Neuheisel's reign tougher than expected

Things weren't supposed to be this difficult for Rick Neuheisel.

When he took the job coaching UCLA's football team, he was supposed to waltz in, work his magic and get the Bruins to a double-digit win total in no time at all.

That's the way it seemed to work at his previous stops as a college coach, so why not at his alma mater?

Instead, Neuheisel enters his fourth season as the leader of a program spinning its wheels as it tries to escape the clutches of mediocrity. He's also a man fighting to save his job.

Neuheisel's teams have gone 15-22 in his three seasons and have finished eighth, eighth and ninth in the Pac-10 during that span.

That's not how things went in his last college coaching job, when he took over a Washington team that had gone 6-6 the year before he arrived and guided the Huskies to an 11-1 record just two seasons later. And in his first job at Colorado, he went 10-2 in each of his first two seasons, albeit after inheriting a solid foundation from his predecessor Bill McCartney.

Even as a player, Neuheisel made things happen quickly when he went from a walk-on quarterback in 1980 to Rose Bowl MVP in 1984.

So for Neuheisel to still be struggling to turn the Bruins into a consistent winner after three seasons is kind of uncharted territory for him.

"I didn't expect it to be this hard," he said Tuesday when he met with reporters at the Pac-12 media day in Century City, Calif. "It's been longer, much longer, than any other place I've been before, but that might mean it'll be that much more sweet when we get there."

If they get there, that is.

The Bruins are still licking their wounds after going 4-8 last season, losing six of their last seven games. That hurt, because it came on the heels of a hope-inspiring 7-6 season in 2009, when UCLA won the Eagle Bank Bowl.

But injuries and other attrition sapped UCLA of its expected depth and experience, basically putting the Bruins back to square one as true freshmen were forced to learn on the job, seniors who had spent much of their careers as reserves suddenly became starters, and a quarterback who had attempted only 17 passes in his career became the primary signal-caller.

"We just haven't turned the corner to the extent that I thought possible," Neuheisel said. "I thought we were on the verge of it after 2009 with the bowl win and coming back. But last year, unfortunately, took a step backwards with respect to our progress."

Another step in that direction and Neuheisel will be looking for work, a fact that he acknowledged Tuesday when he took the stage and addressed the assembled media. Among his opening comments, he said, "As a coach on the proverbial hot seat, I guess you're excited to be invited to any of these things."

Despite the self-deprecating jab, Neuheisel won't dwell on the pressure to perform or else. He'd rather spend his time focusing on fixing what ails the Bruins football program and figuring out how to overcome the odds that seemed to be stacked against him.

The preseason media poll has UCLA picked fifth in the six-team South Division of the realigned Pac-12 Conference. The Bruins' passing game ranked 116th out of 120 teams last season and isn't getting any major personnel upgrades this season.

The best hope is a running game led by 1,127-yard rusher Johnathan Franklin, but Franklin alone cannot save Neuheisel's job, especially with an offensive line that is an injury away from becoming perilously thin.

"I don't consider it the hot seat; I consider it a great challenge," Neuheisel said. "I look at it like 'This is my school, this is my challenge, and I'm going to get it done come hell or high water.' And I think it's a great challenge."

To enhance his chances, Neuheisel has revamped his coaching staff. Mike Johnson, the former San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator, takes over that position for the departed Norm Chow. Joe Tresey, who built solid defenses at Cincinnati and South Florida, replaces Chuck Bullough as defensive coordinator.

And with quarterback Kevin Prince, a solid field general, set to return from injury and a defense that is a year older and runs two deep at just about every position, Neuheisel has legitimate reasons for optimism.

He also has a group of players willing to fight for him.

"There's no doubt in my mind that we're going to take care of Neuheisel," Franklin said. "He's been taking care of us, and he deserves to be at UCLA for years to come."

Just staying one more year, however, is the most pressing challenge, and in order for Neuheisel to do that, the Bruins must show progress. Most times that could be measured in any number of ways, but because time is running out for him, there is pretty much only one way for him to remain as the coach at UCLA next season: win.

"To deny that the number of wins is important is putting your head in the sand," Neuheisel said. "We've got to get over the hump of just being mediocre."

He did it as a player and he's done it before as a coach. And, he said, if he could get it done this year at UCLA, all the frustration would be worth it.

"When those things happen quickly, you don't tend to enjoy [it] as much as maybe you should," he said. "Or maybe that was just a product of being young when it happened to me. But when we get there, this is going to be really, really good."

Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com.