LOS ANGELES -- There is a nervous tension filling the air in the lounge of the UCLA football office. You can see it on the faces of a few Bruins staffers as they move throughout the office, going from room to room, making small talk with other UCLA assistants. No one comes out and says it, but the big question hovering over this place is, will this be a great day for UCLA football?
Or, will this be a crusher?
It's 7:33 a.m. PT on national signing day and the Bruins have a lot of big ifs dangling. Four of the top targets on their recruiting board are going to announce which school they have chosen on national TV. Three of those guys will pick from a group of hats that will also include USC. In years past, that's a matchup that hasn't worked out so well for the Bruins, and with UCLA coming off a 4-8 season and USC still being hailed as, well, USC, it's no stretch to think this could be a day ripe for getting your heart broken repeatedly. And having it done for all of the football world to see. However, Bruins Golden Boy Rick Neuheisel doesn't seem wired for such an outlook. The 2008 season is over. Neuheisel already has pulled one big upset, snaring Morrell Presley, the nation's top tight end prospect, from the archrival Trojans. Presley's already enrolled at UCLA and the Golden Boy seems quite confident he's about to pull off a few more shockers.
Special-teams coach Frank Gansz Jr. and intern Vae Tata come out of their offices to check out the 50-inch flat screen in the lounge. The TV is tuned to ESPNU's signing day show. A defensive end from South Carolina is set to announce. It's a player they never recruited, but there still is interest to see who is going where and how the kid handles it all. Next to the TV is a big wooden board showcasing dozens of business cards. Above it, it reads "NFL scouts who visit the Bruins."
The defensive end keeps talking and the two Bruins coaches seem to lose interest. In the back of the office Neuheisel's voice can be heard as he talks to a now official UCLA player: "It's a big day for the Bruins, man," the coach says in a tone just shy of a shout. "Way to go kid! Nice job!"
Before the defensive end makes his announcement Neuheisel will have another UCLA recruit on the phone, congratulating him for faxing in his paperwork to the Bruins' office: "Way to go, 'A-bomb'! Can't wait to get you here. You and I are gonna have some fun!"
The day is off to a good start. Upstairs the Bruins' fax machine is humming. But the real dicey stuff doesn't begin for another 90 minutes or so, when the first of their announcements is scheduled.
8:22 a.m. PT: Offensive coordinator Norm Chow, offensive line coach Bob Palcic and grad assistant Phil Rauscher are in Chow's office. Chow, the former USC assistant, is on the phone with someone in Hawaii. Chow grew up there and, as Neuheisel puts it, is like royalty there. Hawaii is also where two of the Bruins' big announcements are coming from today. The first is from Stan Hasiak, a massive offensive lineman, who committed to the Bruins during the season, then switched to Cal. That will be followed by Manti Te'o's announcement. Te'o, rated as the nation's top linebacker and No. 2 overall prospect, is down to USC, UCLA and Notre Dame. The Bruins' staff sounds optimistic about both, knowing that Te'o appeared to really enjoy his visit to UCLA. "This is a fun day," Neuheisel says from just outside the hallway. "It's so exciting."
Not all of the news has been positive. One-time Bruins commitment Billy Sanders has jumped out of the proverbial boat and signed with Miami. The Canes need tight ends bad now, and the arrival of Presley probably didn't help. And Neuheisel has been around long enough to know there will surely be more disappointment.
"You can't get mad," says Neuheisel, sounding like he's reminding himself as much as informing others. "It's a waste of energy. You just gotta keep fighting."
After a few minutes, Palcic, Rauscher and Neuheisel exit Chow's office and head toward the lounge area in the front of the UCLA football offices.
"He's not coming," Chow tells me, referring to Te'o. "I think he's going to Notre Dame."
8:57 a.m. PT: Rauscher returns to Chow's office and tells him the recruits in Hawaii are starting to announce their commitments.
"On what?" Chow asks.
"We're watching it on a live feed off the Internet," Rauscher answers as Chow gets up from his chair and follows the young, goateed assistant over to a cramped room that looks like half-supply room and half-tape library next to the lounge. Turns out most of the UCLA coaching staff has piled in there to watch as all of the FBS recruits from the Hawaiian Islands are announcing their schools. In a few moments it's Hasiak's turn.
