Neuheisel sees his opening

Rick Neuheisel knew something was up. He could sense it.

Why in the world was Pete Carroll doing television work at the BCS national title game?

"That's not like him to find time for this," Neuheisel said to himself as he saw Carroll down on the field before the Jan. 7 game.

The next morning, his suspicions were confirmed by an avalanche of chatter. Less than 24 hours later, it was everywhere: Carroll was leaving USC to coach the Seattle Seahawks.

It was a moment that felt both shocking and predictable, a moment that happened at warp speed and in slow motion.

A moment that everything in Neuheisel's background as a former walk-on, a fallen boy wonder, a man having been humbled and then restored, had uniquely prepared him to seize.

Within seconds, Neuheisel could feel the wind of the smoldering void that been ripped open across town. His cell phone rang every second he wasn't on it. His players at UCLA were buzzing. The college football world was holding its breath.

A personality like Carroll's can't just be removed and replaced surgically. It bleeds out. It leaves a scar, a void for something or someone else to rush into.

"There's two things you think about," Neuheisel said. "What does it mean to the recruiting world? And then what does it mean to our situation in Los Angeles?"

Fifteen years ago, when he started his coaching odyssey, Neuheisel would've pounced. Caution and consideration be damned. A wormhole had opened up, one of the few fast-forward buttons life ever so obviously offers. Yet when I called him in those first few frantic minutes after Carroll's departure became official, he seemed calm and pensive, declining to offer a quick-take reaction until he could survey the scene a bit more thoughtfully.

He'd jumped through those wormholes before and not always come out in the place he wanted to. It has made him more mature and left a few wrinkles where once there were rosy cheeks. But it also has prepared him for this very moment. And this time, he is determined to do it right.

In the next week, as Neuheisel and his new rival, Lane Kiffin, battle for every inch of recruiting territory in this city, we will get the first answers to those questions. The early returns, with Westlake Village Oaks Christian defensive tackle Cassius Marsh switching his commitment from Louisiana State to UCLA this week, have been promising for UCLA.

Although Neuheisel offers little in the way of a prediction or boast, he says just enough to show exactly where his head and his heart are at. A former walk-on can always sense when an opportunity is near.

"You know," he says, immediately straightening up and leaning forward in one of the cushy brown leather chairs that fill his spacious office on the second floor of the Morgan Center.

"The defending champion of the Pac-10 is not in this city right now -- it's Oregon -- so there is a chance to claim this territory. Obviously we're going to do everything we can to do that."

"Droppin' a line on a big ol' bass"

Neuheisel drove from his home in Tempe, Ariz., to Los Angeles by himself when he was 18, top down and Bob Seger blasting on the car stereo.

And those Hollywood nights
In those Hollywood Hills
It was looking so right
It was giving him chills

From his house, the UCLA campus was six hours west on Interstate 10, then a quick jog up the 405 into Westwood. But he didn't go that way.

"Instead of coming like you should, I took the 101 Freeway, and came all the way down Sunset Boulevard," he said, laughing at the younger version of himself.

"I just had this romantic vision of California back then, of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. I remember listening to Bob Seger, 'Hollywood Nights,' and the Eagles, 'Hotel California,' and just thinking that I had to get out there."

For that romantic vision, he had given up a chance to go to Princeton. The papers were mailed, plans made, sweaters and school hats bought; then UCLA football coach Terry Donahue called, and it took Neuheisel about 10 seconds to jump through the wormhole.

"I'd gone to the UCLA camp during the spring, and they were nice to me. But then I didn't hear from anyone for several months, so I moved on," Neuheisel said. "But then four days before I'm leaving, Terry calls me and said, 'Are you coming?'"

Later, Neuheisel would figure out that he was an afterthought in UCLA's recruiting class, a recruited walk-on to lead the scout team. But in that moment, all he heard was Seger and the pounding of his competitive heart.

"He says, 'Are you coming?' I said, 'You know, Coach, I haven't heard from you guys in a while; I think I'm just gonna go to Princeton. They genuinely need me and want me,' and he said, 'That's probably a good decision if you don't think you can play at this level.'

"It was like just droppin' a line on a big ol' bass. I was like, 'What'd you say, Coach? I'll be there.'"

The reality of being a walk-on set in quickly once he got to UCLA, though. No one in the football offices seemed particularly excited that he had decided to come out at the last minute. Then he met a couple of his more highly recruited teammates and got involved in a game of catch down on the intramural fields.

"We're playing catch, and Rick Sharp's throwing it perfect. I mean the ball had a better spiral than mine, he's throwing it harder than me, he's bigger than me, he's better looking than me -- and he's a tight end!

"I'm like, 'Oh no, what have I done to myself?' I called home 50 straight nights, 'Dad, I gotta get outta here. I've bit off more than I can chew.' He said, 'Just hang in there.'"

It took four years of leading the scout team and holding on field goal attempts, but his chance finally came. Midway through the 1983 season, starting quarterback Steve Bono hurt his shoulder. Neuheisel was ready.

In 1984, he was the Rose Bowl MVP.

"You want ice cream? Go get ice cream"

Rahim Moore didn't know any of this when Neuheisel called him in the middle of his senior year at Dorsey High and asked whether he was planning to honor his oral commitment to UCLA. He just wanted to meet the guy UCLA had chosen to succeed Karl Dorrell. More importantly, he wanted his mom to meet the guy UCLA had chosen to succeed Karl Dorrell.

"My mom doesn't always like people, but she really liked him," Moore recalled. "He came over for a home visit, and she said she thought he was a good person. He was really genuine and cool. That was good enough for me."

Later, Moore would hear about some of the less-than-favorable nicknames Neuheisel had picked up over the years. "Slick Rick," "Skippy," "Neu-weasel." But they didn't fit the man he had come to know.

