- Ted Miller, College Football
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Rick Neuheisel is a free man.
That was made clear Wednesday when the NCAA ruled not to penalize him for participating in two high-stakes pools on the NCAA basketball tournament when he was Washington's football coach despite hyperventilating claims from officials 16 months ago that it was one of the worst gambling violations on record.
It won't be complete vindication, but it will be pretty close.
It won't take away the sting, though, of a de facto two-year suspension from coaching. While the investigations, recriminations, media blindsides and legal hearings dragged on for more than 500 days, his unsettled status made him impossible to hire because he was in limbo awaiting a potential suspension or NCAA sanctions that would have been baggage for his next post.
Some thought he might try to hook up in the NFL, but he says he prefers college ball. There were persistent rumors last winter that he was a candidate to become Penn State's offensive coordinator. He's been contacted by a few "university representatives" about potential future openings, but nothing has progressed beyond a feeler.
"The question always came down to, 'Where do you stand?'" Neuheisel said. "And that was hard to answer."
No more. He figures to be a hot prospect this winter when the ax falls for a number of Division I-A coaches.
It won't be easy to get a first-tier job, however, and he may have to follow the Mike Price and George O'Leary path to redemption, which starts outside of BCS conferences.
Neuheisel will have to answer tough questions about his nasty split with Washington -- his wrongful-termination lawsuit is scheduled to begin in January. He will have to talk about accusations of dishonesty, both in NCAA matters and concerning his flirtations with other jobs when he was the Huskies' coach.
There will be calls, without a doubt. He's a former walk-on quarterback at UCLA who became a Rose Bowl MVP. He's got a law degree and can work a room full of boosters with fat wallets like few other coaches. His 66-30 (.688) record at Colorado and Washington, charisma and prowess with Xs and Os will be hard to ignore, particularly for a program that is willing to make a potentially controversial move in order to generate buzz.
Most thought he'd immediately leave Seattle when he was unceremoniously fired in June of 2003. He sold his Medina home for $6.2 million -- he paid $4.2 million in 1999 -- but instead of heading out of state, he moved down the street so his three boys could remain in their schools.
For the second consecutive year, Neuheisel has been an assistant coach at Seattle's Rainier Beach High School, which has transformed from lightweight into a contender. Under his tutelage, junior quarterback Junior Lologo has become a star, passing for 18 touchdowns with just one interception.
He's also coaching 12-year-old son Jerry's Pop Warner team. For a paycheck, he serves as an analyst for College Sports TV's "Crystal Ball" football show.
While his friends and neighbors have stood by him since the beginning, it hasn't always easy living in Seattle. On his way to his lawyer's office one day, a woman spotted him and stuck her head out of a Mercedes.
She told him she couldn't wait until he left town.
His family must endure stares everywhere they go. A quick trip for a loaf of bread and milk comes with the burden of disapproving whispers from gawking onlookers. He related the experience to feeling like a "zoo animal."
He has become the unchallenged scapegoat for Washington's woes this season. He masochistically admits that he still listens to talk radio and reads newspapers, frowning at oft-parroted claims that the Huskies are 1-5 because he recruited soft, untalented players.
"I'm aware that's a popular position," he said. "I think that's ridiculous. We recruited many quality athletes and, more important, fine people. I stand by my recruiting."
He said he still roots for the Huskies and "feels terrible" about what they are going through.
Next fall, he might be leading a program that's in a similar state, down on it's luck and needing a lift.
If so, it's been a winding road from former golden boy to Slick Rick to persona non grata to redemption and, possibly, to a second chance.
"I'm past the bitterness," he said. "A year ago at this time, it was excruciating. Now there's just hunger."
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
It hasn't been an easy two years for Rick Neuheisel, but now absolved by the NCAA, he is hungry to return.