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T.J. SIMERS

If nothing else, Rick Neuheisel wins respect

Neuheisel has piled up too many losses as UCLA's football coach, but he continues to conduct himself with class in the face of fan and media criticism.

October 27, 2011|T.J. Simers
  • UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel signals for a play during a key drive in a victory over Washington State earlier this month.
UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel signals for a play during a key drive in a victory… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

The scores have never really mattered here. Someone wins, and the next week someone loses.

It's always been about people: the ones so difficult to get to know, like Phil Jackson and Mike Garrett; the ones so offbeat, like Manny Ramirez and Jeff Kent; and the ones so glorious, like John Wooden and Vin Scully.

I still marvel at Karl Dullard's ability to take punches, Mike Scioscia's thin skin, Tim Leiweke's lack of influence with Beckham, Salma Hayek's choice in men and Gary Matthews Jr.'s self-destruction.

They come and they go and, as we all know, some baseball owners can't leave soon enough.

But they are all people, and although many of them are known best for blowing lifetime opportunities, who doesn't make mistakes?

Dwyre hired a Page 1-2-3 columnist, and he still has a job.

Some recover, like Dwyre, and in time redeem themselves and prosper. Some just never get it right.

And we all know what happens when sports people make the mistake of not handling their mistakes very well: They find a home on Page 2.

The list is a long one: athletes, coaches and owners who would rather run and hide than stand tall and be accountable.

For the most part they get their due here.

So why not Rick Neuheisel?

I think it's generally accepted Neuheisel has been a flop. He had the chance to coach at his alma mater and set his own resume straight. But he bombed.

That was never more obvious than a week ago Thursday night in Tucson — UCLA falling behind, 42-7, at the half.

You had to be there, and just be glad you weren't.

Neueheisel's friends were there, family with him as always, and there were school administrators on the Neuheisel watch.

So many people believed in him, but now this: total failure right before their very eyes. Just imagine what it must have felt like to be Neuheisel, his job teetering on the outcome of every game, only to be humiliated on national TV.

As if anyone needed an exclamation point, everything about UCLA football had become an embarrassment — with one exception: Neuheisel.

If the athletes, coaches and owners who do not handle failure professionally are going to be singled out, then shouldn't someone who does be commended?

How many coaches have emerged after an embarrassing defeat only to say they have nothing to say while stomping off?

The locker room is too small at Arizona to take on the media, so Neuheisel had to return to the field for postgame comments. It is one thing to get killed, quite another to return to the scene of the crime and have it happen again.

He began by giving credit to Arizona, then took questions. He answered them all, a few so stupid those reporters should feel what it's like to be embarrassed in front of family, friends and editors. Let them explain why they sound so clueless.

Some sports fans might argue that stupid questions should allow a losing coach to bristle, express his frustration or storm out of a postgame interview. But the pros know it's never in the question, but always in the answer, and so Neuheisel offered the best he could.

There were tough questions too. He was asked how he could still make the argument UCLA has progressed under his direction, with his boss, UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, standing right there.

Instead of saying, "I'm not going to talk about that," Neuheisel took every query head-on.

When there were no more questions, Neuheisel remained, actually taking a step forward into the media horde. He asked if anyone had anything else they needed from him.

He might make millions, but he's human and, corny as it might sound, doing folks proud.

What a Page 2 killjoy; there is no sport in ridiculing a good guy even if it appears he's not the right guy to lead UCLA.

He'll probably get an earful at Saturday's game with Cal in the Rose Bowl, but would you be in a good mood if you still found yourself attending a UCLA football game?

Bruins fans are probably tired of having classy, winless coaches, but then maybe they should be giving an earful to the athletic director who hired them.

Neuheisel has certainly taken his full share of hits on Page 2, and when it comes to coaching, nothing has changed on how he's viewed here.

He has still shown poor judgment when it comes to hiring coaches and selecting an offense that risks the health of his quarterbacks.

And he blew it from the start with his happy talk, the letdown so much more damaging when expectations have been raised beyond one's reach.

He caught Pete Carroll at the end of Uncle Pete's run; Carroll's recruiting efforts were no longer as impressive. He also got Lane Kiffin and USC probation, and if there was an advantage there, it never materialized.

He should have accomplished more.

But as a witness to other disappointing losses in his time at UCLA, as well as a few victories, Neuheisel has conducted himself as a classy winner.

He has consistently stood tall in responding to defeat — just the kind of an example a university would want for their student-athletes.

Now if he only could have been as good in showing them how to win.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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