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UCLA's off-field issues are being handled in right way. On field, that's another matter . . .

Rick Neuheisel's program has been hit by an embarrassing string of suspensions, arrests and other issues, but Athletic Director Dan Guerrero strongly endorses his coach for holding players accountable. The inconsistency in the team's play actually may be the tougher problem to solve.

October 12, 2010|Bill Plaschke

The Pasadena sun pounded an early afternoon trail across Dan Guerrero's dark suit, little beads of sweat wiped brusquely from his forehead.

"Whew," he said.

He got that right.

The UCLA athletic director had just participated in a Rose Bowl news conference celebrating $152 million in planned stadium improvements and an extension of UCLA's lease there for 32 more years, but that is not why I wanted to see him.

Tuesday's story was about the coach who leads Guerrero's team into that Rose Bowl. It was about the list of disciplinary problems that are piling up around Rick Neuheisel like freshly cut firewood.

In three years Neuheisel has booted, suspended or simply lost several players for reasons ranging from sexual battery charges to suspicion of theft to personal issues. The list grew longer Tuesday when two more starters were suspended for next week's game in Oregon for, you guessed it — personal issues. This means the number of UCLA football players who make trouble are now nearly outnumbering the ones who make plays.

Whew, indeed.

Except Guerrero nodded, almost smiled, and you realized, he was sighing not in anger but relief.

"These are kids, they sometimes make bad decisions in their life, and you can do one of two things," Guerrero said. "You can sweep things under the rug, or you can hold them accountable, and at UCLA, we hold them accountable."

Now he was shaking his head not with disappointment but determination.

"The way we do things sometimes hurts our program, hurts our student-athletes, hurts our coaches, hurts our fans, and that's sad," he said. "But it's our responsibility to run this program the right way, and that's what we will do."

So that evaluation I was hoping to get about the apparent chaos in Neuheisel's program?

"There is no chaos there," Guerrero said. "There is not anything close to what some people might think."

And an opinion about Neuheisel's ability to handle off-the-field issues?

"I think Rick is doing a terrific job," Guerrero said. "I see what he does. I know his expectations. They are very clear, he stresses them time and again."

It's probably not the response people were expecting, but, you know, Guerrero makes sense. It seems disingenuous to have ripped Neuheisel for the loose way he ran previous programs, then rip him now for being tough.

You can't have it both ways, and at least at this stop, Neuheisel is apparently having it only one way, and good for him. The publicity is ugly, and price is great, but the sound of UCLA publicly accepting the responsibility for its athletes' behavior rings far more true than the noise from those programs that shirk it and ignore it and hide it.

Not that there isn't a real issue here. That would be Neuheisel's risky recruiting. In an attempt to catch up to USC, he has seemingly brought in more talented but troubled kids than other recent UCLA coaches have.

When you have three freshmen who are kicked off the team for suspicion of theft three months before playing their first game, isn't that poor recruiting? When two of your troubled kids were signed away from USC, isn't that poor decision making?

"That's not fair," Guerrero said. "These are just kids who are learning."

I don't buy that. The kids can learn, but the coaches should know. I think in this information era, coaches should be aware of a player's potential for trouble. If a player is a problem, they should already have some idea.

I think Neuheisel could be more discerning in his recruiting. But once the kids arrive on campus, I agree with Guerrero that the coach is handling it well. All the publicity about suspended players hurts the perception of the program but is good for its integrity, and that's the only way winning can be built.

Speaking of winning, um, that's another story. When asked about the Bruins' on-field problems — great win against Texas, horrific loss to Cal, the story of Neuheisel's three seasons — Guerrero's brow grew damp again.

He said he still has confidence in his third-year coach — "Absolutely, everything's fine," he said — but you could feel his patience wilting in the heat.

"I'm like Rick, who is pleased with certain aspects and not pleased with certain aspects," Guerrero said. "We are sometimes bigger, faster and stronger than people, but we need to be that way all the time. We are headed in the right direction, but we still need to get over the hump."

Imagine that. The endorsement for how Rick Neuheisel runs a program is more hearty than the endorsement for how he coaches it.

Three years ago, that would make no sense. Today, it makes perfect sense.

Don't worry about the storm that surrounds the UCLA coach when he is managing. Worry about the one that hits him when he is coaching.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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