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All the Right Moves

By Wendy Soderburg '82, Photos by Frank Ockenfels III

Published Apr 1, 2008 9:00 AM



Maybe you recognized the friendly voice on the answering machine.

"Hi. This is Rick Neuheisel, and I'm excited to be the new head coach of the UCLA Bruin football team. I wanted to take a moment through this broadcast message to reintroduce myself to the Bruin family, Bruin donors, season-ticket holders and many of the UCLA alumni and Southern California football fans. ..."

The automated telephone message — which went out to 200,000 Bruin fans and friends — rolled off his tongue in one take, Neuheisel says. "It was like I had written it myself years ago, dreaming about having this chance," he says.


Rick Neuheisel, quarterback, prepares to fire during a contest at the Rose Bowl.

But even if you didn't get the call, you'd have been hard-pressed to miss the characteristic whirlwind of activity by and attention for the energetic, personable — and at times controversial — new coach, who wasted no time building his staff, wooing potential recruits and getting acquainted (or reacquainted) with everyone in the program.

Within days of his hiring as UCLA's 16th head football coach on Dec. 29, there was the peripatetic Neuheisel on TV, being interviewed in the stands during a timeout at the USC-Illinois Rose Bowl game on Jan. 1. Several days later, there he was at Pauley Pavilion, reconnecting with Bruin fans and delivering a heartfelt, "It's great to be home" speech during halftime of the UCLA-Washington State men's basketball game.

And the Bruin alumnus certainly doesn't need coaching on how to honor UCLA tradition. One of the very first things Neuheisel did was to schedule a breakfast with Coach John Wooden, calling it "a treat. I wish it for everybody."

But Neuheisel, 47, is doing much more than just getting his face out there. It took the new coach only three weeks to score two major coups: He retained defensive guru DeWayne Walker, who many feared would leave UCLA to take the defensive coordinator job at the University of Washington. And he hired Norm Chow — formerly of the NFL's Tennessee Titans and, even more significant, USC — as offensive coordinator. The teaming of Neuheisel, Walker and Chow already has Bruin fans (and sportswriters) salivating.

"If [USC Coach Pete] Carroll really loves competition as much as believed, he must be in competitive heaven right now because UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel just threw the gauntlet down so hard it shook the walls of Heritage Hall," wrote the Daily Breeze's Steve Dilbeck. "UCLA now has as impressive a trio of top coaches as any program in the country."



Winning and Losing

Neuheisel graduated in 1984 with a B.A. in political science (and a J.D. from USC in 1990, although he doesn't dwell on it). He is admired among Bruin fans as the quarterback who overcame food poisoning to lead UCLA to a 45-9 drubbing of Illinois in the 1984 Rose Bowl.

After graduation, the young quarterback spent two seasons with the San Antonio Gunslingers in the U.S. Football League and a brief stint with the NFL's San Diego Chargers in 1987. For the six years after that, he was an assistant coach at UCLA, where he helped develop some of the Bruins' all-time great receivers — J.J. Stokes '95, Kevin Jordan '96 and Sean LaChapelle, among others — and coached quarterbacks for two seasons, including future NFL Hall of Famer Troy Aikman. For the last three years, he served as an assistant coach for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens.

Yet despite his Bruin credentials, not everyone was convinced Neuheisel was the right choice for UCLA, primarily because of his past troubles at the two universities where he had previously served as head coach.

At the University of Colorado (1995-1998), Neuheisel's teams were successful, winning 33 of 47 games and all three of their bowl appearances. But after Neuheisel left, Colorado was put on two years' probation by the NCAA for infractions committed while he was the Buffaloes' coach. Most of them had to do with improper contact with recruits, and all were deemed secondary violations.

At the University of Washington, where he was head coach from 1999 to 2002, Neuheisel again enjoyed great success as his teams notched a record of 33-16 and four bowl game appearances, including a Rose Bowl victory and a No. 3 finish nationally in 2000. That ended when Neuheisel was fired in 2003 for participating in a betting pool on the NCAA basketball tournament. He ultimately sued for wrongful termination and settled with UW and the NCAA.


