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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.

Soon after, he took an assistant job at Colorado and, in the course of a single afternoon, burst onto the national scene. The Buffaloes were facing Michigan at the raucous Ann Arbor stadium known as "The Big House." They found themselves playing from behind for much of the game and, just before halftime, attempted a long pass. But quarterback Kordell Stewart threw too quickly, not giving his receivers enough time to run downfield. Neuheisel told him afterward that, if the situation arose again, he would need to scramble around a little longer before releasing the ball.

All during the second half, the young assistant could be seen rushing up and down the sideline, assuring his players that this would be the greatest comeback ever. Sure enough, Colorado got one last shot at winning and Stewart, mindful of his coach's advice, bought those extra seconds, heaving a 64-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass for a 27-26 victory as time ran out.

"People always looked to Rick in dismal situations," says Smith, his friend and former teammate. "Rick had a pretty good way of explaining the alternative. The alternative is to quit. When you really break it down and look at it that way, it gives people the additional energy to fight past the point of what might seem realistic. It becomes contagious. It breeds enthusiasm."

Unknown to Neuheisel, his performance had set the stage for another miracle finish. Near the end of that season, Coach Bill McCartney unexpectedly resigned and several veteran coaches vied to replace him. By various accounts, Neuheisel leapfrogged into the job with a stunning interview and last-second pressure from influential boosters. The boy genius was in charge.

Most coaches are ultra-competitive. They don't get the top jobs without possessing this quality in spades. Neuheisel separated himself from the pack with boyish charisma, a charm he could focus to a burning point through that prism of a smile. No surprise, then, that he charmed high school prospects. "The kids could really relate to him," says Allen Wallace, publisher of SuperPrep magazine, which chronicles recruiting. "He had a kid-like quality." There was something extra--a law degree earned at USC while he was a UCLA assistant. Wallace, who practiced law before writing about the college scene, appreciated the significance of this background.

"You are trained to look at rules like they don't apply to you," he says. "You argue away the spirit of the law. Or you reinterpret the spirit of the law." Having interviewed scores of kids recruited by Neuheisel, he adds: "I think Rick enjoyed the mental challenge of stretching the rules because he felt he could justify it."

So while other coaches shuddered in the presence of the NCAA's labyrinthine manual, leaving interpretation to specialists within their athletic departments, Neuheisel zeroed in. "I read the rules," he once said. "I'm not going to curtail creativity. That's our country, people trying to get better."

Newly promoted at Colorado, he made clear to his staff what was expected. The NCAA later described the tone he set as "a calculated attempt to gain a recruiting advantage, pushed beyond the permissible bounds of legislation, resulting in a pattern of recruiting violations." It wasn't just parking across the street and calling on the phone, which he did more than once. Neuheisel visited players' high schools and hung around long enough to "bump into" the young men. Recruits who visited the Boulder campus received hats and coats in team colors, another violation.

From Neuheisel, there was always justification. He said he went to those high schools to speak with the coaches, which was permissible. The coats were merely loaned to kids who visited chilly Colorado. Sometimes the kids forgot to give them back. But Neuheisel also told investigators: "Was I trying to be aggressive as a young 33-year-old head coach trying to make it in a world that is extremely competitive? Was I out there trying to win favor, and so forth? There is no question."

No one saw this at first. They saw the blond hair. They saw a new breed of coach who took his players on inner-tube rides and ski trips, who was personable with fans and relaxed in the limelight, playing guitar on his weekly radio show. "When he's at parties, he likes to get up and sing," Norrie says. "He likes to sing karaoke and get people involved." Most of all, fans saw the results. Colorado went 10-2 in each of Neuheisel's first two seasons, advancing to bowl games and cracking the Top 10 in the national polls.

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