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BILL PLASCHKE

His job on the line, Rick Neuheisel is positive he can turn things around

Neuheisel, who has 15 wins in three seasons as UCLA's football coach, overhauled his coaching staff and says the Bruins have 'great energy now.'

July 14, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel.
UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

He shows up with a pleasantly tanned face and wearing cheerfully checkered shorts. He casually drapes himself across his office couch as if he's lounging by the pool. Yet none of it can mask the wintry truth.

Rick Neuheisel has one more chance, and he knows it.

In less than two months, he will begin what could be a final sweaty awakening from his dream job, a tortured process in which he might be tossed out of bed by angry alumni and thrown into the streets by Dan Guerrero.

The UCLA football coach must win at least half of his games and play in a bowl or he's gone, and he knows it.

"I hate talking like that, but, as an alumni, I would say absolutely yes," Neuheisel said Thursday. "At the end of the day, I am responsible for this program."

So how is your summer? Neuheisel's has been filled with people talking about a temperature that has nothing to do with the air.

"Obviously, I've had a number of conversations like, 'Hey, you're on the hot seat, you're the No. 1 guy on the hot seat,' " he says.

It's been three years now, he has only 15 wins, he's never finished higher than eighth in the conference, and his only bowl appearance took place in front of a handful of fans in a cold and decrepit stadium on the other side of the country.

It hasn't exactly been roses, and after last season it has officially become thorns, with his strong alumni base growing disillusioned, with Athletic Director Guerrero publicly giving him only one more shot, with Neuheisel realizing there was only one person who could save him.

Neuheisel says he realized that before he lost his job, he was going to have to find himself.

"A friend of mine said to me, 'You were a great coach, you won a lot of games, what did you do? Do what you do!' " he recalls.

So he fired celebrated offensive coordinator Norm Chow even though it cost the university a $500,000 buyout. And he fired defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough even though he had given the program defensive continuity for the last five years.

And then he hired a bunch of strangers to everyone but him, coaches whose main attribute was that they shared his boundless optimism and energy. Anonymous guys. Neuheisel guys. He hired Mike Johnson to bring NFL offensive smarts, Joe Tresey to bring a Midwestern-style defense, and Jim Mastro to bring some secrets from that crazy Nevada "pistol" offense.

More than anything else, he brought back himself, with Neuheisel now feeling free to control the quarterbacks and change the plays and run the team as if his future depends on it — which it does.

"I've done this before; I believe I can do it again," he says. "I just need to get it done."

Neuheisel may be achingly realistic, but he is still relentless, smiling and laughing and gesturing through an interview as if he is coaching it. And you find yourself cheering for him, the Bruins football program being a better place if his sort of rah-rah spark can survive.

I was there when Neuheisel's Bruins beat Tennessee for his first UCLA win, and I was there when they beat Texas for his last big win, and I'll forever remember those games for the sort of boyish energy and unbridled joy that had long been missing from the program.

But I was also in Tempe last November when the Bruins were disjointed and dysfunctional in losing, 55-34, to an average Arizona State team.

It was after that game that I realized Neuheisel and his coaching staff were essentially working from different playbooks, and he would have to clean house to survive.

"It was one of the hardest things I've done in my career, but our staff didn't have any chemistry, and I didn't have a choice," he said.

The biggest lack of connection occurred with Chow, who is one of the finest football men and human beings I have known, but who also probably never should have been hired in the first place. Chow was used to running a national-championship offense. Neuheisel was used to working up an NFL offense. The Bruins had two offensive coordinators, which meant, in the end, that they had no offensive coordination.

"I was more enamored with Norm's profile than anything else," Neuheisel says of a hire that was wildly and naively applauded by many, including me. "I was trying to hit a home run."

It was, of course, not a home run. It was a painfully prolonged strikeout.

"It just didn't work, and it's not Norm's fault. It was that chemistry thing. We didn't have the usual give-and-take that staffs need to be successful," Neuheisel says. "You have to have a staff that develops a recipe for success and stays united behind it. … I don't think that always got accomplished and, because of that, there's a trickle-down effect on your players."

Now it's running downhill to the coach, collecting around his reputation and threatening to muddy his future, yet he has never seemed more unburdened.

He has loads of talent on defense, he has a veteran quarterback in Kevin Prince, a powerful running game, and, more than all that, he says, "I feel like we've got great energy now, positive energy; maybe more than anything else, that was what we were missing last year."

Whatever the Bruins have been missing, Rick Neuheisel knows he needs to find it, and quick, or the next thing missing will be him.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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