Commentary

Return home gives Neuheisel chance for redemption

Originally Published: August 18, 2008
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- We got it wrong all these years. Wrong. All of it.

From the moment in 1995 that Rick Neuheisel stepped into the spotlight as the 33-year-old head coach at Colorado, the media -- and, most certainly, Neuheisel, too -- created the image of a new kind of football coach.

Neuheisel attracted attention the way an iPhone does. He arrived on the national stage hip, glib, sharp and handsome, and like an iPhone, he stood out as a departure from all that came before him.

This couldn't be a head football coach. He played his guitar for recruits. He played his guitar for the fans. Want to give the players a day off? Take them white-water rafting.

Players responded to Neuheisel. In four seasons at Colorado, he went 33-14 (.702) with two top-10 finishes. He went to Washington in January 1999 and won some more. In 2000, the Huskies won the Rose Bowl, went 11-1 and finished third in the nation.

Neuheisel had it all, which is why his penchant for cutting corners proved so maddening. Every few months, it seemed, the NCAA came sniffing around. They found secondary violations at Colorado. They found more secondary violations at Washington. Both programs were placed on NCAA probation.

[+] EnlargeRick Neuheisel
AP Photo/Nick UtTwenty-five years after quarterback the Bruins, Rick Neuheisel returned to Westwood to coach UCLA.

Neuheisel would smile and he would charm and he would explain, and those who believed in him would nod and say, "Of course."

Those who didn't believe in him gave him the nickname "Slick Rick," just as those who didn't believe in Bill Clinton when he was the president at the time called him "Slick Willie." A decade ago, few people in the country remained neutral about Clinton, and few people in college football remained neutral about Neuheisel.

And when it all caught up to him in the summer of 2003, when Washington and the NCAA took a big-money March Madness pool in which Neuheisel had participated and bludgeoned him over the head with it, he couldn't come up with an explanation that saved his job.

It never made any sense. Neuheisel had all these gifts and at the age of 42, with a career record of 66-30 (.688), he had touched the third rail of college football. He may have been fired for gambling, or the pool may merely have been the last straw. Either way, he had become persona non grata.

Five years later, Neuheisel has not only returned, but returned to the job he always wanted. He is head coach at his school, at UCLA, where he started at quarterback and led the team to the Rose Bowl 25 years ago.

"I don't know that it was a goal," Neuheisel said the other day. "It was a dream."

He is as handsome as ever. The only evidence that time has made a visit are the crow's feet that frame his otherwise unlined face.

He is still glib. Neuheisel's use of descriptive language should be the envy of every sportswriter who ever wrestled a simile to the ground. Looking back on the spring game -- in which redshirt junior Kevin Craft started only two days after the Bruins' top two quarterbacks, Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson, suffered serious injuries -- Neuheisel said Craft was "so nervous that he looked like he put his lips in a box of white powdered donuts."

He hasn't coached a game yet, and given the Bruins' injuries at quarterback and the lack of experience on the offensive line, that may be a blessing. But when Neuheisel talks about the task before him, he doesn't sound like the coach who left Washington five years ago.

[+] EnlargeRick Neuheisel
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesColorado went 33-14 under Rick Neuheisel's watch, but the Buffs also landed on probation.

He isn't.

"The one thing that's been different about this job and the jobs previous for me," Neuheisel said, "has been that I haven't succumbed to that feeling like, 'You're behind.' There's always a feeling like you're behind. There is always a sense of urgency, like 'I've got to do this or we're going to fall behind on that guy [recruit]. We're going to fall behind on this guy.'

"And I haven't succumbed to that, doing something that I haven't thought out and made sure that we do it the right way. At the end of the day, there is time. What there isn't time to do is go back and fix mistakes that were made in haste."

Some of that haste, Neuheisel said, came from being a 33-year-old head coach.

