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Slick Rick Neuheisel looking solid at UCLA

There's still a gap to reach that team across town, but the coach is bringing some buzz to UCLA.

September 25, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

He said he wanted to take UCLA football to a higher level.

He never said exactly how.

So perhaps one should not be surprised when Coach Rick Neuheisel explained Thursday that he is doing it by . . . helicopter?

"Yeah, helicopter," he said. "Pretty cool, huh?"

Last Friday night, Neuheisel wanted to attend four inner-city high school football games while burnishing his growing street cred.

So he traveled there by whirlybird, buzzing low above fields filled with wide-eyed kids before games at Compton, Crenshaw, Long Beach Poly and Carson.

How did they know it was him?

"I told the players that watching their games was so important to me, I would be there even if meant taking a helicopter," he said.

Wouldn't it have helped if "UCLA" was printed on the side of the copter?

"That's next," he said.

Eventually he landed at the Compton Airport to climb in a car that would take him to several sidelines, but his driver didn't show up on time, so he began walking down Alondra Boulevard toward Compton High.

Yeah, you guessed it, a father wearing a Compton jersey spotted him, pulled over, and drove him to the game.

From helicopter to home run.

"What a tremendous night," Neuheisel said. "There is nothing like Friday night football in this city."

There is nothing like anything Neuheisel does, is there?

He comes to town as UCLA's third choice, loses eight of 12 games his first year, and still manages to tweak USC and laugh with the fans and love the alumni and strum his guitar and convince kids it all makes sense.

He shows up this year, untested quarterback, freshman running backs, suspended players, USC sucking down every last ounce of publicity, and what happens?

The Bruins begin the season beating teams from three good conferences while Neuheisel's group is being slowly surrounded with something rarely felt in recent years.

That not-so-slick thing known as love.

During their pregame walk into the Rose Bowl, their fans are now forsaking hamburgers for back slaps.

"Last year during the walk, everyone was sort of just standing there, but this year, completely different body language, they're all leaning in, like, I want to get a piece of this," Neuheisel said.

This happened before last Saturday night's game against Kansas State, the band playing, the atmosphere charged, a former warmup band suddenly treated like rock stars, Neuheisel turning to an assistant with an observation.

"It's growing," he said. "It's growing."

It is indeed growing, the Bruins basking in a 3-0 record during a week off that is filled with one-loss Trojans turmoil, but get one thing straight.

I am not writing that UCLA is closing the gap with USC. I'm not writing that UCLA is even approaching the gap with USC.

You might not remember this, but eight years and one Bob Toledo ago, I proclaimed Los Angeles as a Bruins football town.

OK, who am I kidding? Everyone remembers this.

While the column was right at that exact moment, it instantly proved to be very, very wrong, and I've got a lifetime of nasty e-mails to prove it, so, no, I'm not coming within a Matt Barkley bomb of making that assumption again.

"We've got to break the Plaschke curse," Neuheisel said.

No, we don't, not here, not now.

But I can write, as clearly as a November Rose Bowl afternoon, that what Neuheisel is doing is working.

The coach who was too flighty is calmly building the solid foundation for success.

The big ego has surrounded himself with strong coaches encouraged to shout him down.

The flashy Hollywood guy is slowly winning over the wary attitudes of an inner city where he must compete on Fridays to win on Saturdays.

The brain who knows only offense is fashioning a complete team that competes.

Winning with a quarterback who hasn't played in two years? Check. Winning after that quarterback breaks jaw? Check.

Winning after a week in which four players were suspended? Check.

Winning with nearly half as many rushing yards in three games as they had all of last season? Check.

Neuheisel's biggest fault so far has been perhaps that he cares too much, his frustrated sideline gestures at struggling players continuing to irk the most important of critics.

"I get graded on that every week by my mother, and last week she read my lips when I said something bad, and I got in trouble," he said. "I'll never get an A, but I'm working on it, and I think the players appreciate the real emotion."

Granted, none of their three defeated opponents will qualify for a bowl game. But as everyone in town learned last week by watching the party in Seattle, everything must be earned.

As USC struggles with things that UCLA is doing right -- coaching decisions, quarterback issues -- there is a thought that Neuheisel sits in his darkened office rubbing his hands in delight while waiting to pounce.

Well, first, his office is not dark, but rather dotted with sunlight and licorice and a framed letter from John Wooden.

On the couch is a guitar that his 12-year-old son Joe uses for his lessons. On the floor is Joe's backpack.

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