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The Comeback Kid

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If you are a football fan living in Los Angeles, which has not had an NFL team for 13 years (since the Rams left Anaheim for St. Louis in 1995), how is it you have not gone crazy? The most probable reason is the ongoing rivalry between the town’s two Pac-10 teams-—one of which has been ranked at or near the top of the national polls for the last six years.

Because chances are if you live in Southern California, you are somehow tied to the gridiron battle between USC and UCLA. Maybe you attended one of the schools. Maybe you married into it. Maybe you just have friends, enemies or coworkers who will not stop talking about it.

In spite of being raised in the heart of Trojan country in Newport Beach, I attended UCLA. But more than 20 years after my “Pomp and Circumstance” moment, I’m not conflicted in my loyalties. I still make “embarrassment” bets every season. I’ve forced SC grads to put UCLA toilet-seat covers in their $5 million homes, and I’ve actually surrendered my telephone answering machine for a month (“You’ve reached John, and I’m not here right now, but while I have your attention, allow me talk about the greatness of USC…”).

And I’m not alone-—when it comes to their annual matchup, Bruins and Trojans just can’t help themselves. But while the rivalry has always been around, it’s been a while since I’ve seen what is happening now: Fans of each school appear to be simultaneously happy and hopeful about their team’s football coach.

Rick Neuheisel, 47, is the new head coach at UCLA. He’s popular because he’s confident, loaded with personality and, especially, because he’s won everywhere he has been. Pete Carroll, 56, is in his eighth year as head coach at USC. People like him because he’s, well, Pete Carroll.

Historically, the coach at one of the schools is well liked, while the other sits on the hot seat. That’s just the way it’s always been. Since the two schools meet at the end of each football season, the coach who loses is the guy in trouble. You can win every game leading up to the rivalry game, but if you lose the big one, you’ll hear about it every day for the entire next year.

Former Bruins coach Terry Donahue spent 20 years in Westwood but started his career by losing four straight rivalry games. When UCLA defeated USC in 1980 (Donahue’s first win over the Trojans), he says it saved his job.

“It validated me as a coach in this city,” Donahue told me long ago. “Until I beat USC, nobody took me seriously.”

Neu at UCLANeuheisel is about to find out how that feels. He was named head coach at UCLA last December, returning to the place where he played from 1980 to 1984. He was the starting quarterback in his senior year and named MVP of the ’84 Rose Bowl against Illinois. His performance that day-—in which he threw four touchdown passes and earned himself a place in the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame-—was legendary.

Neuheisel’s career as a college football head coach has been successful yet tumultuous, and the road back to Westwood has had more than a few bumps. After four years at the University of Colorado, Neuheisel spent four years at the University of Washington, leading its Huskies to the 2001 Rose Bowl title (becoming the first Rose Bowl MVP to later coach a team to victory).

His career came to a crashing halt in 2003. Exactly what happened depends on whom you ask. Officially, Neuheisel was fired after lying about his participation in a college basketball betting pool. He said he had permission from the athletic department to be in the pool and had a memo to prove it. The school fired him anyway.

Neuheisel sued the school and the NCAA and, just before closing arguments, settled for $4.5 million. Still, the whole affair didn’t exactly put Neuheisel on anybody’s short list to be a college head coach again. He dropped out of sight after being fired, even working as a volunteer assistant coach at a Seattle-area high school for two years while the court case was being resolved.

For the past three years, Neuheisel worked as an assistant coach for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. When UCLA fired head coach (and his former teammate) Karl Dorrell, Neuheisel made overtures: He knew his record as a college coach (66-30) was solid, and he wanted UCLA to hear his side.

He supplied a reference from an unexpected source, given past circumstances. “I encouraged them to talk to all parties involved, specifically the NCAA. I’d gotten to know the people during the trial, even though they were on the opposite side of the courtroom. I think they came to realize I deserved a second chance. I also came to realize that they weren’t as bad of people as I thought they were at the time. I’m fortunate that UCLA took the time to talk to them.”

That may have been the easy part.

