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Cover story

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.

Finally, in June, NCAA investigators received a tip that Neuheisel had participated in a college basketball gambling pool, the sort of thing people toss a few dollars into during the "March Madness" tournament. An athletic department e-mail had previously, and erroneously, cleared employees to participate in such pools outside the office. But Neuheisel had entered an expensive one and walked away with thousands of dollars, risky business for a high-profile coach in a sport where even a hint of gambling is tantamount to original sin. Asked about it by NCAA investigators, he lied before coming clean.

It is doubtful any of the recruiting violations at Colorado and Washington resulted in glaring advantages. Certainly no one will point at Neuheisel on the street and say: "There's the guy who got into that basketball pool."

So how are we supposed to view this man? Supporters say if he is guilty of anything, it is innovation, a hunger to reinvent the way coaches operate. Detractors argue that "Slick Rick" considers himself smarter than everyone else, that he uses his law school education to bend the rules. And he lies.

On one point both sides agree: His confidence is such that, if trouble comes along, he figures he can make it right. In the words of one friend, Neuheisel's approach was: "Bust through brick walls and fix it later."

With no remedy this time, Neuheisel took his wife and three sons far from Seattle to be among friends in Southern California. He declined through his attorney to be interviewed for this story. Those close to him said a bleak realization had sunk in: For the first time in a lifetime, he would not be spending autumn on the football field.

"It's a terrible, terrible scar," Dick Neuheisel, his father, says from his Tempe, Ariz., law office. "They've tainted him."

He was too small, and probably too slow, for major college football. After lettering in three sports at McClintock High School in Tempe, Neuheisel was largely ignored by recruiters, missing out on the attention he would one day lavish upon young prospects. He was headed for Princeton or Dartmouth--top-flight schools but second-tier teams--until then-UCLA Coach Terry Donahue persuaded him to come west. No scholarship, no promises, only a chance to compete.

The process was arduous, day by day, season by season. As quarterback of the scout team, Neuheisel went against the first-string defense in practice and got hammered. Given a chance on the kick-off squad, he threw himself at bigger, stronger opponents. The source of his grit was not hard to pinpoint. It goes back to boyhood games and contests against his father, who would say: "If you can beat me, Ricky, maybe you can get a new bicycle."

"I'd let him get close," Dick Neuheisel recalls. "But I'd never let him win."

At UCLA, when the quarterbacks loosened their arms by arching long throws into the end zone, Neuheisel often challenged the others to see who could bounce a pass off the field-goal crossbar. "Even just playing basketball around the fraternity, it always became very competitive," says Bob Smith, a former teammate who remains close.

This trait assumed folkloric proportions on that New Year's Day in 1984. UCLA quarterback Steve Bono had injured his shoulder earlier in the season and Neuheisel had led the Bruins to the Rose Bowl. On the eve of the game, the team ate its customary dinner at a local steakhouse and a slew of players fell ill with food poisoning. David Norrie, another quarterback on the roster, recalled waking at 3:30 a.m. to the sound of Neuheisel vomiting. By game time, Neuheisel was pale and shaken, complaining to his father outside the stadium. "Dad, I'm sick," he said. "I don't know if I can play."

"This is the most important game of your life," Dick Neuheisel shot back. "You've got to pinch yourself" in the rear.

His son responded by throwing for nearly 300 yards and four touchdowns, earning the most valuable player trophy in a 45-9 victory over the University of Illinois. "Once I ran onto the field, it was magical," he told The Times. "I was floating."

Says Norrie: "That's how competitive Rick can be."

It makes sense that this type of player would exhibit similar qualities as a coach. Always looking for an edge. Always persevering. "I wouldn't call Rick a glass-half-full guy," Norrie says. "I call him a glass-full guy."

Returning to UCLA as an assistant in 1988, Neuheisel worked his way up the staff with an eye on becoming offensive coordinator. But when that job opened up in 1993, he was passed over for an outsider, Toledo, who had come from Texas A&M. Family members said Neuheisel felt slighted--"kicked in the stomach" was how his sister, Nancy, put it.

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