"You want to prove you belong," he said. "You don't want anybody to see you sweat, but you always have the sense that, 'I'm behind, and I've got to catch up.' "

But that haste also came from somewhere other than youth. And that is the missing piece, what the great director Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffin. When we looked at Neuheisel, we saw the quarterback, the glamour, the magic.

We got it all wrong.

When asked if he had lived his whole life with that sense of urgency, Neuheisel said, "Yeah, yeah. I mean, you walk on, 'I gotta have it now. I gotta have it.' "

When Neuheisel looked at himself, he saw the walk-on, the kid who needed four years to scrap and claw his way from the scout team to the starting lineup. To the public, Neuheisel's playing career meant "Rose Bowl MVP." Neuheisel saw the kid who came to UCLA to answer a dare from head coach Terry Donahue.

2008 Pac-10 Preview

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"At the end, I was trying to decide if I was going to Princeton or UCLA," Neuheisel said, "and I had really made up my mind I was going to Princeton, because I hadn't heard from UCLA. And now that I'm on this side of the fence, I understand why I hadn't heard -- I wasn't that important.

"But I got a phone call like four days before [the Bruins] were going to start camp. And Terry says, 'Are you going to be there?'

And I said, 'Coach, I think I'm going to go to Princeton; they've shown that they want me and need me' and all that kind of stuff.

So he says, 'That's probably a good idea. Especially if you don't think that you can play at this level.'

And I was like, 'What? Say that again?' " Neuheisel laughed. "So he said it again, and it was like hooking the big bass, just reeling him in."

"You know what?" said Chris Yelich, a classmate and teammate of Neuheisel. "He's one of the first guys I met when I came to UCLA. He was a walk-on. It was so funny. Early on, he came on without a freshman-like presence. … He basically took over the scout team. He was taking shots from guys in practice and he would keep fighting."

On the practice field, Neuheisel made sure everyone knew he would prove he belonged. In the privacy of his dorm room, "I called home 50 straight nights telling my dad I wanted to come home, I'd made a mistake," he said.

The homesickness faded. The determination didn't.

"I was one of his linemen," Yelich said. "Everybody loved him because he was such a fighter. The guy would stick his nose in there. He was like that since the day he walked on campus."

[+] EnlargeRick Neuheisel
AP PhotoRick Neuheisel was named MVP of the Rose Bowl after leading the Bruins past Illinois in 1984.

In his first four years, Neuheisel served as a holder and threw a total of 24 passes. In 1983, his senior season, Neuheisel won the starting job, lost it, and got it back. He led the Bruins to six victories in their last seven games. In the Rose Bowl, unranked UCLA, with its 6-4-1 record, humiliated No. 4 Illinois 45-9. Neuheisel played a nearly flawless game, completing 23 of 31 passes for 298 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.

When Colorado promoted him at age 33 to replace Bill McCartney, it saw a bright, capable young man who knew how to motivate players. Instead, it hired a walk-on still trying to make the varsity.

Four years later, when Washington hired Neuheisel for the then-astronomical salary of $1 million annually, Washington thought it had hired one of the best young coaches in the game. Neuheisel still felt like he had to justify his stature.

Washington hired him about four weeks before signing day.

"We went out and tried to do a bunch of things right at the end of the recruiting and ended up breaking a rule that I didn't even know I broke," Neuheisel said. He and his staff had made improper visits to recruits.

"I didn't need to hurry that much," Neuheisel said, "and it created this … cloud of, 'Are they aboveboard?' and not only with the public, but the coaching fraternity. It was a mistake made totally in haste. You don't have to hurry. You make staff decisions, who you're hiring, too quickly. You make recruiting decisions too early. It hurts your program. You need to take your time and do it right. And don't think everybody is running ahead of you and you're never going to catch up. Because you will."

Neuheisel purchased that wisdom with a piece of his hide. Regardless of the final tally of who was right and who was wrong at Washington -- Neuheisel sued the university and the NCAA and won a $4.5 million settlement in 2005 -- he had been tossed out of college football with the taint of an NCAA rule-breaker on him.