Strategizing with UCLA Coach Terry Donahue during Neuheisel's six-year tenure on the staff.

Those incidents gave some folks pause. But to the two people who really mattered — UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero '74 and Chancellor Gene Block — Neuheisel's past transgressions were just that: in the past.

"I know there are some issues in Rick's past that concern our constituency," Guerrero says. "We have discussed those at length with Rick and have investigated those issues with the NCAA. It has been at least five years and, in some cases, more than 10 years since the incidents occurred. We believe Rick has learned from those incidents and that he is more mature and experienced in the areas of compliance."

For his part, Neuheisel is grateful for the opportunity to coach at the university where he first found fame and success. "My mistakes have been well-documented, but I certainly take ownership of them. And I've learned from them," he says. "I've made sure that both Dan and Chancellor Block realize that, given this opportunity, I would never, ever do anything to tarnish the great reputation of UCLA or the integrity of this program."

Terry Donahue '67, M.S. '77, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and Neuheisel's former coach, says, "I think Rick is a great hire for UCLA. He knows the UCLA situation as well as anybody. Rick is a proven head coach with a very successful record in the Pac-10 and he will be able to compete with any team in the conference."



Back in Blue and Gold

When Karl Dorrell '87 was fired on Dec. 3 after five seasons as UCLA's head football coach, Neuheisel called his friend and former teammate to commiserate. "I was saddened, obviously, when the news came out that Karl had been let go," he says. "For Karl to get this chance [to coach at UCLA] was very exciting for me. And he did a lot of wonderful things. Unfortunately, they don't all show up on the scoreboard."

And when Neuheisel was offered a chance to replace Dorrell, Susan Neuheisel '88 was the first in the family to hear the good news from her husband, who called from his office at the Baltimore Ravens' facility. She recalls the conversation: "Rick said, 'Are you ready to do this again?' And I asked, 'Did you get it?'

"He said, 'We're going back home.'"

Neuheisel and Susan have three sons who have inherited their dad's love of sports. Jerry, 15, is a high school freshman who also happens to be a quarterback. ("Hard not to be!" he says, laughing.) He says he and Jack, 13, were relieved when their father was finally named UCLA's head football coach.

"For Joe, because he's younger (11) and doesn't remember everything, it's not as emotional," Jack explains. "But Jerry and I, we understand. We're really happy for our dad to get back into college football, because we know that's his favorite thing to do."

Neuheisel is well aware of what's expected of him, and he is fine with it. He's never been a part of UCLA, he says, when expectations weren't high — and that goes back to his days as a freshman walk-on in 1979.

"That's part of what makes UCLA special," he says. "You come here expecting to play for the big prize. And if you don't, it's a disappointment."

The new coach believes that UCLA's immediate goal should be the conference championship, because if UCLA beats a strong USC team for the Pac-10 crown, then the Bruins will be in the hunt for the national championship as well. And while he's not equating the Rose Bowl with a national title, Neuheisel nonetheless defends the bowl's prestige.

"Having played and coached in a Rose Bowl, there's nothing better," he says. "In my first team meeting with our guys, I described for them what that day would be like. ... I went into great detail, and it was easy to do because I've lived it. I was that kid who came out of the tunnel and didn't feel my feet hitting the ground as I ran to the sidelines. All of us who grow up dreaming of playing college football dream of playing in a game like that. So it's never going to be a disappointment to play in the Rose Bowl. It would be an honor. We've got to work hard to get that chance."

He adds, "This is going to sound corny, but when you walk down Bruin Walk, you go by the John Wooden Center. How did he get his name on that building? He came here, just like I got this chance, to be the coach. And he did it so well he's going to be remembered forever. And you can keep walking and reading the names: Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center, Jackie Robinson Stadium, Ralph Bunche Hall. ... And now to be given the chance to add more honor and glory to this place that's already so full of honor and glory, well, I've gotta take my swings at that."

Rick Neuheisel, who always wanted to be the head football coach at UCLA and finally got his shot, smiles and finishes with a quote from another Coach: "As John Wooden says, 'Be quick, but don't hurry.'"