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T.J. SIMERS

Trojans stir up some trouble

December 30, 2008|T.J. SIMERS

Picked up the Monday newspaper to see Preacher Rick coming off once again as Slick Rick. That sure didn't take long.

Ken Norton Jr., the onetime Bruin of all people and now a USC assistant coach, was slinging the mud -- obviously alluding to Colorado and Washington, two places where Neuheisel had previously self-destructed.

"It's kind of a pattern of what happened in the past," Norton said in mentioning Slick Rick's latest alleged escapade.

I'm thinking right away he's joined a football bowl pool, interested to know if he took USC or Penn State and the points.

But as it turns out, this is much more serious, Norton charging UCLA with dirty tricks and implying it's just what Neuheisel does for a living.

Norton said "UCLA" was telling recruits he might be leaving USC to join the Bruins' coaching staff, Norton then using the newspaper to tell recruits everywhere, "It's important that it's known that I'm here and I'm staying here."

Easy to believe, of course, that Neuheisel is up to something given his history of bending recruiting rules at Colorado and Washington.

Five years ago, writing for The Times, David Wharton documented many of those violations and quoted Neuheisel as telling NCAA 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."

But has he learned, as he said he learned when he arrived back at UCLA?

I read The Times' story about Norton's charges further, waiting for Norton to say it was Neuheisel who was telling the recruits he was going to be leaving USC, or maybe name the assistant coaches working for Neuheisel who were spreading the misinformation.

But instead, Norton said it was "UCLA." But who at UCLA? A coach, player, mascot with a big mouth, student, booster or some message board regular? A UCLA grad working at rivals.com?

When Norton mentioned Neuheisel's previous "pattern," it sure sounded as if he was singling him out, like he knew Neuheisel was the guilty party -- yet he was saying he was getting it from recruits.

How convenient -- since it's an NCAA violation to mention recruits by name.

I stopped by USC on Monday to ask Norton if the unnamed recruits had identified Neuheisel as the one playing dirty tricks, figuring it probably would have come up in the conversation.

But he left word through a university spokesperson, "I said what I had to say yesterday. Talk to the head coach."

For a program that prides itself on toughness, it was odd to come across a coach wimping out like that, so I checked in with Pete Carroll.

It was Carroll, the instigator -- who likes everyone to believe he's above all this kind of stuff -- who suggested to Norton that he speak with the media.

He said he did so because Norton was upset and didn't know what to do. So do you think Neuheisel is behind all this? I asked.

"If we have a problem in our program," he said, "who's responsible? I am."

So you're saying it's Neuheisel who has been spreading the misinformation about Norton?

"I don't need to answer your questions," he said, the damage already done in the newspaper and Slick Rick already getting slapped, so he was correct.

"You started it," I said as Carroll began to walk away. "The worst thing someone can say about Neuheisel is that he's doing it again, and yet no one here will say it was him. Was it?"

"It was absolutely important for Kenny to have a chance to say something," Carroll said. "What was going on was not fair or honest. A half a dozen times it came back to us. Kenny was being misrepresented. It's so obvious a ploy being played here and it's not truthful. And we're not going to stand for it."

Now everyone knows USC is 100% pure when it comes to recruiting, but who is telling the truth here?

USC was publicly embarrassed recently when a recruit changed his mind and opted to become a Bruin. The player, a tight end, had been heavily recruited by Norton. Is he now taking it out on UCLA -- hitting Neuheisel where it hurts the most -- his shaky reputation?

Has Neuheisel already told Norton behind the scenes he won't be getting a job offer, giving Norton an ax to grind?

Carroll said the battle for the tight end is old news, and he's not aware of any grudge Norton might have when it comes to Neuheisel. He said it's so obvious to everyone out there what's happening in recruiting, it was just time to put a stop to it.

"What does UCLA say about it?" Carroll asked.

I said Neuheisel denied everything in a statement.

" . . . I was sorry to read the comments Kenny made in the Los Angeles Times," Neuheisel said in his statement, and I'm guessing when things got tough at Colorado and Washington he did most of his talking with statements. Maybe this was just for practice.

"I have not told any recruits that if DeWayne [Walker] left, Kenny would be the defensive coordinator at UCLA," the statement continued, "and neither have my assistant coaches."

It was like I had just made Carroll's day.

"There you go, that's your story," he said. "Talk to recruits."

Talk to me, recruits. If Neuheisel or one of his assistant coaches offered misinformation in regard to Norton, e-mail t.j.simers@latimes.com.

Even though it's probably not an NCAA violation, we won't use your name, but we will know who is telling the truth around here.

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