There is a long pause as the camera lingers on Hasiak. He is a huge need recruit for the Bruins. The team might've had the sorriest offensive line in major college football last season, ranking 116th in rushing and 110th in sacks surrendered. "C'mon Stan. C'mon Stan," Chow says in a whisper. "UCLA ... UCLA ... UCLA."
It is UCLA, Hasiak announces.
C'mon Stan. C'mon Stan. UCLA ... UCLA ... UCLA.
”-- UCLA's Norm Chow while waiting for Stan Hasiak to choose a school
A big "Yeah!" roar surges through the football office. Neuheisel comes in and high-fives Chow and other assistants.
Then Te'o is up. Can the Bruins pull off the double? Chow certainly doesn't seem to think so. He ducks out of the crowded room and heads back to his office. Neuheisel doesn't think so either, as he asks the room, "So who's he picking? SC or Notre Dame?"
No one answers. Maybe they don't want to say what most of the rest of the country has assumed, that Te'o is going to be a Trojan. But he's not. He puts on a Notre Dame hat.
From the lounge you hear an incredulous "WHAT?!?" E.J. Woods, a redshirt freshman defensive back and full-time recruiting nut, has taken up residence on the couch in the football office to watch the events while he waits for his 4 p.m. class. Woods' reaction probably mirrors that of most of the country, save for maybe Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis and Chow.
Oh well. Disappointment doesn't last long. Four minutes later Neuheisel tells Chow he wants to dial up Eddie Williams, a 6-1, 331-pound brute of a junior college offensive guard. Williams' paperwork just arrived. Williams is another Hawaii native and has drawn raves inside the Bruins' office for his power and tenacity, two things that were sorely lacking last year in Westwood.
Chow begins the call by chanting "Eddie ... Eddie ... Eddie," into the phone. "You know the only one more excited about you than me is Coach Neuheisel. Here he is."
"You ready to pound on some 3-techniques?" Neuheisel says.
10:21 a.m. PT: Chow and Palcic are in the Bruins' offensive staff room looking at a projected depth chart they've sketched out in marker on a dry-erase white board. They look about as giddy as two guys in their 60s can. "Now we got some good problems," Palcic says as Neuheisel enters the room holding an evaluation tape of a speedy scatback from Virginia. "We're light years ahead of last year."
The little speedster is Damien Thigpen from Manassas, Va. UCLA got in on him late and is battling Notre Dame for him, but Neuheisel can't wait to show this latest footage of the new find as more game tape has just arrived to add to the player's file. On the big screen in front of the depth chart, you see Thigpen making flashy cutback runs and hard hits as a defensive back.
"This kid will block kicks for us too," Neuheisel says. "Wait 'til you see some of this stuff." The film backs up Neuheisel's enthusiasm. "I talked to his track coach. He says he's a good hurdler and a great -- great! -- sprinter."
The audience now includes Gansz, the special-teams coach, who is equally impressed. "Great kid. Great student," says Neuheisel. "And, we can't turn down speed."
The Thigpen tape hasn't been off for 10 minutes before a staffer comes in to report that Thigpen, too, is now officially a Bruin.
11:13 a.m. PT: Chow's small office is jammed as Palcic, Tata, Rauscher and Neuheisel sit with the offensive coordinator awaiting the announcement of blue-chip lineman Xavier Su'a-Filo, the nation's No. 3-ranked offensive tackle, from Utah. Over the past few weeks Su'a-Filo had narrowed his choices down to USC, LSU, UCLA, Utah and BYU. Chow and Palcic have exhaustively recruited Su'a-Filo. Most of the online recruiting analysts say the Utes are the team to beat. There's a little added spice to this in that Su'a-Filo is coached by Louis Wong, one of Chow's former BYU players, although the Salt Lake Tribune reported the other day that Wong has interviewed for the offensive line position at Utah. As the TV commentators hype the upcoming announcement, some highlights of Su'a-Filo are shown before they go to commercial break, with the well-proportioned giant mauling another touted prospect in a high school all-star game.