Rick Neuheisel
AP Photo/Kevork DjansezianRick Neuheisel's stormy tenure at Washington ended when he was fired in 2003.

Only time would make him palatable as a coaching candidate again. Only exile would force him to reflect. Neuheisel analyzed, rationalized and, finally, came to grips with what kind of coach he had been.

"There's no question I got caught up in the fame thing, you know?" Neuheisel said. "The excitement, the allure of being heralded as a wonder boy, blah, blah, blah. 'What's my next act?' And those things went through my mind. 'How do I keep on the front page?' All the time thinking -- not so much personally -- 'How do I keep the recruits excited about this landing spot?' whether it be Colorado or Washington.

"And it was the wrong way to think, as I look back. The focus in my mind was all about getting the players, but the focus should have been doing right by the players and making sure you're deflecting the publicity towards them. College football, in a way, because the names change on the playing field, they point to the head coach a lot. And [if] the head coaches aren't careful, you get caught up in that, and I was guilty. I was a 33-year-old kid that, uh, that wanted to prove that I belonged, wanted to prove that I wasn't going to blink."

Neuheisel helped coach at a Seattle-area high school, and in 2005, he made the leap to the NFL. The Baltimore Ravens hired him as quarterbacks coach. Neuheisel enjoyed the relationships he built with the players. He joined one of the most exclusive country clubs in Baltimore. Exile wasn't such a bad place to live, except on Saturdays, when he parked himself in front of the television all day.

"On the East Coast, you know, to watch West Coast football, it's a commitment, because you're up all night," Neuheisel said. "Watching games until 2 in the morning and I'd wake up and it's in the third quarter and I'd go get a cup of coffee and try and finish it. But it's what I love. It's just I couldn't not watch."

He worked the phones, trying to gauge when he would be allowed to return. He scoured the Internet to see which coaches would be fired, and not just head coaches. He called Bobby Bowden of Florida State and Joe Paterno of Penn State when they needed offensive coordinators. Neither man -- "great friends and mentors of mine," Neuheisel said -- wanted to hire him. So he waited.

"And you know, I had to go through that," he said. "And I will be better now because of those experiences, and for that reason, I can say that it was worth it, now that I have this opportunity. … And there is regret, but I don't focus on the regret. I focus on taking the positive from it and moving forward and hopefully not making those mistakes again."

[+] EnlargeRick Neuheisel
AP Photo/Nick UtRick Neuheisel returned to the college game after a five-year absence.

On Dec. 31, the day UCLA introduced him as its coach, Neuheisel had coffee with the school's chancellor emeritus, Charles E. Young, and then took a walk across campus.

"So I'm standing right in front of Royce Hall and Powell Library and I'm up on the top of Janss Steps," Neuheisel said, referring to the 87 steps named for the family that sold to the state the land that would become UCLA. "It's one of the most beautiful places on campus because you look out and there's Bel Air to the left and Beverly Hills behind you and you're looking down on all the athletic facilities and the dorms are in front of you." Neuheisel soaked it all in and nodded to himself.

"And it was like, 'I'm back,' " Neuheisel said. "And I kinda did that Rocky thing at the top." As he raised his arms above his head, basking in the moment, "Some poor student behind me is like, 'Are you OK, sir?' "

From the top of Janss Steps, Neuheisel called his parents. This time, he didn't tell them he wanted to come home. He already had.

A few days later, The Seattle Times published a devastating series about the number of players arrested during Neuheisel's tenure at Washington. Neuheisel had no way of knowing the most sordid details, because prosecutors didn't tell him. But when Neuheisel had the opportunity to suspend, to assert his rule of law over the team, he did not.

After the series came out, Neuheisel made no excuses. He told the Los Angeles Times, "It is what it is. I'm not going to run and hide."

Neuheisel, at age 47, may be a walk-on no longer.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, & Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com