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It’s No Hassle for Neuheisel : Despite the Hubbub Surounding His Appointment as Colorado’s Coach, the Former UCLA Quarterback Is Keeping His Cool

TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

Having recently climbed down off cloud nine, Rick Neuheisel is suddenly in the middle of a hurricane.

It is Friday morning in the lobby of Colorado’s team hotel here, and Neuheisel, only four days from taking over as head coach of one of the nation’s most successful and prestigious football programs, is the object of a swirl of activity.

There are newspaper interviews, followed by bright lights and television sound bites. Then there will be a quick change to coat and tie, a dash to downtown Phoenix for the traditional Fiesta Bowl luncheon in front of about 4,000, and a dash back to change clothes and drive to practice.

Then there will be another change of clothes for a gathering of family and friends at a nearby country club, hosted by the local law firm of Neuheisel and Neuheisel (father and sister) and honoring the third lawyer in the family, one who was once an all-state high school quarterback here and who has chosen to make his opening statements in front of men in facemasks.

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Clearly, Rick Neuheisel, former star quarterback at UCLA and former prominent member of Terry Donahue’s Bruin coaching staff for six seasons, has discovered that there is life in the fast lane in places other than Los Angeles. For this 33-year-old babe in the coaching woods--one Colorado columnist mused that Neuheisel may be too young to be a prodigy--these are the best of times, not to mention the busiest.

Four days after Thanksgiving, and nine days after Bill McCartney, winningest coach in Colorado football history, stunned almost everybody by saying he had done this long enough and wanted to go hide somewhere with his family, another stunner came out of the Rocky Mountain state. President Judith Albino and her search committee, in conjunction with Athletic Director Bill Marolt, had promoted Colorado’s quarterback and receiver coach over two or three more-veteran staff members to become the Buffaloes’ 21st head coach.

Before his interview with McCartney nine months earlier for an assistant’s position, Neuheisel had never had a job interview anywhere.

“At UCLA, Terry just gave me the job,” he said.

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In fact, the thought of applying for the Colorado job hadn’t occurred to Neuheisel until the day after McCartney had quit and all the assistant coaches had gathered to discuss the situation.

“A couple of the guys, Bob Simmons and Elliot Uzelac, said they thought they’d apply,” Neuheisel said, “and when somebody asked me if I would, I thought about it for maybe a couple of seconds and said, yes, I probably would. So I did.”

Once Neuheisel was hired, Colorado had much more than just a bid to the Fiesta Bowl to play Notre Dame on Jan. 2. It had:

--The second-youngest coach, by four days, in Division I-A football. Neuheisel was born Feb. 7, 1961, four days before Ron Cooper, who moved Thursday from Eastern Michigan to Louisville.

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--A matinee idol-type leader, whose qualities of good looks, charisma and personality translate quickly and easily into popularity with players, press and public.

--A stunned group of UCLA fans who had, for years, held the expectation that Neuheisel would take over when Donahue stepped down.

--And an angry Jesse Jackson, who, in conjunction with his Rainbow Coalition, pointed out in a nationally publicized campaign that assistant head coach Bob Simmons--who is black, who outranked Neuheisel on Colorado’s staff, who is 13 years older than Neuheisel and who began coaching about the same time Neuheisel began high school--should not have been passed over.

The latter situation was eased greatly for all parties last week when Simmons became head coach at Oklahoma State. Throughout that controversy, Albino and Marolt addressed Jackson’s charges carefully, or not at all. Neuheisel said only that he fully understood, and even agreed with, what Jackson’s group was saying and why it said it and added that he is very happy Simmons received the Oklahoma State opportunity.

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That, of course, was the correct stance on the Jackson/Simmons controversy, and it is one example of how well Neuheisel, despite his age, has learned to handle things. He is serious and poised when he has to be, but also quick with a quip.

He calls his father’s law firm a general practice: “I’d say it’s kind of the Marcus Welby of Phoenix.”

He got his law degree from USC: “But that’s kind of a black mark in my life, so you don’t need to mention that.”