"Gosh, c'mon," Neuheisel says. "C'mon Xav! Come on, baby!" The head coach claps his hands and walks away.
Following the break, Su'a-Filo reaches for a UCLA hat with a big "B" on the front and stretches it over his head.
"HAAAAAAAAAAY!" Chow shouts. Everyone wedged inside of Chow's office hollers, except Palcic. He is more relieved than anything. It just went from being a good day to a great day at UCLA, although the drama is taxing. Palcic, a former NFL line coach, is amazed at what the recruiting world has become. It has been quite a whirlwind month for him. He'd never been to Hawaii 'til January and now he's been there four times. He's also been to Utah quite a bit thanks to the pursuit of Su'a-Filo.
Palcic says when he coached at Wisconsin the coaches targeted, chased and signed their share of blue-chippers, but adds "we didn't have the drama. We had some top kids but they were Wisconsin kids. They weren't top kids out of state."
There also wasn't a USC to deal with all the time.
3:46 p.m. PT: Chow and UCLA's director of on-campus recruiting, Angus McClure, a guy who helped Turner Gill get the Buffalo program jump-started, sit in the Bruins' offensive staff room, talking about scheduling. As McClure points out, "It's just 65 days 'til the spring game." Neuheisel, who is getting ready for his 4 p.m. news conference to talk about the Bruins' signing class, enters after having put on a coat and tie. Chow's phone buzzes. It's Hasiak from Hawaii.
"You feel good?" Chow asks before smiling.
"We are fired up," he says. "You know Xavier's coming too, right? He called Rick and told Rick not to tell me he was coming because he wanted to surprise me. I told him I'm too old for that."
4:07 p.m. PT: With Neuheisel's youngest son, Joe, a precocious sixth grader, seated behind him, the Bruins coach addresses the media. In the back of the room stands Presley, the all-everything tight end who is thrilled with the way the day has gone, too.
"Hopefully you all had a good day, I believe UCLA's football program had a great day," Neuheisel begins. He will touch on each of the players who are now officially Bruins. Some like lineman Nik Abele are "under the radar" guys. Some like defensive end Keenan Graham are "explosive." All sound great and the recruiting analysts appear to agree. It doesn't take long in the question-and-answer portion of the presser for USC to come up. The coach says beating USC "was not the focus," but is quick to point out, "We made it clear we had zero problems competing for quality kids."
5:12 p.m. PT: While Neuheisel stays downstairs, still schmoozing with the media and some Bruins boosters who have gathered for a little celebration, there is still one big deal left unresolved. Randall Carroll, one of the country's fastest recruits, is slated to announce at 6:30 p.m. on TV. Carroll, California's 100- and 200-meter high school champion, had once been a Bruins commitment, then backtracked and committed to USC, but has reconsidered. As is the case with most USC-UCLA recruiting battles in the past, the consensus is Trojan. Carroll is also a big need recruit. UCLA lacks speed at receiver and he is as fast as there is.
Wide receivers coach Reggie Moore, a former Bruins player who played in the NFL and coached Vince Young in high school, is antsy. "Word on the street is he's going to SC," Moore says. "That's what his cousin says." Carroll's cousin is UCLA freshman defensive back Johnathan Franklin. However, blogs from both local newspapers say otherwise. Maybe Franklin is tweaking Moore. Regardless, the rest of the coaching staff heads downstairs to join the party, as does Moore.
6:35 p.m. PT: It's announcement time again. Two of Neuheisel's sons and their nanny have come up to the lounge to hear what Carroll's doing. So have Chow and McClure. "Please Randall," pleads youngest son Joe. "We really need you!"
Carroll nervously tries on a USC hat at first and then a UCLA one as the show goes to commercial break. The nanny is looking for clues. "Is he left-handed or right-handed?"
No one answers.
It's back to Carroll, who promptly puts the UCLA hat back on. Again, the room erupts. A great day just got even better.
"Now we can relax," McClure says to Chow.
"Yeah, now we can relax," Chow replies.
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting," is on sale now.