Everyone knows UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel is on the proverbial "hotseat." He's 15-22 in three seasons in Westwood and, though he's been just short of outstanding in nonconference games, he has never won more than three conference games.
Peter Yoon of ESPN Los Angeles takes an interesting look here at Neuheisel, under pressure in Year 4 coaching his alma mater.
"Fair isn't part of this," Neuheisel said. "I'm never worried about fair. As I like to tell football players, fair is where they give a blue ribbon to the pig. That's the fair. This is about doing what has to be done for the sake of UCLA football. That's why if the powers that be determine that there is a better coach for UCLA football, then that's their decision."
"There isn't," he continued. "I'm telling you right now, there isn't. But if that's the decision of the course they want to take, then they can do that."
And to have that looming over his head this season doesn't seem to bother Neuheisel as much as fans and the media might think. In fact, Neuheisel kind of likes being backed up against the wall. He draws upon his playing career at UCLA for inspiration.
My first West Coast job was covering Washington in 1999, the year it hired Neuheisel. My impression initially -- and it has been mostly cemented since then -- is Neuheisel is a much better coach when he's facing adversity than when things are swell.
His first Huskies team had an 0-2 start, but just as fans started grumbling, it won six of seven. But then Neuheisel seemed to get cocky during that surge and allowed his players to celebrate with roses after winning at Arizona, a seeming Rose Bowl berth just a win away. Problem was the Huskies needed to close the deal and they didn't, suffering a shocking loss to an injury-depleted UCLA team.
The 2000 Rose Bowl team started with a big victory over Miami, a game few thought the Huskies would win, but then the Huskies lost at Oregon to open the Pac-10 slate. The galvanizing moment of the season, however, was the paralyzing spinal cord injury safety Curtis Williams suffered at Stanford. Neuheisel was pitch-perfect in how he handled that situation, rallying his team around Williams while not overplaying the sentimental angle. Also, while some see Neuheisel as "Slick Rick," a coaching used car salesman, that horrible incident was revealing of his true character.
This is from an interview I did with Williams' brother, J.D., when he was hired to be an assistant for Tyrone Willingham in 2006 (And understand: Neuheisel's name was mud with Huskies fans at that time).
"I'd see him at the hospital with his cap down so people wouldn't know who he was," Williams said of Neuheisel.
"He wept there. He loved Curtis. He cared about that kid. There were times I'd show up early in the morning or late at night and no one else would be around, but he'd be there."
While there were rallies-and-regressions over the next couple of seasons, my take is that after winning the Rose Bowl, Neuheisel seemed to get too comfortable, too sure of himself. I'm not going to wade into the swamp of point-counterpoint of what led to Neuheisel's demise at Washington, but part of it was Neuheisel getting distracted by his own, larger-than-life image. Based on many conversations with him since then, I think he'd agree, at least to a certain extent.
So you have the Rubicon of this season at UCLA. We are still waiting on Neuheisel to fulfill the coaching promise so many see in him. Time is running out.
Yoon does a good job pointing out that Neuheisel wants to be successful not just for himself but also because he loves UCLA, where he went from a walk-on quarterback to Rose Bowl MVP.
Neuheisel saw every previous job as a stepping stone to something bigger. He bolted Colorado for Washington for a million dollar contract, and then spent his time in Seattle seeming to flirt with other jobs annually. That, justifiably, bugged Huskies fans.
But UCLA seems like a destination for Neuheisel. It's where he's always wanted to be.
Folks thought Neuheisel was done when he got fired at Washington. They thought he was doubly-done when he sued the school (and won big, by the way).
Now folks think he's done at UCLA. Most pundits don't see the Bruins doing much in 2011.
In my experience, the best time to buy Neuheisel stock is when it's down.