LOS ANGELES -- Football coaches get paid big money for high-profile jobs, and fans and administrators expect consistently good results. The threat of getting fired for perceived failure is part of the deal, so hot seat lists for head coaches are part of the annual flow of offseason reports from the media.
UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, after a second 4-8 finish in three years atop his alma mater, will be high on many of those hot seat lists heading into the 2011 campaign. Although deciding what would define a successful season that would cool his toasty stool is a purely speculative task -- a bowl game? eight wins? beating USC? -- it's not unfair to declare that the program needs an uptick. And Neuheisel knows this.
But the hot seat is a bit like "Fight Club." You don't talk about it. Not much, anyway. What good would it do?
"I don't feel it. I'm sure it's there," Neuheisel said. "I don't go up there and sit in [the athletic director's] office and ask every day, but I don't feel it."
What Neuheisel did feel this offseason was a need for change. So he dramatically reshaped his staff: five new coaches, including two new coordinators. He also gave himself the toughest job: quarterbacks coach. The success of the 2011 season may hinge on how consistent and productive the Bruins quarterback is, and considering the Bruins haven't been consistent or productive at the position since Drew Olson graduated in 2005, well, that's even more pressure.
"I'm putting it on me," Neuheisel said. "And I don't want it on anybody else's shoulders. It's been hard for me to watch that position coached by somebody else, and that's no knock on [former offensive coordinator Norm Chow]. Norm's got three Heisman Trophy quarterbacks. But it's what I do. It's what I enjoy doing. I'm excited about the challenge."
When Neuheisel was hired before the 2008 season, part of the deal was retaining Bruins defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker -- who was a candidate for the job Neuheisel got -- and hiring Chow to run the offense. It was sold as a coaching superteam. One suspects, though Neuheisel doesn't explicitly say so, that it was part of the conversation before he was hired as head coach.
The celebrated arrangement, however, proved a failure. Walker bolted after one year to become head coach at New Mexico State, which is like saying he ran off to Hades to relieve Sisyphus. Chow and Neuheisel divorced this offseason.
"It was a different way of putting a staff together than I'd done at either Washington or Colorado -- this was the first time I ever worked with people that I didn't know," Neuheisel said of the ill-fated troika. "No bad guys. Just philosophy. You can sit in one room and agree that we are all together, but when you splinter off, are you really?"
Enter Mike Johnson to run the Bruins' offense and Joe Tresey to run the defense. Johnson and Neuheisel go way back. They met when Johnson was a backup quarterback at Arizona State in the mid-1980s and Neuheisel was playing in the USFL. They also coached together with the Baltimore Ravens. Tresey and Neuheisel are new to each other, but at least he was Neuheisel's hire.
"I feel much better about the chemistry we have now, having put it together the way I used to put it together," Neuheisel said.
The big story last year was the Bruins' adopting the pistol offense, which was developed at Nevada. The idea was to bolster the sagging running game. Even then, many wondered if Chow would buy in after running a West Coast, pro-style offense his entire career. The pistol helped the running game, but the passing game swirled into the toilet.
If you are looking for potential issues now -- even with the new arrangement -- it could be the "too many cooks in the kitchen" theory.
Johnson is the coordinator and receivers coach and a longtime NFL assistant with no pistol, spread-option background. Neuheisel is coaching the quarterbacks. And Jim Mastro, hired away from Nevada, is the running game coordinator. How will they all mesh into their defined tasks on Saturdays, particularly when the screws tighten in critical conference games?
"It's defined," Johnson said. "My job as offensive coordinator is not to come up with all the ideas. It's to be the leader of the group."
The first order of business is finding a leader on the field at quarterback, but that remains unresolved this spring. Kevin Prince, the injury-prone starter for much of the past two seasons, hasn't been available thanks to a knee injury. Richard Brehaut would start if the Bruins were playing a real game and not their spring game on Saturday. Touted true freshman Brett Hundley has flashed potential at times but is still getting used to the speed of the college game.
The second issue is the offensive line, which has suffered injury woes this spring.
"We got to get lucky there," Neuheisel said.
As a program, the Bruins haven't experienced much luck since going 10-2 in 2005. While rival USC surged, there was only inconsistency and instability in Westwood. When Neuheisel was hired and USC fell afoul of the NCAA shortly thereafter, it seemed as though the Bruins' moment had arrived. Yet, so far, that hasn't proven the case, and a poor 2011 recruiting class while the Trojans ended up ranked in the top five didn't help the hot seat perception.
As Neuheisel said, he's putting it on himself to push the program forward. And if it doesn't work out?
"If it were to happen, that they were to replace me, I'm confident I would find another job," he said. "It wouldn't be the end of the world. I don't think my kids would starve. But I'm adamantly wanting to be here because this is my school and I believe we're closing in on where we want to go."