EUGENE, Ore. -- Rick Neuheisel was charming, funny and disarmingly honest in the press conference before Friday's Pac-12 championship game. It will be his last game as UCLA's coach, and most believe his Bruins, 32-point underdogs to Oregon, are going to get a prodigious whipping. But here was Neuheisel, refusing to buckle, even with the end on the immediate horizon.
"We are going into the game believing there is hope," he said. "No one across the country will think there was only one team."
Of course, even Neuheisel acknowledged the "unique circumstances" of the Pac-12 title game. The Bruins are 6-6 and are coming off a 50-0 loss to rival USC, the team that finished atop the Pac-12 South Division but is ineligible to play in Friday's game due to NCAA sanctions. Oregon is 10-2 and ranked ninth in the country. UCLA has one of the worst defenses in the Pac-12. Oregon has one of the best offenses in the nation. And the game is in Autzen Stadium, the conference's most boisterous venue, where the Ducks almost never lose.
Yes, it should be a butt-kicking.
How the emotions play out, however, will be interesting. Not for Oregon, of course. Coach Chip Kelly isn't much for the emotional angles reporters are always pestering him about.
Does Kelly have any concern about the Bruins coming in fired up about trying to win one for Neuheisel the week he was fired from his self-described "dream job"?
"I don't know what another team's mindset is," Kelly said. "We worry about what we can control."
Well, what about the stakes? The Rose Bowl is on the line.
"It's not about the prize at the end," Kelly said. "It's about the game."
Ah, but for Neuheisel, it seems to be about much more.
Think about his situation. He was controversially fired at Washington in 2002, and when he won a lawsuit against the school and the bumbling NCAA, many thought he would get blackballed from coaching. He went to the NFL -- landing with the Baltimore Ravens -- but fought hard behind the scenes for years to get his name back in circulation for college head-coaching jobs. Then, by a seeming stroke of magic, he got hired in 2008 at the place where he had always wanted to be.
He rose from the ashes. He got his shot. And this week he was fired. He shook hands with his dream, and his dream rejected him.
"Unfortunately, I wasn't successful enough," he said.
That's the cold, hard fact he carries into his last game. Just a day before, however, his players carried him off the practice field, perhaps trying to show Neuheisel that there isn't just one way to be successful.
Say what you want about Neuheisel -- and the people who know him the least always have strong opinions -- but the guy cares about his players and really -- really -- wanted to win at UCLA. There were many things that went wrong during his tenure in Westwood. There were plenty of things that were Neuheisel's fault. Others were the fault of UCLA administrators. And there was plenty of bad luck -- two quarterbacks going down with season-ending knee injuries in one spring practice? Really?
But when your players carry you off the field, that's meaningful.
"That was something I will have forever," he said.
For Oregon, it's all business. The Ducks are trying to earn a third consecutive conference title and BCS bowl berth. They see UCLA as their nameless, faceless opponent in a 13th Super Bowl this season.
For Neuheisel, it's the end. Even if his team finds, to use his term, "lightning in a bottle" and upsets the Ducks, offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will take over for Neuheisel for the Rose Bowl, according to the plan laid out by athletic director Dan Guerrero.
Neuheisel lived -- and died -- by his insistence on "relentless optimism" at UCLA. Even in present circumstances he described as a "bitter pill," he's still hoping like a surgeon's knife.
"We're a game away from playing in the Rose Bowl," he said, "which is the amazing thing about this."