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Rick Neuheisel's final game is a triumph of effort and class

BILL PLASCHKE

On a night that defied the direst of predictions for his 31-point underdogs, Neuheisel's Bruins didn't quit and didn't fall apart in a loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game.

December 02, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel watches a replay on the video screen as he argues a call with an official during the Pac-12 Conference championship football game against Oregon on Friday night at Autzen Stadium.
UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel watches a replay on the video screen as he argues… (Don Ryan / Associated Press )

From Eugene, Ore. -- The single screamed word cut through the cursed jeers, the biting cold, the caustic final moments of a UCLA football coaching career.

"Boom!"

Rick Neuheisel, pumping his clenched fists and staring at the wet ground, shouted the solitary syllable Friday night after Nelson Rosario made a one-handed touchdown reception in the final two minutes of the Pac-12 Conference championship game.

The grab finalized the score: Oregon 49, UCLA 31.

That "boom" was another word for goodbye.

Neuheisel walked off the Autzen Stadium field as a loser for the 29th time in 50 UCLA games, as a coach who had been fired four days earlier, as a lost cause fulfilling his final obligations with a final defeat.

But on a night that defied the direst of predictions for his 31-point underdogs, Neuheisel departed with a triumph of effort and class.

His Bruins didn't quit. His Bruins didn't fall apart. They were outgained by more than 200 yards and they were outmanned at seemingly every position, but they fought until the end, finishing with a 94-yard touchdown drive that included a fourth-down conversion and ended with that boom.

Neuheisel celebrated, then he mourned.

As the game ended, with his eyes red and full, Neuheisel walked off the field hugging and thanking players and family members, pausing longer to clutch oldest son Jerry. Coaching until the very end, he grabbed future starting quarterback candidate Brett Hundley, embraced him for several long moments, then whispered into his helmet.

"He told me what work I needed to do in the off-season to get better," Hundley said. "But that's what he always does, coach."

Before entering the locker room, Neuheisel stopped one last time and tipped his white UCLA cap to members of the UCLA band, his tears starting to flow as he disappeared into the night.

"Walking off the field knowing that I don't know when I'm doing this again is an emotional thing," Neuheisel said. "I tried hard to harness it, but I was not always successful."

In his previous four years at UCLA, Neuheisel was a coach who seemed to lose his players at the oddest times. But on his final night, he found them.

There was Patrick Larimore intercepting a pass and returning it 35 yards for a touchdown that tied the score early, his run including the breaking of a shoulder tackle and a somersault into the end zone.

"I think we could have easily laid down and given in to everybody's predictions," Larimore said. "But I feel like the team, as a whole, played with a lot of energy, a lot of effort."

He added, "Being able to play under [Neuheisel] has been truly a blessing for me, and I know it has been for the rest of the team."

Then there was Kevin Prince, hitting Rosario on a 37-yard touchdown pass off a flea flicker in the second quarter, crumbling in pain after being clobbered in the fourth quarter, then returning to lead that final touchdown drive amid fans screaming for the Ducks to hold.

"Just want to thank Coach Neuheisel for giving it his best effort these past four years, and I'm going to miss him," Prince said.

The Bruins were behind 35-14 when they got the ball with 11 seconds left in the first half, but, instead of walking into the locker room, Prince hit Joseph Fauria for a 30-yard pass and Tyler Gonzalez, the nonscholarship former manager of the Bruins soccer team, kicked a 44-yard field goal.

Neuheisel hugged Fauria on the field, too, but this time it was the player who spoke, clutching his coach by the shoulders, answering all those pep talks with one in return.

"I want to thank my football team, who I thought fought valiantly," Neuheisel said. "There was a lot of heart and there was a lot of work."

The Bruins even behaved professionally. They were subject to all sorts of reckless play from typically nutty Oregon, but while the Ducks were hit with 10 penalties, the Bruins were assessed just three.

Early in the second half, the Bruins even closed the gap with to 35-24 before finally crumbling under an insistent Oregon offense that is headed to the Rose Bowl.

"We made it a game, at least for a time," Neuheisel said. "I was thrilled that we got that kind of effort given the events of the past week."

His Bruins clearly respected the game, even if they were not respected by the game. Did you hear them being implicitly ripped by Pac-12 commissioner beforehand?

"Of course it's disappointing when such a strong team as USC is not allowed to participate because of the NCAA ban," Larry Scott said in a pregame news conference. "Of course I acknowledge there is disappointment around the fact that we've got a 6-6 team that fired their coach this week."

Scott better cover his eyes later this month, then, as the Bruins will play yet another game, even at 6-7, with interim Coach Mike Johnson leading them to a small bowl game somewhere, and why not? Accepting the invitation will give the players 15 extra days of practice, and heaven knows they could use the practice.

As for Rick Neuheisel, here's hoping he lands somewhere doing a job he clearly loves. Anybody watching the game Friday night could see that he still has the ability to move kids. It didn't work here, but he gave UCLA the sort of farewell that makes you think — or at least hope — that it can work for him somewhere else.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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