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Neuheisel learns he can come home again Coach relishes his debut

Bill Plaschke

September 02, 2008|Bill Plaschke

Talk about your homecoming parades.

Rick Neuheisel led one through the center of the college football world Monday night, clanging and thumping and twirling.

It was ear-splitting. It was jaw-dropping. It was big footprints of fresh powder blue, pounding a startling path through our most distant of memories.

Yes, UCLA football has a head coach again.

Yes, UCLA football has a chance again.

What began as a stumble ended in a stomp, the outmanned Bruins twice taking a late lead against 18th-ranked Tennessee before stealing a 27-24 overtime victory in the first stop on Neuheisel's long road home.

"It's good to be back at UCLA, baby," he shouted afterward.

He shouted, because there was no other way he could be heard, his players running in circles and screaming, the Rose Bowl crowd stomping and roaring.

Daniel Lincoln's 34-yard overtime field-goal attempt for Tennessee was wide left and the Bruins went wild right, sprinting around the field as if they were clearing a path, which they were.

For the last decade, Bruins football has been cluttered and chaotic.

For one night, the future felt endless and clear.

And, well, cool.

Neuheisel initially showed his cool by wearing a white long-sleeve shirt and trademark sweater vest in the steamy Pasadena heat.

After pushing and prodding and shouting and stalking for four hours, he showed that cool again when he raised his arm in victory.

Nope, not a sweat stain anywhere.

Only Neuheisel, it seems, could climb on a box in front of the UCLA fans and wave a towel and scream his thanks . . . then remain there when the entire Rose Bowl went unexpectedly dark.

The lights were out, but Neuheisel stayed on, leading the crowd in a Bruins eight-clap cheer.

After which, right on cue, Labor Day fireworks exploded above the end zone where the Bruins had scored their two fourth-quarter touchdowns.

"For an opening act, it was a lot of fun," Neuheisel said.

Twenty-five years since he was here as a player, 15 years since he was here as an assistant coach, all sorts of muddy water under the bridge of his career since then . . . and it was as if he was never gone.

"During the game an official asked me, 'You having any fun?' " Neuheisel related. "I said, 'I can't even believe how much fun this is.' "

From the first pregame hand slap to the last carbonated shower -- yeah, his players doused him in soda -- Neuheisel clearly had a blast.

For perhaps the first time since Bob Toledo brought the team to the edge of a national championship 10 years ago, it sounded as if Bruins fans had just as much fun.

It was a hoot watching Neuheisel in the first half, striding briskly in front of his team, criticizing and hugging even as his offense was disintegrating around him.

Before halftime, he watched injuries sideline running back Kahlil Bell, top tight end Logan Paulsen and top receiver Marcus Everett.

By halftime, he had watched third-string quarterback Kevin Craft -- his only real option for at least the next month -- complete only seven of 18 passes with four interceptions as the Bruins fell behind, 14-7.

He yelled at Craft on the sideline. He followed Craft to the bench and yelled at him some more. He yelled so much his face grew red and his hair became mussed.

He yelled at him, but he didn't quit on him.

Twice in the first half, as the Bruins were mounting potential scoring drives, Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow refused to play it safe and allowed Craft to keep passing.

Both times, Craft threw awful interceptions.

"But you keep fighting," Neuheisel said.

And so in the second half, they kept allowing the junior-college transfer to pass, and he finally rewarded them by making it work.

Craft was 18 for 23 in the second half with no interceptions while engineering fourth-quarter scoring drives of 70 and 80 yards.

And after the Bruins had clinched the victory, who was the first one to hug the coach?

It was Craft, who grabbed Neuheisel from behind and briefly lifted him up, returning the favor.

"'I told him that I threw four interceptions when I started out too," Neuheisel said. "And Terry Donahue waited until the third game to pull me."

When UCLA officials finally overlooked his checkered past at Colorado and Washington and hired him last winter -- Neuheisel was their third choice at best, but the alumni loved him -- they dreamed of nights like Monday.

They won with rookies -- Sean Westgate scored on a block punt return, Taylor Embree made huge catches down the stretch, Rahim Moore had a big fumble recovery; all are true freshmen.

They won with veterans -- junior Ryan Moya's leaping touchdown catch gave them a late lead.

They won with coaching -- Chow's handling of Craft was brilliant, and DeWayne Walker's defense kept them in the game.

But, more visible than all of that, they won with the leadership of a guy who, for one night anyway, has somehow managed to turn a buzz into a roar.

"It's great to be a Bruin!" Rick Neuheisel shouted to the crowd late Monday night.

He'd been saying the same thing for six months.

On a night when the prodigal kid was crowned homecoming king, we finally saw what he was talking about.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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