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The Hard Knock on Rick Neuheisel

Cover story

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.

Neuheisel's saga has been described as Clintonian, with various parallels drawn to the ex-president. Living on the edge. Explanations in parsed legalese. Clinton, when pressed to clarify an apparent contradiction, famously said: "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." And Neuheisel pleaded darkness in the Houston affair.

His downfall also raises questions about what we expect from our sports celebrities. Marquess of Queensberry rules were tossed out long ago, so where do we draw the line on modern sportsmanship? What is reasonable in the quest for victory?

Husky players had a front-row seat for this morality play as they hung around all summer for informal workouts. The man who had recruited them, who had led them through good times and bad, was under siege. "Man, it was tough," offensive tackle Khalif Barnes says. "I had to stop looking at all that stuff on the news."

Neuheisel's future is unknown. The NCAA has declined comment but, according to Dick Neuheisel, investigators have threatened a two- to four-year suspension for gambling if his son resurfaces anywhere in the college game any time soon.

Some people suggest he would be better off in professional football, where coaches are not encumbered by voluminous bylaws and regulations. "What Rick tried to do in college was looked at as being above the rules," says Young, the former teammate who now works as a Denver Broncos executive. "In the NFL, that is looked at as being creative and is rewarded."

Certainly no one expected him to be unemployed for long. He is too good, too smart, with too many victories on his record. But that was scant consolation to a man whose characteristic optimism, according to family and friends, has taken a jolt. "You can hear in his voice that the reality of not coaching this football season is hitting hard," Smith says.

Even though he recently gave his son a familiar pep talk--"You've got to pinch yourself"--Dick Neuheisel has struggled to find perspective. One moment he angrily accuses investigators of legal misconduct known as "tortious interference." The next he sounds bewildered. Why has everyone turned on Rick, he wonders. How did a glorious career go south so quickly? The father, so much like the son, muses: "He didn't think he was doing anything wrong."

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