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RETURN OF THE RICK CONTROVERSIAL NEUHEISEL BACK FOR REUNION OF '80S BRUINS.

Byline: STEVE DILBECK

And now back to happier times. Simpler times. Back when players were his buddies, the crowd cheered, the victories fell into place.

There were no recruiting scandals. No charges of deserting a program he got into trouble. No white lies about job interviews. No job-ending basketball pools. Not even a single hat calamity.

Rick Neuheisel is coming back to the Rose Bowl today to hang out with the guys. His former UCLA teammates. Back where he once quarterbacked the Bruins to a 45-9 trashing of fourth-ranked Illinois.

More than 100 players and coaches from the Bruins' 1982, 1983 and 1985 bowl teams are scheduled to attend today's UCLA-California game at the Rose Bowl.

None, though, will be more famous/infamous as the controversial Neuheisel.

``I'm really looking forward to getting back with friends who know me,'' Neuheisel said.

These are, again, tough times for Neuheisel. It's become something of a career theme. And it's left little middle ground for his followers.

People either believe he's a highly intelligent, innovative, forthright football coach who occasionally has made a well-chronicled mistake, or, as the seeming current majority, that he's sleaze.

``There's no question there's a misperception of me,'' Neuheisel said. ``People don't know me. They believe what they read. I can't control what people write.

``As in the case of most situations, there are two sides to every story. While I'd like to go into my side, it's not appropriate at this time because of legal ramifications. So I have to sit and take it.''

The legal ramifications would involve his lawsuit against the University of Washington for firing him last spring. Neuheisel was ousted for participating in an NCAA Tournament basketball pool, which he claims was an illegal dismissal.

This came after he initially denied interviewing for the San Francisco 49ers head-coaching job, where his former UCLA coach Terry Donahue is now general manager. Alas, a reporter happened to be in the San Francisco airport and overheard him talking about the interview on his cell phone.

Neuheisel came to Washington from the University of Colorado, which gave him his first head-coaching job after only one season there as a quarterbacks coach. The Buffaloes faithful felt jilted, unappreciated after giving him his break, that he had cashed in on Bill McCartney's recruits for his first pair of 10-2 seasons (5-6, 8-4 the next two) and left behind a troubled program that soon would be on probation.

Otherwise, no hard feelings.

So you can understand why today's reunion with the old gang must seem like a welcome respite.

Neuheisel was a senior quarterback at UCLA in 1983 and was benched after an 0-2-1 start.

``Donahue told me when things like that happen to a football team, one of two things usually happens,'' he said. ``Either the head coach gets fired or the quarterback gets fired. He said he was sorry to tell me, but he wasn't getting fired.''

Steve Bono went down to injury early in his second start, however, and Neuheisel was back in the lineup. The Bruins turned around their season and marched toward an unexpected Rose Bowl game against Illinois.

``It was unbelievable,'' he said. ``It was like a magic-carpet ride. You don't even feel your feet and your running out on the field.''

Neuheisel was mostly feeling his stomach.

``I was sick the whole game,'' he said. ``I had food poisoning. Had thrown up like five times the night before the game. I remember going in after pregame warm-up and just feeling exhausted and laying down on the floor of the locker room. Just got a wet towel over my head and went, `How could this be happening to me?'

``And then going out there and getting that adrenaline rush that hits every player when they hit the turf.''

Neuheisel was named the game's outstanding player after completing 22 of 31 passes for 298 yards and four touchdowns. Two went to wide receiver Karl Dorrell, UCLA's new coach.

The first touchdown to Dorrell came after, breaking from the huddle, he changed his route to a post-corner-post.

``I didn't have time to tell him no, or ask why,'' Neuheisel said. ``He went out there and ran a beautiful route, and we hit it for a touchdown.

``The other night (Dorrell) called and said the media was getting on him down there and stuff, and I said, `One thing you have to do is trust yourself. You can't let them start to influence your decisions. Remember, you're the guy who called the post-corner-post.' And he laughed, and they haven't lost since.''

Neuheisel hired Dorrell at Colorado and at Washington. Unlike many who say former high school teammates are their closest friends, Neuheisel said for him it's his college teammates.

The ones he'll be with today. Ones who probably won't ask about his latest mini-scandal, The Great Oregon Duck Hat controversy.

This would be the one four weeks ago when he attended the Oregon-Michigan game and was photographed wearing a Ducks hat. He had stopped by and posed with Nike CEO, and major Oregon booster, Phil Knight.

``Had it on for 30 seconds,'' Neuheisel said.

What, you wanted him to root for the Big Ten team?

Neuheisel currently has time on his hands, so he became a volunteer quarterbacks coach at Rainier Beach (Wash.) High.

``I didn't want to just be sitting around home all day,'' he said.

He'd like to coach again at the NCAA level but understands his situation. His lawsuit isn't scheduled for trial until January 2005.

``There are issues that still have to be rectified, I guess, before someone is going to consider me the kind of candidate they're looking for,'' he said.

``I'm not sure what the future holds. That's the difficult part of my situation, that there's a lot of unknowns. But I'm thankful for the experiences I've had.''

And for one other thing.

``I'm looking forward to seeing the fellas this weekend.''

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

(color) Opinions vary about the character of Rick Neuheisel, who likely won't coach again until his lawsuit against the University of Washington is settled.

Shelly Castellano/Icon Sports Photos
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 18, 2003
Words:1023
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