"People who call him Slick Rick don't know him at all," said Moore, who led the nation with 10 interceptions as a sophomore this season. "Yeah, he's a good talker and a cool guy. But he's straight up. He takes care of us. He loves us, you can tell.

"Now we have to take care of him and get him some wins."

Neuheisel is 11-14 in his first two seasons at UCLA, still a far cry from evening the playing field with USC and even further from living up to the bold newspaper ads that had him proclaiming "The football monopoly in Los Angeles is over."

Although he says he had no part in creation of the ad, he has never tried to back away from it. As a UCLA fan and alum, he appreciated its competitiveness. But for his taste, it was a little loud, which is something he has tried to dial down over the years.

Neuheisel became the coach at Colorado when he was just 33. He embraced a Boy Wonder image, playing it up with the Colorado media during ice cream breaks at practice or on river rafting trips. He liked when stories of him playing guitar and inviting players over to his house became public. The old guard in college football rolled its eyes.

Neuheisel didn't care.

When Colorado went 20-4 in his first two seasons, it was heralded as the "Neu-Age." Of course none of it was accidental. "I was doing that as much for recruiting as I was for the kids," he said.

And now, at age 48, having been humbled by an embarrassing end to his job at Washington and a five-year exile from college football, how has he changed?

"I realized, you don't have to do it for recruiting -- you just do it for your guys. You want ice cream? Go get ice cream. But you don't have to make sure that everyone's seeing that there's ice cream. …

"When you're 33, you just feel like you have to go so fast, and you make mistakes. Looking back, you have more time than you think you do. … That to me is the only thing that's changed. I don't feel like I'm in such a hurry."

Opportunity strikes

Although it took four seasons for his opportunity on the field to present itself back in his playing days, Neuheisel began winning his teammates over from the start.

In his sophomore year, UCLA was picked to go to Japan for a game against Oregon State called the Mirage Bowl. Although he was not in the rotation, Neuheisel was one of three blond players picked to be on the cover of the program.

"We show up, and the Japanese organizers tell me to invite a few of my friends out to dinner. I guess they thought I was like Donny Osmond," he remembers, starting to laugh before he even gets to the punch line.

"I was a walk-on, and I mostly hung out with other walk-ons. So that's who I invited. Well, I get outside and the Japanese guys are like, 'That's all you want to invite?' I look over, and they have a limo the size of this room.

"I was like, 'Hang on a minute, I'll be right back.' So I go back in the team hotel and find a bunch of the upperclassmen. I'm like, 'Guys, get ready and come with me. Just trust me on this.' At first they were skeptical, but we get outside and then they see the limo. We had such a good time. … From that day on, I was cool."

Not much could top that, but pledging the fraternity Sigma Nu added to the cause. So did being a pretty good quarterback.

"The No. 1 thing that a walk-on has to do when it comes to a university is gain peer respect," he said. "It's one thing getting in the school and having the coaches say we're going to give you a chance. It's another thing to make the players believe like you earned one and you deserve one.

"When I first came in, I was nervous. I wasn't sure I belonged. But then in practice once, I fired a pass over and [All-American safety] Kenny Easley looks over at me, nods and says, 'Nice pass.' That kind of makes you feel good."

After that, Neuheisel settled in and let his competitive juices guide him. The famous story goes something like this: UCLA's quarterbacks liked to throw deep into the end zone to warm up their arms in practice. Neuheisel took it a step further.

"One day, I said to Tom Ramsey, 'Why don't we see who can hit it off the cross bar?' After that, it became a whole competition. When I became a coach, we did it on Fridays. I'd challenge the guys to beat me, and I've done it ever since."

Ready to dive in?

Carroll had done so much by the time Neuheisel came to town in 2008, the contrast was almost inevitable: Neuheisel, the walk-on in a sweater vest; Carroll, the dashing blue-chipper in a polo shirt.

But they were far more similar than it might've seemed. Neuheisel had just decided to play things closer to, excuse the atrocious pun, the vest this time around. Just hanging in there, as his dad once advised him; working hard; and preparing for his opportunity.

With Carroll up in Seattle now, things have changed a bit. Enough for Neuheisel to admit this, "Pete and my personalities are not that far apart, but because we square off on opposite sides, it's a difficult thing to say, 'He's my buddy.' You just can't do that."

If that's grudgingly so, how in the heck can he justify those sweater vests?

"I don't wear 'em so much anymore," he said, sounding a bit apologetic. "But when I first started wearing 'em, it was because I love golf. I wanted to wear what a guy would wear walkin' down the 18th at Augusta. That's what I wanted to be on the sideline."

Who is he now?

Rahim Moore just laughs when asked what Neuheisel is like behind closed doors.

"How old is he, 47, 48? Well, he's just like a big, 48-year-old kid," Moore says, knowing that Neuheisel might make him do some extra wind sprints when he reads these quotes later on.

"I mean, he's like a father figure. He makes you want to step up as a man … but he's also like a kid. He's a really fun guy. I mean, we'll start singing and playing music in the locker room after games and he'll dance with us."

If you look hard enough on the Internet -- try here -- you should be able to find a YouTube video of a bare-chested Neuheisel jumping off a 10-meter high dive along with UCLA's players back in December as the Bruins prepared for the EagleBank Bowl.

Although the school news service was there, the mainstream media were not invited. In fact, Neuheisel got a little embarrassed when I brought it up.

"I don't have to invite the reporters when we do the jumping off the high dive," he said. "It's for us. It isn't so everyone can see what we're doing. I like having fun. I want my players to know; that's why bowls have been good experiences for us, 'cause we're gonna have fun."

So he jumped off the high dive, legs and arms down, straight into the pool.

The question is: Has the time come for Neuheisel and UCLA to make a splash?

Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.