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Originally published November 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 11, 2008 at 11:00 AM

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Huskies | Rick Neuheisel's sorry, but says he would have kept Washington football strong

Coach Rick Neuheisel returns to the scene of his firing and resulting lawsuit as he brings UCLA to Washington for a game. He says he's sorry it ended the way it did, has a couple of regrets, but insists that if he had stayed, the Washington football program would still be "on top of the heap."

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Rick Neuheisel has mostly positive thoughts of his four years as Huskies coach. Neuheisel said he expects to hear boos, but has moved on from his messy end on Montlake.

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LISA BLUMENFELD / GETTY IMAGES

Rick Neuheisel has mostly positive thoughts of his four years as Huskies coach. Neuheisel said he expects to hear boos, but has moved on from his messy end on Montlake.

Saturday

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

Any bitterness percolating in the Husky Stadium air Saturday, Rick Neuheisel says, will be strictly traveling one-way.

The former Washington football coach, now with UCLA, says he has moved on from the messy ending to his UW coaching career. The memories he carries from his four-year Washington tenure are overwhelmingly fond ones, he says.

He has tossed aside the hard feelings enough that on Monday he consented to a 20-minute phone interview with The Seattle Times, a newspaper he'd declined to speak with for several years because of its coverage of the controversy that brought down his UW career.

In that interview, Neuheisel said he anticipates a negative reaction from UW fans Saturday when the Bruins come to town for a 7:15 p.m. kickoff. He also said things would have be different if he had stayed in Seattle.

"I know this — I believe I can recruit and I enjoy it, and so I believe I would have kept Washington at the top of the heap," he said. "That's just me talking about it. But I'm going to defend myself because all I have is my track record to go on. We'd had four winning seasons and I believe we would have kept it going."

Washington was 33-16 in Neuheisel's four seasons, going 11-1 in 2000 and winning the Rose Bowl. It hasn't had a winning season since he was fired.

"I know it's been a rough couple of years for everybody involved," Neuheisel said. "To those who think I'm responsible, all I can say is I'm sorry you feel that way. But it's time to move forward and think about the future."

Earlier, in a conference call with Seattle media, Neuheisel had been especially contrite, essentially offering an apology for the final days of his UW career, saying, "I just want the fans to know that I am truly sorry for the messiness of how things shook out [at the end]."

While wanting to focus on the future, returning to Husky Stadium means Neuheisel will be forced to confront his past.

He said he hasn't set foot in Husky Stadium since June 2003, when he was fired as UW's coach for betting in an NCAA tournament pool and for initially lying about it to NCAA investigators. He later sued the university and the NCAA, ultimately receiving a $4.5 million out-of-court settlement.

"I think we all have things we wish we would have done different," he said. "I wish I'd not been there when I answered the phone when they called about [inviting him to be in] the pool."

Neuheisel's tenure received criticism for players' off-field issues, many of which were detailed in The Seattle Times' "Victories and Ruins" series last January. Neuheisel said many of the problems described in the series happened before he was coach, and that some — particularly in regard to Jeremiah Pharms — just escaped his notice.

"The one thing I regret is that I would have been more heavy-handed with Jerramy Stevens," he said, referring to the tight end who had several legal issues at UW and has had more in his ongoing NFL career.

"Given another opportunity, I won't make the same mistake, and I don't say it because I'm mad at Jerramy but to tell him I'm sorry I didn't [punish him more]. I had a chance to send him a clear message and instead it was a mixed one and I regret that. But there were a lot of great kids on that team and in terms of what we accomplished that year, it was just a great team to be a part of."

His other significant regret, he said, is lying about interviewing for a coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers in February of 2003, which UW officials later cited in his firing.

But now, he says, with his coaching career back on track, he mostly thinks about the good times.

Neuheisel said he had a reunion last summer with some of the players on that 2000 team, such as lineman Matt Rogers, safety Hakim Akbar and linebacker Derrell Daniels, who now works on-campus at UCLA and sometimes volunteers in the football office.

He stays in touch with a few others — he said he got a text message from Reggie Williams after the Bruins beat Tennessee in his first game as UCLA's coach, reciting one of Neuheisel's favorite sayings that "tough times don't last but tough people do."

He also talked with former UW athletic director Barbara Hedges shortly after he got the UCLA job, thanking her for anything she might have said during the hiring process.

He said Hedges — who had been forced to fire Neuheisel at UW — told Neuheisel UCLA hadn't called her but other schools had.

"She was very gracious," Neuheisel said. Neuheisel isn't expecting much grace Saturday, however. Asked what he thinks his legacy is in the minds of most UW fans, he said "unfortunately, I think that [the ending] will be primarily what people will remember because it was such a controversial time.

"It will be what it will be," he said of the reception he expects to receive. "I'm pretty sure the negative will outweigh the other. But that's OK. In some way, they are all cheering for Husky football however you are viewing it."

Locker update

Quarterback Jake Locker will have surgery this week or next week to remove plates used to repair his broken thumb, suffered Sept. 27 against Stanford. Coach Tyrone Willingham said it's still uncertain if Locker will return to action this season.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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