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ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Neuheisel Throws It Away for a Big Loss

June 13, 2003|Chris Dufresne

In no particular order, what a colossal waste of: talent, brain power, charisma and opportunity.

Washington fired football Coach Rick Neuheisel on Thursday, not because it really wanted to, but because it really had to.

Instead of making a run at the Pacific 10 title this year, the 42-year-old Neuheisel now must spend what should have been prime months of his career fighting to get his money and reputation back.

Washington opens the season Aug. 30 at Ohio State, the defending national champion.

But Neuheisel won't get to run into "the Shoe" now because he ran into the boot.

He never had a better friend than Barbara Hedges, the athletic director who'd hand-picked Neuheisel in 1999, then enabled him as he negotiated a sea of minor rules violations. Yet, Hedges had no choice but to sever all wins, losses and ties with Neuheisel after he'd admitted to participating in NCAA tournament pools the last two years. Neuheisel invested, and won, thousands of dollars.

"These are difficult and very painful decisions," Hedges said at a news conference Thursday.

The transgression here, as trifling as it might seem to millions of people who participate in pools, is not negotiable in the NCAA's eyes.

The taint of gambling to the organization is product poison, as plagiarism is to journalism.

Neuheisel's fate was fait accompli last week the moment he admitted having participated in the pool, a clear NCAA violation.

Had Washington not fired Neuheisel, the NCAA might have immediately handed him a punitive, two-year suspension. Because he was a coach, the NCAA would have argued that he, of all people, should have known better.

And the NCAA would have been right.

Neuheisel spent the weekend desperately trying to fend off the inevitable as he tried to dictate the best terms for his dismissal.

Interestingly, he did not negotiate a buyout, forcing Washington to terminate his contract, pending Neuheisel's right to appeal.

Late last week, Neuheisel produced an inner office e-mail that mistakenly stated it was OK for administrative personnel to participate in pools outside the office, so long as a bookie was not involved.

Neuheisel, of course, never mentioned this e-mail when first asked to defend his actions. He did hope the e-mail would mitigate "just-cause" dismissal terms of his contract, which included a $1.5-million loan that now must be repaid.

In the end, though, Hedges claimed Neuheisel was felled not by gambling per se, but by another lie -- his initially denying the basketball pool charge last week to NCAA investigators.

Neuheisel was already on notice after lying to Hedges in February about interest in the San Francisco 49ers' coaching job.

It was this steady drip of lies that eroded Neuheisel's credibility and ultimately left him without support when he needed it most.

The ultimate question is, why? Why would a guy so smart push the envelope and test the letter of every law?

Because he could? Because he, like a lot of smart guys, enjoyed the high-stakes risk of it all? Because playing chicken with the rule book challenged his intellectual curiosity?

The answer, most likely: all of the above.

Too bad, really, because Neuheisel had enough energy and ability to succeed on the straight and narrow.

His career up to this bad patch had been unbelievably blessed, maybe to the point he figured he could get away with anything. His teams, especially at Washington, had an uncanny knack for pulling out impossible victories. His 2000 Rose Bowl squad trailed in eight of its 11 wins.

His luck started to turn last summer, however, when the NCAA hit him with probation for a string of minor violations while he was coaching at Colorado from 1995 to 1998.

This bad "mojo," as Austin Powers calls it, even followed Neuheisel to the field as Washington botched a chance to beat Michigan in the 2002 opener when the Huskies were penalized for having 12 men on the field. The Huskies finished the year a ho-hum 7-6.

Neuheisel is not a bad guy. The mistake here is to confuse rule-breaking with law-breaking. Standing alone, his wrongdoings don't amount to much.

Contact with a recruit during a "dark" period does not equate to armed robbery.

Fibbing about an interview with the 49ers is not unpardonable.

And, if everyone who participated in an NCAA basketball pool got fired, the national

unemployment rate might be 70%.

Stacked together, however, against the NCAA's backdrop of sometimes sanctimonious authority, Neuheisel could not continue in his present position.

He might be finished as a college coach, at least in the short run, because the taint of gambling will shadow him.

Of course, this is all a big, fat, avoidable and regrettable shame, because Neuheisel had the chance to be one of the all-time great college coaches.

His face represented what the college game is all about: enthusiasm.

Neuheisel will, no doubt, move on to the NFL, a town with different laws and more benevolent sheriffs, a place where you can check your checkered past at the livery stable.

There, someday, he might even throw five bucks into the kitty for an NCAA basketball tournament office pool.

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