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Measuring the degrees of pain

8/3/2010 - College Football

The image remains as fresh in Rick Neuheisel's mind as when he saw it on that September Saturday 16 years ago.

Neuheisel, in his first year as Colorado quarterbacks coach, watched Buffaloes quarterback Kordell Stewart throw a pass 73 yards in the air with no time on the clock. From the sideline, Neuheisel saw Michael Westbrook grab the pass for a touchdown to defeat Michigan, 27-26.

Neuheisel ran to midfield to celebrate with Stewart. But the quarterback sprinted downfield so quickly after the catch that Neuheisel missed him. So the coordinator celebrated anyway. He danced by himself, the embodiment of giddy euphoria.

And then the dancing ended. Immediately.

"I came eyeball to eyeball with Gary Moeller," Neuheisel said, referring to the head coach of the Wolverines whom the Buffaloes had just vanquished. "He's got a death stare. He's looking at me like, I needed to stop and comport myself. I remember being stopped in my tracks. He was in the agony of defeat."

He has taken a team to No. 3 in the nation (Washington, 2000) and been fired (Washington, 2003). Neuheisel, the head coach at UCLA, is in his 11th season and third school as a head coach. The crow's-feet that line Neuheisel's still-boyish face illustrate the distance he has traveled since that afternoon in the Big House in 1994. He spoke slowly, his coaching experience infusing every syllable of his description.

"If you're in the game long enough," Neuheisel said, "you'll be on both sides of that."

Every college football season, we follow the chase of the championship, be it for a division, a conference, a trophy game or a crystal football. We remember the winners. The teams that fall away, we note in passing, if at all.

But the losers don't forget. For one thing, there are more of them. For every team that wins a conference, there are at least seven teams that don't. For every coach who wins the BCS national championship, there are 119 who scheme toward next year.

For another thing, as sure as Joe Paterno wears white socks, losses ache more than victories elate. Football coaches and players love to win. But they also expect to win. Expected results don't stand out, a fact of life to which we all may attest. We get up every day, go to work, eat dinner and go to bed. One day blends into the next.

"It's devastating for Texas to lose at any time," Longhorns coach Mack Brown said. "As Coach [Darrell] Royal said, which is true, the only big games at Texas are the ones you lose, because they expect you to win every one."

Brown won 110 games in the decade that just ended. He has taken teams to two BCS National Championship Games, winning one. That puts him in an elite group. Even among the top active coaches, however, Brown stands out. None of them has lost in as many excruciating ways as Brown.

If the House of Pain is a three-story house, Brown has lived on all three stories. He has suffered the humiliating loss, the national championship loss and the chronic losing of a one-win season.

Most successful coaches have suffered a humiliating loss, the kind that not only draws national attention but leaves the fan base publicly dispirited and angry. At the top of Brown's list would be Oklahoma's 65-13 rout of Texas in 2003, right there before God, Big Tex and the split crowd at the Cotton Bowl.

Fewer coaches have climbed to the level where they are able to endure the agony of losing a big game, as Brown did in January. Brown lost his team leader and his best player, quarterback Colt McCoy, on the Longhorns' fifth offensive snap of the game. Texas lost to Alabama, 37-21.

Eight months later, Brown sounded a plaintive note, asking simply, "How many times do you get to a national championship?"

All Texas discovered is that it couldn't defeat Alabama without its right arm (literally).

"If you play with Colt and you get beat," Brown said last week, "you can walk out of there and say, 'It's fine.' You hate to lose your most valuable player and not have a chance to at least play the team you took in there."

What makes Brown unique is that he has survived not only those types of losses but the chronic pain of a one-win season. Brown went 1-10 three times in his first five years as an FBS head coach and somehow avoided being fired, an escape worthy of David Copperfield.

Brown went 1-10 at Tulane in 1985, his first season in charge of an FBS program. In 1988, he left the Green Wave for North Carolina, where he went 1-10 not only that year but the year after. The Tar Heels lost 10 straight in Year 2.

Of those three sharpest forms of coaching pain, Brown said, "1-10 is the toughest to deal with because it affects every person on your team. It affects morale. It affects parents. It affects recruiting. And really there is always some doubt lingering in people's minds -- 'Can he do it?' -- because they all look to the head coach at that time."

Brown said he benefited from the advice of Bobby Ross, who was in the midst of taking Georgia Tech from five wins in his first two seasons to a share of the 1990 national championship.

Quoting Ross, Brown said, "Everybody watches everything you say, everything you do. Don't ever let them see you sweat. Always have great body language. Always be positive. And always be moving forward."

Brown is one of three coaches who have won a national championship in the last 40 years after leading a team to a one-win season. The others, Bear Bryant and Bill McCartney, make for pretty good company.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.