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Originally published Wednesday, November 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Rick Neuheisel's ex-Huskies share mixed feelings

Ex-Husky Spencer Marona and some of the others who still regularly attend Washington games find themselves defending their old coach even more these days, especially in light of more recent criticisms of Rick Neuheisel's program.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

UCLA @ UW, 7:15 p.m., FSN

A half-dozen or so of them will gather, as they do most fall Saturdays, in the Husky Stadium parking lot, having a little food and a few drinks before they head into the game, just like all the other tailgaters.

This Saturday, though, will feel slightly different when they walk into the stadium, as they'll see their old team on one sideline, their old coach on the other.

And for those who played at UW under Rick Neuheisel, and still remain close to the program as fans, the emotions will inevitably be mixed.

They'll root for their Huskies, but they also feel a soft spot for their old coach, who is now at UCLA.

"The one thing I've always said, and I truly do believe, is that he took care of us," said Kyle Benn, a center from 1997-2001. He was a captain as a senior and still lives locally, working in medical sales.

"I really think his intensions were good, and he won games, and to me, that's really the most important part," said Greg Carothers, a safety from 2000-2003 and now living in Maple Valley.

But as the years have gone by, the emotions have grown a little more complicated.

With UW's struggles since Neuheisel was controversially fired in the summer of 2003, many fans place much of the blame for what has happened squarely at his feet, something the players hear as they walk around the parking lot.

"When people ask me what years I played, I almost have to follow it up with 'well, I was recruited by Jim Lambright,' " said Spencer Marona, a fullback and defensive tackle from 1998-2001. "It's almost like they want to take something away from my experience because I played for Neuheisel."

Marona and some of the others who regularly attend games find themselves defending their old coach even more these days, especially in light of some more recent criticisms of Neuheisel's program, such as those found in a Seattle Times series last January detailing off-field issues for a handful of players.

"He did some incredible things for guys that the media and fans didn't see," Marona said.

Marona, for instance, recalls suffering a career-ending shoulder injury as a junior in 2001. He was hesitant to tell Neuheisel he didn't think he could play anymore, worried about the coach's reaction. "He could have said 'best of luck, go on your way,' " Marona said.

Instead, Marona said he was heartened when Neuheisel asked him to stay around the program as a student coach.

"I would say that is one story out of 20 I could give you," Marona said.

But as the years pass, the players also gain a more mature perspective on their careers. And while those interviewed this week say they don't feel Neuheisel should be solely to blame for what has happened, they also don't think he is without fault.

Benn and others who played for both Lambright and Neuheisel say there is some substance to the common criticism that the culture of the program changed under Neuheisel from old-school blue-collar to more relaxed and less disciplined. One small change several cited is that players no longer had to take off hats during team meetings. Fights weren't as tolerated during practices, which players cite as a softening of the team's attitude. And the traditional locker room pecking order allowing older players to handle a lot of problems in-house was gradually abolished.

"When you are looking at the current state, is he to blame for some of it? Yeah," Benn says. "But as we can see, it's not all his fault. I think the culture shock has been the big thing. There was 20 years or so there with Lambright and [Don] James [when] you had the same culture — here's how Husky football is, take it or leave it. And it didn't change from class to class. In the last 10 years, you've just had so many different types of coaching from Lambright to Neuheisel to [Keith Gilbertson] to [Tyrone] Willingham, just the roller coaster you've had, guys' heads are spinning to where the program is not what it used to be."

Says Carothers: "I was not a blue-chip guy or a flashy guy or anything like that and he liked those guys a little more, I felt like."

Neuheisel, in an interview with the Times Monday, said "I don't know that I changed the culture of the program. It was the decision of the department to change the culture. Jim was the coach and they made a decision to change, and I had nothing to do with that decision. And I was asked to come in and [coach] and I came in and did it the way I did. I told them what I was going to do with it and what I thought would be good and four years later we were 33-16."

Indeed, Neuheisel's former players say that winning percentage ultimately encapsulates well the way they feel about their time at Washington.

"He might have done some things not held in the best regard by the program," said Todd Elstrom, a receiver from 1998-2001. "But he did some good things while he was there and you can't discredit the guy when you look back and see that we really did some good things and did consistently win."

Saturday, many will be at the game, some on the UW sidelines. There are apparently no set plans to see their former coach, but they're hoping some meeting may come in passing. And in that moment, there would be no ambiguity to their feelings.

"I'm happy for him," Marona said.

"I think he's learned from his mistakes and he's back at his alma mater. He was made out to be public enemy No. 1 here and that wasn't the case. We had a very good experience here and no one can take that away from us."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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