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Neuheisel Fired Because of Deceit

After lying to Washington AD about 49er job, he initially lied about participating in basketball pool.

June 13, 2003|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

Washington has begun the process of firing Rick Neuheisel for "just cause," a multimillion-dollar distinction that is the only intrigue remaining in the astonishingly swift descent of one of college football's most successful coaches.

There is no doubt that Neuheisel is out. A new coach -- probably Husky offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson -- will be named within days.

Left to ponder is whether the official reason for the termination is genuine or mere legal strategy.

Neuheisel's undoing, Washington Athletic Director Barbara Hedges said Thursday, was less about gambling than about deceit.

On June 4, the coach initially lied to NCAA investigators about the reported $6,400 he wagered in college basketball pools the last two years, denying that he had participated.

And in February he lied to Hedges about an interview he'd had with the San Francisco 49ers, saying it never took place.

Because Hedges told Neuheisel after the first lie that no more lying would be tolerated, she maintains the second lie constitutes just cause for the termination, which if upheld means Washington will not owe Neuheisel a buyout and will require the coach to repay a $1.5-million university loan.

Should the firing ultimately be judged as "without cause," he will get approximately $3.6 million spread over three years, a figure that includes the loan amount.

The sides discussed a settlement for several days but were unable to agree, prompting Hedges to fire Neuheisel by fax late Wednesday night. He told a Seattle television station, "I have been terminated. I fought until the end."

Technically, he is suspended with pay at least until a June 26 deadline to appeal the firing. He also has the right to request a hearing by Norm Arkans, a special assistant to the Washington president.

None of that will restore Neuheisel, 42, as coach. Some Washington officials believed they had to cut ties with him to avoid severe NCAA sanctions.

"Rick's actions have left me little choice and have seriously undermined his ability to continue as head football coach," Hedges said.

The NCAA prohibits gambling by coaches, even among friends. But because Washington compliance officer Dana Richardson erroneously interpreted such bets as permissible in an e-mail to everyone in the athletic department March 13, Neuheisel spent nearly a week battling for his job.

The e-mail remains the cornerstone of his contention that the firing is without cause. It read in part, "The bottom line of these rules is that if you have friends outside of (intercollegiate athletics) that have pools on any of the basketball tournaments, you can participate."

An earlier memo, circulated through the Washington athletic department in 1999, also incorrectly stated that betting among friends in off-campus pools was within NCAA rules.

The NCAA said that a misinterpretation of a rule was not an excuse for a violation and that all coaches should know that gambling is prohibited. But the erroneous memos could enable Neuheisel to collect the buyout and avoid repaying the loan.

They also could cause more heads to roll -- including Hedges'.

"I am responsible for the program," she said. "I hired Rick Neuheisel. I also hired nearly every coach and a great percentage of the employees here. I have to be able to defend what I've done, and I think I can.

"When I hired Rick, I certainly didn't think I was putting my career on the line."

Earlier in the week, Neuheisel tried to make the case that gambling among friends in a pool was within NCAA rules.

It is unclear whether he continues to hold that position. Calls to Neuheisel were not returned Thursday.

"The NCAA has kind of rushed to judgment," he said earlier in the week. "Several members of the NCAA have already kind of tried and convicted me and I'm not sure that's within the rules of due process. Nor do I think they're really looking at all the facts."

The NCAA received an anonymous tip that Neuheisel had wagered thousands of dollars on the last two NCAA basketball tournaments. He reportedly won both bets, pocketing $12,123, although he said he'd donated much of the winnings to charity.

The NCAA apparently chose to surprise the coach with the allegations.

Hedges said she was contacted three weeks ago by investigators who asked to meet with Neuheisel about minor recruiting violations.

Neuheisel said the two investigators blindsided him with the gambling accusation and that he initially denied the charge because he was flustered. He said he asked for an adjournment, reconsidered and then acknowledged that he'd participated in the pool.

Hedges, who was in the meeting, supported Neuheisel's account but emphasized that lying was not acceptable.

"There is no question that we were both very surprised at the question regarding gambling," she said. "I certainly was not prepared for it. He was not prepared for it. That is absolutely true.

"But the reality is that his answers were not totally straightforward when he responded to them."

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