UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel: Q&A

Originally Published: August 25, 2011
By Thomas Neumann | Page 2

Rick NeuheiselAP Photo/Nick UtRick Neuheisel completed 69.3 percent of his passes as a senior for the Bruins in 1983-84.

Rick Neuheisel quarterbacked UCLA to a Pac-10 championship and a convincing Rose Bowl victory as a senior in 1983-84.

For a player who joined the Bruins four years earlier as a walk-on and had thrown only 22 passes prior to that season, it was a storybook conclusion to a collegiate career.

Now entering his fourth season as UCLA head coach with a 15-22 composite record, there is speculation that Neuheisel needs a storybook season to remain in the good graces of the powers that be in Westwood.

As the Bruins aim to contend in the Pac-12's South Division, Page 2 interviewed the former Washington and Colorado coach during his recent visit to ESPN headquarters. Here's what transpired:

Page 2: If you could take a mulligan on any coaching decision you've ever made, what would it be?

Neuheisel: Opening Day [in 2002]. Washington vs. Michigan. Calling the timeout before the third down and 10, because it resulted in us coming over to the sideline. When we ran back out there, one of our freshman defensive backs had been getting instructed by a coach and he wasn't listening to the substitution, and we ran 12 guys back in the game. And you can't imagine that would happen. So all of a sudden, the 15-yard penalty gave them -- instead of a 59-yard field goal -- a 44-yard field goal and we lost. That should've been an unbelievable 29-28 win to start the season. It ends up a 31-29 loss, and it was a hangover I'm not sure we ever shook.

What coach has influenced you the most?

Homer Smith. We just lost Homer this last April. He was just a great teacher -- a great, great teacher. I got to play for him and coach with him. No question, the No. 1 reason why I'm in the profession is because of him. I owe a lot to Terry Donahue as well. But in terms of who influenced the way I see the game and the way I teach the game, it would be Homer.

How old were you when you decided you wanted to be a coach?

I was in law school. I was probably 24 or 25, and Terry Donahue asked me to come over and be a volunteer coach. Troy Aikman had just transferred to UCLA, and he wanted someone to teach Troy the offense rather than just waste his time, because he had to sit [out a year] as a transfer. I enjoyed that immensely, and then Terry took me on a trip [for a road game]. He said, "What do you think about this situation?" I said, "I'd do this." He was on the phone, so he talked upstairs, "Hey, what do you think about this?" They said, "Good idea," and they did it. It worked, and it was like a lightning bolt, and I go, "This is what I want to do." ... It was a total rush. It went from my mouth to his ear to upstairs to out on the field. It was so cool, and I was like, "I've got more ideas, Coach!"

You earned a law degree from USC and passed the bar in Arizona. Have those skills served you in the coaching arena?

Problem solving. Law school is a lot about how things work and rules and book stuff. But really, what I felt you got from the education was how to look at a problem and go about it another way. It's kind of outside-the-box thinking. The best attorneys are the ones who can use the rules to their advantage, and to me, that's what I've always tried to do.

Do you find yourself calling upon those skills more often with today's media scrutiny, Twitter, TMZ and the like?

I don't know that you call on those skills. I think the whole social media thing has created a whole new set of skills in terms of your awareness and your antennae, so to speak.

Really, the law school education kind of hurt me early in my career because of finding ways to use the rules, but still to [my] advantage made people feel like I wasn't within the spirit of the rules. It got me sideways with the NCAA, when all I was trying to do was be creative and smart and so forth.

I think it created a misperception of who I was and what I was trying to do. The last thing I wanted to do was cheat. I just wanted to figure out, "What's the best way to do this?" It's sometimes called outside-the-box thinking. But if it's not in the spirit of the rules, now you're cheating. Or you're so close to that line that you're in that gray area. I had to kind of back off from that. There's a suspicion about a coach when he's young, anyway. "How'd he get the job that young?" Lane [Kiffin] is going through that a little bit, and I lived that. So in an effort to show I wasn't gonna let anyone intimidate me, I had more bravado than I needed at the time.

How do you and Lane Kiffin get along, considering you're coaching archrivals?

We get along fine. Our paths don't cross very often. I certainly respect the job he's done and what he's accomplished. He just happens to be on the other side of the field in the most important game we play. So it's one of those things where it's difficult to have a relationship other than the one that we currently have.

Can you empathize with him since he's going through some of the same scrutiny you went through early in your career?

Absolutely. I've been there. Now, he's done it in the NFL already. He's done it in a place like Tennessee. He's done it at Southern Cal. Those are high-profile jobs. At the time I was at Colorado and then Washington, those were high-profile jobs as well.

You played for the USFL's San Antonio Gunslingers, an organization that ran its offices out of a double-wide trailer and often bounced paychecks. What's the most dysfunctional, ridiculous thing you endured there?

