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The Hard Knock on Rick Neuheisel

How a Star College Football Coach Learned That Clever Doesn't Always Mean Smart

August 24, 2003|David Wharton | Times staff writer David Wharton last wrote for the magazine about being a mentor to a high school student.

On a winter night in Houston six years ago, college football coach Rick Neuheisel steered his rental car to the curb and placed a cell phone call to a house across the street. When a young man answered, he asked the kid to open the front door and look outside. This was the cutthroat business of recruiting, an annual rite by which coaches scramble to restock their teams with talent from high schools nationwide. The kid in the doorway was good enough to have received offers from other universities. Neuheisel wanted to impress, to set himself apart from the other suitors.

To that point, Neuheisel's life had seemed charmed. An unheralded quarterback at UCLA, he had come off the bench in his senior year to guide the Bruins to victory in the 1984 Rose Bowl. His rise through the coaching ranks had been equally improbable, blurry-fast, landing him as head coach at the University of Colorado by age 33. Blond and baby-faced, a guy who liked to play guitar, he had basked in the spotlight. From the start, his teams had been winners.

That night in Houston, in January 1997, Neuheisel knew that one of the myriad rules set down by the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. to govern recruiting forbade him from visiting the athlete personally. To violate such a rule would be no small matter, not when the game had become big business and millions of dollars could ride on each victory.

So Neuheisel sat 15 yards away and chatted by phone.

"It's difficult to say we were within eyeshot," he told NCAA investigators reviewing his conduct a few years later. "It was after daylight savings time. So it was dark. I looked at the rule and I thought it would be permissible because it was a telephone call." Investigators suggested otherwise, counting the incident among others in which Neuheisel had crossed the line. The NCAA placed Colorado on two years' probation.

But by that time, Neuheisel was long gone. He had left Colorado in 1999 for a million-dollar contract at the University of Washington, where the golden boy kept winning games and--despite warnings from people around him--kept testing and stretching the rules.

Until it all caught up with him this summer. In a move as swift as it was stunning, University of Washington administrators fired Neuheisel "for just cause," citing a series of transgressions that occurred during his four years on the Seattle campus. The university also moved quickly to replace him as the Huskies prepared for this Saturday's opening game against the defending national champions, Ohio State University.

With the star coach banished, a question lingered: how could someone as smart and talented as Rick Neuheisel let his remarkable career slip away?

Perhaps the first point to make is that most--some would say all--of Neuheisel's offenses seemed tame in this season of disgrace for college coaches. The University of Alabama recently fired football coach Mike Price after he spent hundreds of dollars at a strip club and allowed a young woman to order $1,000 in food and drinks from his hotel room the next morning. Iowa State University basketball coach Larry Eustachy was dismissed when snapshots of him partying with students appeared in a newspaper.

Neuheisel's June 12 dismissal followed smaller and decidedly less salacious controversies:

Shortly after arriving in Seattle in 1999, the coach was accused of trying to improperly lure Colorado players to his new team. He also acknowledged that his Washington assistants had contacted high school recruits in violation of NCAA rules.

After the 2001 season, Neuheisel openly criticized the recruiting practices of rival coaches, including then-UCLA Coach Bob Toledo, and was reprimanded by the Pacific 10 Conference.

In October 2002, as part of the penalty for the Colorado violations, the NCAA limited Neuheisel's off-campus recruiting at Washington. Called before the ethics committee of the American Football Coaches Assn. the following January, Neuheisel reportedly showed little remorse. Committee members took the unusual step of censuring him.

Several months ago, the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League were searching for a new coach and interviewed Neuheisel. It remains unclear if he adequately notified his athletic director. He told the media there had been no contact but was caught in that lie when a sports columnist overheard him talking--on his cell phone, no less--about the interview.

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