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COLLEGE FOOTBALL : CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Nothing is easy about this trip

November 13, 2008|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Dufresne is a Times staff writer.

Rick Neuheisel returns to Washington this week in one of the most conflicted homecomings we can remember.

Nick Saban was booed last week when he took Alabama into Baton Rouge to play Louisiana State, but that was what you might call a "garden-variety" program abandonment.

Saban was hanged in effigy by LSU ignoramuses because, not long after he led the Tigers to the national title in 2003, he made a money grab for the NFL.

Like everything in his life, though, Neuheisel's return is more nuanced and convoluted.

The UCLA coach circles back to a Washington program that fell into ruins upon his abrupt departure after posting a 33-16 record from 1999 to 2002 that included a Rose Bowl championship.

A Seattle Times' series last year titled "Victories and Ruins" revealed that even the good times came with excess baggage -- but at least they were winning times.

Neuheisel returns to the place where he once skippered his boat to work. He goes back to pick the carcass of the only winless team in major college football.

Washington is 18-50 since Neuheisel left, and the weird part is that he feels horrible about it.

"It didn't have to be the way it was," Neuheisel said this week.

No kidding.

Neuheisel didn't leave Washington, he argues, Washington left him.

In fact, Neuheisel fought to stay . . . begged to stay . . . sued to stay.

Washington fired Neuheisel for his participation in an NCAA basketball pool and then botched the case worse than Inspector Clouseau could have.

An athletic department employee actually had put out a memo saying participation in NCAA basketball pools was OK.

Brilliant!

The NCAA then swooped in and broke its own rules of interrogation during questioning of Neuheisel.

Brilliant II!

Neuheisel filed a wrongful termination suit and eventually won a $4.5-million settlement from the university and the NCAA.

Whatever vindication one can take from that, the end result was that a sordid and circus-like chapter of Washington football could have all been prevented by . . . Rick Neuheisel.

He did bet in a basketball pool, it was against the rules, yet Neuheisel compounded mistakes by not coming clean about what he knew and when he knew it.

He lied to his athletic director about a clandestine meeting with the San Francisco 49ers, and the lie became a reason for his termination.

Neuheisel's punishment was a tainted reputation and five years of college football exile. Even after the NCAA cleared him to coach again, what program was going to hire a guy who sued his former employer -- and won?

Well, his alma mater did.

Neuheisel returns to Husky Stadium a changed man. How could he not be?

"It's no fun to dredge up the unfortunate ending to my time in Seattle," he said. "That was a difficult time I think in everyone's life that was involved. I have zero problem talking about my fond memories of Seattle, people there, great fans and certainly a lot of the great memories on the field.

"That's what I've been trying to focus on, rather than the messy ending."

Neuheisel has his own problems at UCLA, with a 3-6 record and USC still to play.

You might call this his "messy beginning."

Yet, contrition definitely fills a page in the Neuheisel playbook.

He knows there is no wiggle room left in his career for lack of candor.

At least he had better know.

He needs to once-and-forever cleanse himself of Washington, beat the Huskies to a pulp Saturday if he can, and then put a figurative arm around his fallen friends.

"There's no question that I feel badly for what it has become," he explained of Washington's football collapse, "but I worked hard to try to keep it from happening. I made the mistake of being in the pool, I made the mistake of being less than forthcoming with respect to my involvement with the 49ers, which led to this giant controversy . . ."

Most of it was his fault; maybe some of it wasn't, but there's no denying it all could have been avoided.

Blitz package

Bowl talk: This year's Bowl Championship Series title game could be a rematch of Big 12 Conference schools. How it happens: Florida loses once, most likely to Florida State, and then beats Alabama in the Southeastern Conference title game. Big 12 schools are currently No. 2 (Texas Tech), No. 3 (Texas) and No. 4 (Oklahoma) in the BCS standings.

If Oklahoma beats Texas Tech in Norman, Okla., on Nov. 22, there's a good chance Texas Tech, Texas and Oklahoma will all finish 11-1 in the Big 12 South. The division's representative to the Big 12 title game would have to be determined by highest ranking in the BCS standings.

Two years ago, Ohio State and Michigan almost met in a Big Ten rematch. Florida, in the end, edged Michigan out for the No. 2 spot by a margin of .9445 to .9344, then beat Ohio State to win the national title.

Why USC, even if it finishes 11-1, is virtually boxed out of championship game: The Trojans probably need a second loss from all three Big 12 contenders.

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