UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel talks with quarterback Kevin Prince after the… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
UCLA's Rick Neuheisel era, ushered in with great fanfare four years ago, will end Friday night, adding another twist to an already unusual Pac-12 Conference football championship game.
Neuheisel was fired Monday morning, but he will be allowed to coach in the title game. If the Bruins beat eighth-ranked Oregon in Eugene, they are off to the Rose Bowl — without their coach of the last four seasons.
"We're certainly going to be playing for him," UCLA linebacker Sean Westgate said.
Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will be the interim coach after Friday.
Neuheisel, a former UCLA quarterback, was the prodigal coach returning to his alma mater when he was hired after the 2007 season. He was always optimistic, but his teams never achieved consistent success. He had a 21-28 record in four seasons and was 3-25 against teams that finished with a winning record.
He also lost all four games to rival USC, including a 50-0 rout Saturday night.
The Bruins are 6-6 this season but made the conference championship game as the South Division representative because USC was ineligible.
"I'm excited for the challenge Friday," Neuheisel said during a midday conference call promoting the game. "If it is going to be my last time at UCLA, I want to make it special."
Dan Guerrero, UCLA's athletic director, said Monday's move was necessary to allow the search for the next coach to start immediately. "The opportunity to be more patient just wasn't there," he said. "In the end, I was concerned about the program's direction."
Boise State's Chris Petersen and Houston's Kevin Sumlin are on UCLA's short list, according to people close to the program who are familiar with the leadership's thinking. Those people spoke anonymously because of Guerrero's stated intent to "keep the process out of the public eye as much as possible."
Neuheisel made $1.25 million per season and has one year left on his contract, but he will receive only his base salary of $250,000. Three assistant coaches — Johnson, defensive coordinator Joe Tresey and run game coordinator Jim Mastro — are also under contract for the 2012 season. They will cost UCLA $875,000 even if they are not retained by the new coach.
Guerrero said there are "more resources at our disposal," from the conference's television contract and donors to the UCLA athletic program. Going forward, that would allow UCLA to be "more competitive in the marketplace," he said.
People close to the UCLA program said Boise State's Petersen is atop the Bruins' wish list and Guerrero was expected to soon head to Idaho packing an offer that would pay more than $3 million per season.
Plans to renovate the Bruins' practice facility and a commitment of about $2 million for assistant coaches are expected to be part of the package.
"The bottom line is we have a sense what the market is and we will be in it to get the coach we want," said Guerrero, who has fired three football coaches in 10 years.
Petersen annually is approached by schools from conferences with automatic bids to the Bowl Championship Series. He reportedly turned down a $3-million offer from Stanford a year ago.
Boise State officials reworked Petersen's contract this season, giving him a five-year deal worth a total of $8 million, according to the Idaho Statesman.
Boise State is 10-1 and ranked ninth with a final regular-season game at home Saturday against New Mexico. Peterson's record with the Broncos is 71-6.
Meanwhile, UCLA players are trying to stay focused on their final game under the direction of the coach who recruited nearly all of them.
"He recruited me personally. I really liked him," Westgate said. "This has me upset. But I know this is a business."
Said Neuheisel: "I hope I'm not a distraction. I hope to be some sort of help."
Oregon, an early 301/2 –point favorite over the Bruins, is 10-2 with many of the same players from a team that routed UCLA, 60-13, last season.
If UCLA loses, it would have a losing record and therefore no longer be bowl-eligible, though Guerrero said that he has already filed a petition with the NCAA for a waiver.
Guerrero gathered many of the players Monday morning and informed them of the decision. At night, they were back at practice.
"This is a sport where you have to have a short memory," Westgate said. "If you're thinking about the previous play, you're [in trouble] on the next one. That's how we have to look at this now. We can't look at the past."