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Originally published Friday, July 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Bud Withers

Rick Neuheisel back on center stage at UCLA

Rick Neuheisel, the former Washington football coach, met with Pac-10 media as the coach at UCLA and talked about how he handled the trials and tribulations of not being a head coach.

Seattle Times colleges reporter

LOS ANGELES — A new sheriff was in town Thursday for Pac-10 football media day, and a great cluster of press guys surrounded his circular table as he finished lunch.

He was Rick Neuheisel, UCLA's new football coach. You might have heard of him. The throng around him in Los Angeles was every bit as thick as that for USC coach Pete Carroll, so Neuheisel has already won his first battle.

He's not so young anymore, 47, and he bears a lot of scars. He spent much of the winter of 2005 in a King County Superior courtroom in Kent, and the soiled linen from that proceeding made it a question mark he'd ever find his way back to coach, let alone at his alma mater.

"I was optimistic," he said, then caught himself. "There were days when I was less optimistic than others."

I'll say this about it: No matter what you think of Neuheisel or The Seattle Times — not his favorite daily — it felt right. It feels right that he ought to have a chance at coming back, that he ought not be sentenced forever to a faceless role in the NFL, even after he won five figures in NCAA basketball pools in 2002 and 2003.

He is, after all, good at relating with young people, good at rallying the troops, and he coached Washington to the Rose Bowl in 2000, before his deceit about a 49ers interview and the basketball pools brought him down.

Post-lawsuit, he walked away with $4.5 million, thanks to a 2003 firing doubly botched by the University of Washington and the NCAA.

"The ending was messy," he says. "There were no winners in the end. I didn't win, they didn't win. A lot of good people were hurt by the chain of events.

"It was too bad. It didn't have to go down that way. Hopefully, everybody's learned from it. I certainly have."

Maybe this can work, in a way that Washington didn't. He is back at the place where he fought his way up from walk-on to Rose Bowl MVP, a place he ought to know and love like no other. There's no reason for him to be talking to Notre Dame and the 49ers as he did while with the Huskies.

And if he's ever inclined to straddle the NCAA rule book again, all he has to do is recall how bleak his existence became, watching college football all those Saturdays, knowing — he had to know it — that his real place was there, not on an NFL staff.

"Saturdays were hard days," he says. "I had a difficult time rooting for anybody, but I couldn't stand not watching it. I had to watch every game.


"I kept wanting to create opportunities [openings]. I felt bad. I almost feel this guilt for wanting somebody not to be successful, because you wanted to create another opening."

I asked him if there was a low point in his last five years. He said there were a lot of them, and when things were uttered about him, his family became part of it.

"As a coach," he said, drawing a contrast, "you get to coach the next week. You get to coach a next game and stop all the talk. When you're not, you just have to kind of weather it."

And suddenly, if Carroll wasn't providing enough college-football juice in Los Angeles, L.A. is drowning in it. There's enough energy to light the Southland from Simi Valley to San Clemente.

It won't be that hard to measure Neuheisel. If not an equal to USC, his Bruins will need over the long haul to make a big run at the Trojans' dynasty.

"They're that elephant in the living room," Neuheisel said. "You can't be the coach at UCLA and not find a way to compete successfully with USC."

Asked about Neuheisel, Carroll was hardly extravagant.

"It's a logical choice to get a guy from the school who's been a successful coach at other stops," Carroll said. "But I don't think it changes this extraordinary rivalry USC has with UCLA in all ways."

The most polarizing figure in Washington history comes to Seattle on Nov. 15. He will stir all the old debates: master motivator, inspiration to Pasadena, or the flawed coach who started the Huskies' embarrassing slide to oblivion?

Or all of those?

"I imagine it'll be a lot of boos," he said airily. "Maybe that's the nice way to put it."

But the thing is, he's back. Rick Neuheisel wasn't born to play county fairs. He's on the main stage again.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Bud Withers
Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10. | 206-464-8281

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