Ivan Maisel

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Neuheisel does not deserve to be fired

By Ivan Maisel

In eight seasons as a head coach at Colorado and Washington, Rick Neuheisel could never put together an effective running game. He could never beat Nebraska. And he could never stop the self-inflicted wounds. Now, with the NCAA enforcement cops out to make an example of him, and the Husky populace tired of explaining his actions away, it's time to state what a lot of us figured out a long time ago:

College football needs more Rick Neuheisels.

Yep, that's right. College football in general, and the University of Washington in specific, needs Neuheisel a lot more than he needs college football. Sacrifice him to the NCAA, shove him out the door with this execution by paper cuts, and college football loses. If he is fired, Neuheisel may head to the NFL. He may head to a television studio, and or he may lay low for a year or two. In whatever direction he goes, it's the wrong direction for college football.

Rick Neuheisel
Making an example of Rick Neuheisel would be a huge mistake.
A smart, still-young (42 years old) coach with a gaudy record (66-30, .688 winning percentage), one Pacific-10 championship, a Rose Bowl victory, and three top-10 finishes in eight seasons leaves the game, and the sport is supposed to somehow be more pure?

Neuheisel didn't pay players. He didn't flout academic standards. He connected with the young men in his locker room as well as any coach in the game. Oh, yeah, this is the guy you want to hound out of town.

There are some people, and not just in Colorado, who hear Neuheisel's name and turn red. He has the capacity to make otherwise normal football fans froth at the mouth. If Bill Clinton had been a football coach, he would have blond hair, play the guitar and work in Seattle.

There's another reason that Neuheisel brings Clinton to mind. If Neuheisel is guilty of anything, it's stupidity. His previous NCAA violations earned him a punishment of no off-campus recruiting during the last academic year. Last week, he attended an NCAA rules seminar as part of his punishment.

Embarrassing as they may have been, Neuheisel's violations were, in laymen's terms, misdemeanors. He never bought anyone's mama a house. However, they provided ammunition for his detractors. When The Seattle Times broke the story that Neuheisel had bet in a March Madness auction, he had to fight for his job because of "gambling."

For years, the NCAA has been spoiling to show how tough it is on betting. The organization tried to bully newspapers into not publishing the lines on college games, but ran afoul of the First Amendment. Freedom of the press includes favorites and underdogs.

Last week, as the trial of former Florida State quarterback Adrian McPherson for gambling lumbered toward a mistrial, the NCAA smelled an opportunity. Here came a prominent college coach, admitting that he participated in a $5,000 bet in a March Madness auction. Make way for sanctimony!

Never mind that every red-blooded American fills out a bracket. Never mind that, without office pools and NCAA calcuttas, the Final Four would attract as much attention as the Women's College World Series. The NCAA seized upon Neuheisel as if he had committed a felony. NCAA president Myles Brand opined that he would fire any coach in his employ who made such a sizable bet.

I've got bad news for Brand -- when you pay coaches seven-figure salaries, coaches have a lot of spending money. One secretary's $10 pool sheet is another coach's four-figure auction.

Should Neuheisel have understood that the bet he made with his pizza-and-beer friends was an NCAA violation? Absolutely. The University of Washington compliance officer sent out a department-wide e-mail in March concerning betting on March Madness, but somehow made room for the kind of pool in which Neuheisel participated. That doesn't pass the smell test. But the way college athletics work, if your compliance guy gives you the green light, you don't question him.

Neuheisel is responsible for his actions, of course. Bad advice or not, this is not a firing offense. Hand him over to the Inspector Javerts at the NCAA -- or is it the Inspector Clouseaus? I know it's someone French -- and the game will be poorer. Last winter, while discussing the state of the coaching business, with its high salaries and higher demands, Neuheisel cited two reasons why coaches are so quick to move around.

"One is the expectation level," he said. "We're in a win-it-now society. The other is paranoia. The coaching industry, because it's so competitive, (is) a little paranoid, probably a lot paranoid. (Detroit Lions coach) Steve Mariucci said it best to me: coaching jobs are like political office. You coach a term, and if they like you, you may get re-elected."

Neuheisel did nothing to warrant being voted out. If he is forced out, the fingerprints of the NCAA will be all over him. And that's not right. Of course, plenty of people believe the exact opposite. That's another reason Neuheisel is Clinton with a whistle. Both men are inkblots. People see the same facts and come to completely different conclusions.

Unlike Clinton, however, Neuheisel can get another coaching job. If Washington succumbs to the heat and lets Neuheisel go, college football ought to count the days until he returns.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

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