Now that he has the job, Neuheisel knows he has stepped into a battle for the hearts of football fans all over Los Angeles, where, he says, “you’re always going to be judged by your success against your crosstown rival. It comes down to this city and the bragging rights that go along with that game. There’s no question we have to compete with them and enjoy competing with them, and I’m eager to do that. Sometimes I think the people of Los Angeles think this is a lopsided rivalry, but that isn’t true. Since I was a freshman in 1979, the series is even…14-14 and one tie.”

The King of TroyThe record may be even for the long haul, but it has been lopsided in USC’s favor since Pete Carroll arrived. Arguably the best college football coach in the country, he has a 6-1 record against UCLA. Unlike Neuheisel, Carroll wasn’t a big-name collegiate player. He suited up for Pacific University, where he was a two-time All-Pacific Coast Conference free safety in 1971-–72. Carroll never went pro. After graduation, he spent a year trying out for the World Football League and selling roofing materials in the Bay Area. A few years later, he earned his teaching credential and began his career as an assistant coach.

Prior to his arrival at Troy, he had a lukewarm record of 33-31 as an NFL head coach with both the Jets and the Patriots. But something changed when he coached on a college campus. His record at USC is a staggering 76-14. His teams have won at least 11 games in each of his last six seasons, a national and school record. The Trojans won a school-record 34 straight games from 2003 to 2005, producing three Heisman Trophy winners in a four-year span under his leadership. Carroll is often called the best coach in USC history—and Trojan history includes 11 national football championships.

And he’s not just phenomenal at coaching; Carroll has done as much for the community off the field as any sports figure in the city. In 2003, he helped develop A Better LA, a nonprofit group dedicated to stopping gang violence.

Twice a month, he goes out at night with former gang members into the worst parts of the city to learn firsthand how he can help. He even has his own Facebook page aimed at recruiting people to help with the project, and his Website (www.petecarroll.com) has as much information about life as it does about football.

Not bad for a guy who almost didn’t get the job. He was at least the fourth choice of USC athletic director Mike Garrett when he applied for the coaching spot in 2000. At the time, the school had received more than 2,500 complaints about his hiring, mostly citing his lack of experience as a college head coach.

“The hard part was dealing with the public fallout of me getting the job,” Carroll says in hindsight. “My first press conference was enormous. Just coming across well and making a good first impression. It was probably the biggest day of my career.”

Carroll believed that once he could get his program up and running, the history and tradition of USC would help do the rest.

“This is one of the historical big-time programs,” he says. “Texas, Georgia, Ohio State, Alabama, Michigan-—it’s not just the colors of the uniform. They have the right elements, you just have put those elements together. There were people, when the program wasn’t successful, who felt like stuff had passed us by. They came up with excuses, and they were wrong. This is a great program, with great potential, and we should always be one of the best.”

And although he doesn’t mention UCLA, he has noticed that there’s a new man in charge.

“Rick is a great hire. He’s got a lot of history of being successful, and he’s got a lot of life to him. I think he’s going to do a great job.”

Neuheisel openly admits that Carroll has what he wants. Any Pac-10 coach will tell you his top priority is to win the conference title. Carroll has led USC to the last six Pac-10 championships and has appeared in a major Bowl Championship Series game in each of those years.

“I have a healthy, healthy, respect for Pete, but I’m not afraid of that program. I admire it, and we’re going to catch up to it. The greatest form of flattery is imitation. So we’re going to use some of the stuff he’s done.” But before you assume this is one big mutual-admiration society, there is a twist...

The Norm Chow FactorAt the height of Carroll’s success between 2003 and 2005, his offensive coordinator was Norm Chow—-generally regarded as one of top offensive minds in all of college football. Chow, now 62, has a 30-plus-year reputation of grooming quarterbacks, first at BYU and then at North Carolina State.

Among Chow’s pupils were NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young, Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer and current San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. When he arrived at USC, it was a perfect fit. Chow ran the offense, while Carroll, a defensive expert, was in charge of the overall team-—specifically, all things defensive. Many players still talk about how the USC practices were often more intense, and more competitive, than many of the games.