He spent much of his first three years on UCLA’s team as a holder for kicker John Lee and others and took great pride in his work: “But David Clinton came along after me, and all the UCLA coaches have assured me that he was much better than I was.”

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He calls all the publicity he received as an assistant coach at Colorado “surprising and lavish” and adds that it was “a little like giving somebody a Christmas present and having them give you, in return, a new Mercedes.”

When he got the job, he said he was shocked. “But I can handle shock well,” he joked.

And he calls his days here in preparation for the Fiesta Bowl, his last days as an assistant under McCartney, “like a class in Football 101.”

He is equally at ease with 17-year-old recruits and middle-aged college presidents.

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When the issue of age came up at the news conference announcing his promotion, Neuheisel waxed philosophic about how age was a matter of perspective and about how, according to the Constitution of the United States, in two years, at age 35, he could be President of the United States. To which Albino, sitting at the same dais, jumped in to say, “No you can’t. You signed a five-year contract.”

At least part of the impetus toward Neuheisel’s selection came directly from the Colorado players. For most of them, Neuheisel’s arrival was love at first sight. Well, almost.

Sophomore linebacker Matt Russell said, “First time I saw him, I thought he was a new recruit.”

Quarterback Kordell Stewart, Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam and star receiver Michael Westbrook led the publicity campaign, voicing their favorable opinions in front of any and all microphones and notepads. Salaam even told reporters that, were Neuheisel to get the job, his leanings toward turning pro immediately would be greatly reduced.

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Russell told about Neuheisel and his quarterbacks, lining up at the 50-yard line after practice and aiming passes at the goalpost.

“Rick will take two or three warmups, then hit the post,” Russell said. “I’d say he’s every bit as accurate, maybe more, than our quarterbacks.”

Television picked up on this early. Neuheisel’s extreme popularity with the players was unusual. Young men accustomed to coaches from the Benny Goodman generation suddenly had somebody who had actually heard of Snoop Doggy Dog.

On some Colorado game telecasts, the cameras strayed to Neuheisel so much that it was hard to tell whether McCartney was the head coach. It even got to be inappropriate. At halftime of the Nebraska game, with Colorado--and especially Neuheisel’s players--doing badly, television ran a lengthy profile of Neuheisel.

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As for UCLA, it appears that this Bruin loss is a Buffalo gain.

But contrary to popular opinion, neither Neuheisel nor Donahue has any anger or great regret over his departure this fall.

“I am proud of Rick Neuheisel,” Donahue said. “I am proud of his accomplishments, and I am proud of him being a UCLA product.”

Donahue also said that, when Neuheisel was up for the Bruin offensive coordinator position last season, he didn’t get it because Donahue wanted somebody with new ideas not inbred from the Bruin program and because he was looking for somebody with offensive coordinator experience and Neuheisel had none. Neuheisel said he understands that now, understood it then and has no hard feelings.

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Of UCLA, Neuheisel mostly has deep affection and fond memories. The fondest, of course, is the 1984 Rose Bowl, when Neuheisel completed 22 of 31 passes for 298 yards and four touchdowns and was named most valuable player in a 45-9 victory over Illinois.

“I got food poisoning the night before,” he said, “and I was so sick, kind of ashen white, that Coach Donahue was afraid to put me on the team bus, for fear the sight of me would depress the other players too much.

“So they put me in a car, stretched out in the back, and had them drive me in behind the team bus. We get to the entrance of the Rose Bowl and I see my dad. He looks like your worst fan or tourist, with Bruin headphones and a cap and blue everywhere. He was the ultimate Joe Bruin, just disgusting.

“Well, he’s standing there, a big smile on his face as the bus goes by and then he sees me in the back of the car. He comes over and I tell him that I’m sick, real sick. Well, at times like this, you kind of want your dad to be your dad, to maybe put an arm around you and tell you everything is going to be all right. But what does he do? He looks at me and says, ‘This is not the time for this. You pinch yourself in the ass and get going.’ ”

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These days, while the portion of the anatomy is not all that important, the advice remains applicable. Rick Neuheisel must be pinching himself a lot these days.


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