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BILL PLASCHKE

Bruins control Rick Neuheisel's destiny

Two-game winning streak gives the coach a chance to come back from the dead. Last three games will tell the final story.

November 08, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel celebrates following the Bruins' 29-28 victory over Arizona State on Saturday. Has Neuheisel redeemed himself for UCLA's dismal performance against Arizona last month?
UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel celebrates following the Bruins' 29-28… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )

Eighteen days, two home games, two victories, one blowout against a team with a losing conference record, one squeaker against a team that missed three field goals, and what happens to UCLA football?

All Neuheisel breaks loose.

This was confirmed Monday night at a charity dinner where I sat across from two influential UCLA alumni. Both were former decorated Bruin athletes and current businessmen whose voices resonate through the highest reaches of UCLA sports.

Over pre-dinner drinks, one alumnus announced his belief that Rick Neuheisel has already proven he is the right coach and educator for this team and should be welcomed back for the final year of his contract.

By the time the soup arrived, the other alumnus announced his belief that Neuheisel should have been fired immediately after the Arizona loss, and why on Earth is he still here?

The first guy talked about graduation rates and discipline. The second guy talked about the brawl.

The first guy talked about there being no shame in losses to Houston, Texas and Stanford, three teams with a combined two defeats. The second guy talked about the enduring shame of the loss in Arizona, a night of a thousand defeats.

The first guy said the true Bruins feel Neuheisel has regained control of the program. The second guy said that true Bruins think Neuheisel has lost control of the team.

Back and forth they went until I realized, no matter what happens to this town's tightrope-walking boss, we're all in for one long last supper.

Really, what now? For a coach who was declared dead in this newspaper and on national television less than three weeks ago, where does he go from here?

Have the victories over Cal and Arizona State saved his job or just made it a bit more uncomfortable for everyone when he gets fired? Does Dan Guerrero examine the resurgence in the Bruins' effort, or the emptiness in the Rose Bowl seats?

Are there some Bruins fans out there who are reliving the final days of bullet-dodging Steve Lavin, when they secretly rooted for the basketball team to struggle so the school would finally relieve them of his misery? Or do most Bruins fans truly believe that these last two victories, particularly the comeback win against the ranked Sun Devils, represent a cultural change that will carry over in future seasons?

Everyone agrees Neuheisel's four-year body of work was faded beyond recognition after the 48-12, brawl-beating loss at Arizona on national television. The argument is now, have the last two games truly represented a rebirth, or is all just lipstick and makeup?

The cool thing about this story is that the protagonist is the only one who can write the ending, and Neuheisel has a choice of four.

1. UCLA wins its final three games

Neuheisel not only keeps his job, he is given a contract extension to help solidify his position in recruiting, and wouldn't that be something? A month after being dead in the desert, he is being carried off the Coliseum floor on his players' shoulders after a victory over USC in the Trojans' bowl game, carried off into the Pac-12 championship game and at least another two years as the face of Bruins football.

2. UCLA wins two of its final three games

Neuheisel keeps his job, but without the contract extension, but what does he care? The Bruins will finish with seven victories and a decent bowl bid and the most positive man in Westwood will remain that way. He'll happily finish the year in Las Vegas or San Francisco or El Paso with partying alumni and the promise of next year's season opener against Rice.

3. UCLA wins one of its final three games

Neuheisel loses his job. The 6-6 Bruins would be the epitome of mediocrity, Neuheisel's era would be the epitome of underachievement, and Dan Guerrero cannot sell pricey new Rose Bowl tickets on either ideal. The Bruins would go to a bowl game, but Guerrero fired the last two UCLA football coaches before bowl games. The Bruins would need to pay off Neuheisel, but the new influx of Pac-12 TV money — $21 million per team — would soften that blow.

4. UCLA wins none of its final three games

Considering one of those games is in the Rose Bowl against the Pac-12's worst team — Colorado — this is the most unbelievable ending of all. But if it happens, well, you do the math.

So, really, upon closer examination, it turns out that both of my dinner partners were right. Rick Neuheisel is here, and he's not, and the end of a most charming, churning season will determine the rest.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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