They didn't pay us. So one day, Clinton Manges, the owner, comes in and says, "All right, boys, I got your money, but you've got to get out to a little bank in La Vernia [about 25 miles away]." All of us are going, "Where's La Vernia?" It was literally a gumball rally, because we knew only the first half of those checks were going to clear. So it was a race. I've never seen anything like it. Guys were hanging out of the windows and throwing things, trying to get other cars to pull over. It was crazy.

Did you get your check cashed?

No, I did not get there in time. I was laughing too hard. It was priceless.

You were a replacement player with the Chargers during the 1987 NFL players strike. What was that experience like, considering that you were trying to establish a career while being vilified?

It was a Catch-22. It was a very conflicting time. On the one hand, I wanted to play badly and had been told by the organization that I had made the team. Then for it not to come to fruition, to be asked to come back at the time [during the strike] didn't sit well with me. But then I got calls from a couple guys who were on the team asking me to play, because the games were gonna count. That really was the turning point when I made the decision to go ahead and do it. But the whole idea [of being a] scab, that was unsettling. It just wasn't as clean as it should've been. I'm still conflicted. The team, because of the outcast feeling that we had, really got close, and we played really well. We won all three of our games. ... It was a difficult deal. It wasn't as easy as it might have appeared.

My best story about that, though, was that [Steelers coach] Chuck Noll called me at like 5:45 in the morning. I thought it was one of my buddies just messin' with me. So I said, "Yeah, yeah, right, Chuck." And I hung up on Chuck Noll. He calls back and says, "This is Chuck Noll, and please don't hang up on me." ... He was calling me to come play for Pittsburgh. I had the Chiefs [interested as well]. It was the first time in my life I got recruited.

Who was your favorite athlete growing up?

Bart Starr and Connie Hawkins. ... My folks grew up in Wisconsin, so [Starr] is the first sports name I remember. The Suns were the first professional franchise where I grew up, in the Phoenix area, and Connie Hawkins was the superstar. So those two guys I remember vividly.

How much did your first coaching job pay?

My first [paying] job was $40,000 in 1988.

Not counting your school, which Pac-12 university has the best mascot?

Ralphie [at Colorado]. Yeah, Ralphie is terrific.

What song or performer is on your iPod that might surprise people?

I'm not sure any of them would surprise ... Jimmy Buffett. I love Jimmy Buffett. I'm definitely a Parrothead. I'm a big Brad Paisley fan. I think he's a brilliant writer of songs. Jack Johnson. I love guitar.

Do you play guitar?


What kinds of guitars do you own?

I have a Taylor acoustic and a Stratocaster, but I'm much more acoustically bent. I'm not a lead guitarist.

How often do you get to play?

It's rare when I come home that I don't pick it up and play, even if it's only for two minutes. Pick it up and play a couple notes. I can watch TV and do it, even if it drives everybody else watching TV crazy. It's therapeutic.

Not counting your school, which Pac-12 university has the most attractive cheerleaders?

[It would] have to be USC.

What's your favorite restaurant anywhere?

Ivy at the Shore in Santa Monica. ... My favorite [dish] is the black peppered shrimp.

What's your favorite place to vacation?

Maui -- the Wailea side. That's probably the place where my wife relaxes the most.

Which opposing player are you most glad you no longer have to face?

Jacquizz Rodgers ... He's just a really, really talented player -- both as a runner and as a pass receiver, and he never fumbled. Just a very efficient player. He even threw a touchdown pass against us. He's pretty special.

Not counting yourself, who's the best dressed coach in the conference?

You know who it's gonna be? It's gonna be Mike Stoops, because he's single. He's kind of a fashion guy.

Cap or visor?

I'm a cap guy. ... As I get older and my hair thins, much more of a cap guy.

What's a hobby or recreational passion of yours that might surprise people?

I don't know that it will surprise anybody, but golf. I love to play golf.

Do you have a favorite course?

A lot. I belong at Bel Air in Los Angeles. That's a beautiful place to play. Caves Valley in Maryland. Those are two special places. And I've been able to play Augusta twice, which was the thrill of a lifetime. ... I shot 77 the first time I ever played there and was even par on Amen Corner. Promptly doubled 14, but came back with a birdie on 15.

Is it going to be awkward hosting Colorado on Senior Day, considering your leading receiver, Taylor Embree, is the son of [Buffaloes head coach] Jon Embree?

I keep telling Jon he's got to be out there [on the field] when Taylor comes running out. He says, 'No way.' ... No, that's not a weird thing at all. I think that's an exciting thing. I'm glad for Jon to have that opportunity. He's a great coach and a great guy, and Colorado is lucky to have him.

Thomas Neumann is an editor for Page 2.

Back to Page 2

• Philbrick: Page 2's Greatest Hits, 2000-2012
• Caple: Fond memories of a road warrior
• Snibbe: An illustrated history of Page 2
Philbrick, Gallo: Farewell podcast Listen