after (A.) being exposed as a liar and getting himself whacked from a big-time college coaching job; (B.) reducing to smoky haze a University of Washington football program that still is trying to piece together a non-toxic, post-Neuheisel future, and (C.) pulling down a $4.5 million legal settlement for having done so.

Which, of course, would not necessarily make this the first time in American history that someone tried to spell "vindicated" with a $.

You are perhaps wondering about Neuheisel's future? Don't worry over it. Though he appears to have lived three or four lives already, the man is only 44. He can coach. And there is, of course, that very famous charisma, which you'll often see shining through when Rick is explaining that his most current imbroglio is merely the product of misunderstanding, or people not thinking right about the situation, or whatever.

Nope, Neuheisel will be fine. He's got his current job with the Baltimore Ravens because he can coach, and he'll have his future job back at the NCAA level, sooner or later (and my money is strongly on sooner), because he can talk.

As for what constitutes vindication, we're all pretty much on our own. In the end, Neuheisel got money, which most of us would agree is generally better than getting no money, and he did so because the NCAA botched its own investigation pretty plainly and the previous athletic administration at Washington did a great job of stepping on its own feet.

None of which exactly means that Neuheisel is in the clear. He really did lie, and he did it publicly (to reporters) and privately (to Washington officials and, eventually, the NCAA looking into his participation in pricey college basketball pools). He lied about looking for other jobs while coaching the Huskies, and was exposed for that. All in all, it hasn't been the best couple of years to be Rick Neuheisel.

Of course, that's just one view. Neuheisel himself has continually displayed the ability to talk the rosy talk no matter how weird the situation, constantly portraying himself as an innocent (or, at worst, merely "human") player in a series of unfortunate events. Around Rick, in other words, things always seem to happen, which isn't quite the same as acknowledging that he is the one doing much of the happening.

As for this particular case, waste little of your precious time on it. Neuheisel eventually got his settlement, $2.5 million of which came from the NCAA and the rest from his former employer, because he had a good lawyer and the guys on the other side of the room couldn't get out of their own way. The NCAA folks committed serious errors in their betting-pool investigation -- they were supposed to, but did not, advise Neuheisel before their interview with him that they were looking into his March Madness participation -- to raise the possibility of mistrial.

That's the part about vindication, I guess, because what the trial and discovery ultimately showed was that Neuheisel, procedurally speaking, wasn't treated fairly. This is, of course, as the coach had maintained all along.

It's also a far cry from washing him clean. This is a man running a major Division I-A football program, who perhaps to this day remains surprised that anyone could look upon his throwing large dollars into a high-stakes NCAA basketball pool and consider it problematic. This is a man who told his employers flat-out he was not interviewing for the San Francisco 49ers' coaching job, then had to admit that he lied upon being overheard by a reporter while speaking on a phone at an airport about that very interview.

This is also a man who will be running another major college football program. Because Rick Neuheisel, generally speaking, winds up winning a bunch more games than he loses.

There is no vindication here for college sports, put it that way. The college game, so much higher-stakes than the highest-stakes NCAA basketball pool could ever be, now pivots almost solely on the concepts of W-L, bowl participation and attendance. Neuheisel, again speaking generally, delivers on all fronts.

Oh, not for Washington anymore, so much. The Huskies, scrambling and clawing under Keith Gilbertson after the Neuheisel flameout also burned down the program with it, went 1-10 last season, an ending that some might find appropriate considering how the former administration there, under since-departed athletic director Barbara Hedges, mishandled this situation straight along.

In one of those impossibly ironic moments after the settlement of his case, Neuheisel stood outside the courtroom in Kent, Wash., and told reporters: "I feel like this is the best scenario. Nobody's nose got bloodied. I want to have a relationship with the University of Washington. I'm a donor."

He said this, of course, after settling with the university on a $500,000 payment and forgiveness on a $1.5 million loan. Say this for Rick: He could make that donation right about now, were he so moved.

Washington, meanwhile, finds itself starting over, ready for that fresh injection of energy and commitment and dedication from Tyrone Willingham to help it pull its football program back up near the standards that it set for itself back in the day. The Neuheisel saga, which began in 1999 when Huskies administrators overpaid to the tune of $1 million per year for a coach who won games (but not a conference championship) and ignited significant controversy during his time at Colorado, is now one of those things Washington has to get past.

It needs under Willingham a new start, the hope of better days to come. It needs enthusiasm, optimism, good recruiting classes. It's time for a go-getter to get things going.

And we've just described the exact kind of situation to which some upper-level NCAA program will be inviting Rick Neuheisel to apply -- not Washington anymore, but somewhere, and soon. If we're not careful, somebody will jump up and call that vindication, too.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.