Under Chow’s tutelage, quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart each won the Heisman, and the Trojans took two national championships. But in the spring of 2005, in the middle of a 34-game winning streak, Chow abruptly left USC to become offensive coordinator with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. Since then, the Trojans have not won a national championship, and devoted followers continue to suggest the offense is missing some of its mojo.

To this day, most USC fans suspect Carroll and Chow had a conflict, and the whole story of why Chow left the program is still known only to Chow and Carroll. In the sports world, according to one national writer, it’s “maybe the biggest breakup since the Beatles.”

“Norm is a great coach and did a great job for us,” Carroll says today. “He was trying to figure out what was right for his career. He had some great opportunities, and some were for a lot of money. People want to make stuff up about us. We didn’t have any conflicts-—we worked well together.”

Chow, too, denies he and Carroll had a problem. “If that comes up,” he says, “it’s a bunch of malarkey. Pete gave me a chance to coach in the Pac-10 at a great institution, and I learned a lot of football from him. It was just time to go. In this business, windows of opportunity don’t come along very often. It was a good salary and a good chance to help my family. It was just time.”

So Chow has returned to L.A.-—not to USC but to Westwood, where he will run the UCLA offense. Chow was released by Tennessee in January after three seasons, and Neuheisel hired him less than a month later.

“Rick is a very influential guy,” Chow says. “It seemed to be a fun opportunity to get him where he wants to go. I thought about taking a year off, but Rick made it so exciting and enticing I couldn’t say no. Plus, I think I would have driven my wife crazy if I would have stayed home all day.”

Did Neuheisel hire Chow specifically to help him beat USC? He says yes—-sort of. “If he can help me beat USC,then we’re going to be able to beat a lot of teams, so I think the two go hand in hand.”

There’s another twist. Unlike Carroll, who specialized in defense, Neuheisel is a former offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, the exact same job for which he has now hired Chow. They uniformly insist it won’t be a problem.

“I’ve never really worked with an offensive head coach before,” Chow says. “But I welcome ideas. It doesn’t matter where the ideas come from, as long as they help us win. I don’t see it being a problem at all. It’s just a matter of two guys—-plus the other members of the staff—-trying to come up with a decent plan and trying to get the things done that we want to do.”

“I hand off entirely to Norm, and I’m just there to help Norm,” says Neuheisel. “The job of head coach is so demanding in terms of things that need attention I needed a guy that has total responsibility. And I’m thrilled we’ve attracted a guy with the stature of Norm Chow.”

Early Championship Game?Carroll has bigger things to worry about than what’s going on across town.

Although his 2008 Trojans feature six preseason all-Americans (five on defense, plus top running back Joe McKnight) and are ranked second or third in the country in at least three preseason polls, USC’s early-season schedule is one of its toughest ever.

After kicking off August 30 in an away game at Virginia to start the season, USC’s September 13 home opener is against Ohio State, which is ranked second or third in most polls.

Scott Goldberg, CEO of Prestige Tickets in Hollywood, calls the game “the biggest and most anticipated regular-season game in the history of USC football,” with the price of one ticket now in excess of $2,000.

But typical for Carroll, he won’t talk about Ohio State. “It’s not about one game or one opponent,” he says. “If we thought that way, we’d never have a chance to do what we want. You can’t fall prey to what everybody else wants you to do in terms of the attention and the hype. We focus primarily on ourselves—-it’s what we always do.”

Neuheisel, on the other hand, is just happy to be the guy who will try to get UCLA back on track after the Bruins finished 13-13 over the past two years. He knows he might not have the best talent in town, but he insists the guys he has will learn how to win.

“I’ve never had teams that could line up and just win by showing up. What we try to do is make sure we’re prepared, especially in the fourth quarter. Not only tough enough but that we like those situations when games are close, and we can find a way to get it done in the end.”

By the way, this year’s face-off is set for December 6 at the Rose Bowl, and one thing is for sure: Either Pete Carroll or Rick Neuheisel will go home happy.

And the other guy will have some explaining to do.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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