BALTIMORE — On his first day as UCLA's football coach -- and his last as a Baltimore Ravens assistant -- Rick Neuheisel reflected Sunday on his sometimes "naive and reckless" days in his first go-round as a college coach and how he hopes to recapture his love of the game with the Bruins.
In his first one-on-one interview since getting the job to coach at his alma mater a day earlier, Neuheisel also spoke about how he might never win over his most strident critics, and what he planned to do differently this time around.
"I have this inner sense of calm," said Neuheisel, 46, sitting in his sport utility vehicle outside M&T Bank Stadium on a drizzly afternoon. "I remember getting the job at Colorado and thinking, [whispering now] 'Oh, my God, I don't know what I'm doing. I can't tell anybody . . .' I was very impressionable. You're not sure. There's no book on how to do it.
"This time, I just have this sense that we're going to make a lot of great decisions. Just like a drive: You make good decision after good decision. You can't force them, and if you continue to do that, you're going to score."
In the past, Neuheisel was flagged for his share of NCAA penalties. He was fired by Washington in 2003 for participating in a betting pool on the NCAA basketball tournament. He sued for wrongful termination and settled with the school and NCAA in March 2005 for $4.5 million.
Before that, Colorado was put on two years' probation by the NCAA for infractions committed while he was coach there. All were determined to be secondary violations and most involved improper contact with recruits.
"I was naive and reckless," he said. "I took some missteps that didn't need to be taken. . . . I was out there probably too flamboyant, too in-your-face, and if you get down to the core of it, probably insecure about going up against the guys like the Mack Browns and Tom Osbornes and John Mackovics -- the illustrious longtimers that had cut their teeth long before I'd gotten into the business.
"I just didn't want anybody to think I was scared. I was going 100 mph. I just didn't want to look like I was going to back down. I just went too fast. . . . There was a time where, OK, they gave me the keys to the car and I'm going to drive it fast, instead of checking to make sure everything was in order."
He said he began to get more comfortable in the job, however, and was a more mature -- and secure -- coach as the years passed.
"I felt like I was learning," said Neuheisel, who won the Rose Bowl as a quarterback and coach, and compiled a 66-30 record in four seasons each at Washington and Colorado. "I was getting closer to understanding what this thing was all about, and realizing that you didn't need to have it be an animosity thing 24/7. It could be a thing where you have a lot of mutual respect. It's a growing process, it really is."
After the abrupt end to his career at Washington, Neuheisel worked as a volunteer assistant and coached quarterbacks at Rainier Beach High in Seattle. He also coached his three young sons in their various sports.
"When we hit the turbulence in Seattle, I had an awakening of sorts," he said. "Not only from the standpoint that this wasn't forever, and it wasn't guaranteed, and why are all my friends disappearing? But it was also an awakening in that I realized I needed to reconnect with my boys, reconnect with my wife, and get a perspective on my life. Because it goes by so fast, and if you're not paying attention you're going to miss a lot."
Essentially banished from college football, he sought solace on the driving range -- yet seldom found it there.
"You wouldn't find fist holes in my wall," he said. "You'd find a lot of golf balls hit -- just banging them and picturing some faces on those balls. That would be the thing I'd go do when I felt that bitterness coming to a head. I'd just go bang them. Not until my hands hurt, but until I felt I wasn't hitting them well anymore.
"There's this image that people do that and then they'd feel better. Almost always, I'd go and hit them and then feel worse. Because it was such a wasted emotion. It doesn't go away. You're never going to get back all the things that people said. You've just got to go on."
The bitterness seems to have faded now, especially after he landed his dream job. As he made his way to the stadium Sunday, Neuheisel was congratulated at every turn by Ravens employees and purple-clad fans. He greeted them all like friends.
He says he's comfortable with the notion he'll never win over everyone.