Rick Neuheisel, trying to talk over the static and technical problems on a conference call, was able to make one thing clear after being named UCLA’s football coach Saturday.
“There is going to be a moment when I sit back in my chair at Morgan Hall and pinch myself and think how lucky it is to be back home,” Neuheisel said.
While that can be left to different interpretations, there was no doubt that the Bruins’ prodigal coach was relieved to be back at UCLA, ending a monthlong process to replace Karl Dorrell.
Neuheisel and UCLA agreed on a five-year deal that will pay him $1.25 million per season and includes incentives that could add $500,000 a year. It is the latest step in what has been a tumultuous collegiate coaching path for Neuheisel, one that led back to UCLA, where he was a player and an assistant coach.
He brings with him a 66-30 record during eight seasons as head coach at Washington and Colorado, though his departure coincided with NCAA investigations at both universities.
Neuheisel will finish out his duties as the Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator today, then will be introduced at a UCLA news conference Monday before he starts assembling a staff and shoring up recruiting.
He can accomplish a little of both by retaining DeWayne Walker, the Bruins’ defensive coordinator who was the interim coach for the Las Vegas Bowl. Walker, who was also a finalist for the job, is the linchpin for the Bruins’ recruiting efforts.
Neuheisel said he would meet with Walker, adding, it is “important to do everything I can to make him feel welcome.”
UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, meanwhile, said he had found the right person for the job after an “exhaustive” search in which Boise State’s Chris Petersen refused to participate and Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti issued a rough “thanks, but no thanks” statement.
“Rick was on our radar screen from the beginning,” Guerrero said. “He had a good track record as a collegiate coach and that ultimately was the deciding factor in our decision.”
Other issues had to be addressed first. Neuheisel spent four seasons at Colorado, leaving behind a lengthy list of secondary violations that helped land the Buffaloes on probation for two years. He spent four seasons at Washington before being fired for his involvement in an NCAA basketball betting pool. He later filed a wrongful termination suit and received a $4.5-million settlement from the NCAA and Washington.
Neuheisel, 46, was able to deal effectively with his past in interviews with Guerrero and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, allowing them to satisfy a number of prominent alumni and former Bruins players who had been pushing hard for Neuheisel.
Neuheisel has long coveted the UCLA job. He turned it down after the 1995 season, having been at Colorado for only one season. When the Bruins’ job opened again after the 2002 season, Neuheisel’s coaching history was tainted with issues that he had to address during the interview process the last few weeks.
“I wanted to set the record straight and make sure they understood what had taken place,” said Neuheisel, who has spent the last three seasons as an assistant with the Ravens.
“I take full responsibility and, while I’m not proud of it, I’ve certainly learned from that and will make sure it wouldn’t happen again.”
Said Guerrero: “I looked Rick in the eye, he looked me in the eye, and we conveyed very clearly what our thoughts were. This happened five to 10 years ago and he said he is much wiser and more mature.”
Guerrero also said that conversations with officials from the NCAA, the Pacific 10 Conference, Washington and Colorado gave him “comfort” to move forward.
“I hope that he has learned from the difficulties he has encountered previously,” Pac-10 Commissioner Tom Hansen said. “I’m convinced he has and I’m convinced he has convinced Dan Guerrero and Chancellor Block of that.
“He comes in like any other coach coming into the conference. He certainly paid a price for his past violations. I would like to think he would recognize UCLA has given him a great opportunity, a chance to get back into college football, and that he would treat it like the very, very precious opportunity that it is.”
Neuheisel’s past was the only thing that slowed his hire, sources familiar with the search said. He fit the profile set down by Guerrero in every other way.
Neuheisel was the quarterback for the Bruins in a 45-9 victory over Illinois in the 1984 Rose Bowl and was also an UCLA assistant from 1986 to ’93. That makes him well-versed in the difficulties of coaching at UCLA, where academic requirements are stricter than at other Pac-10 schools and assistant coach pay has not kept up with the cost of living in Southern California.
His teams have always been highly efficient offensively, the area where the Bruins need to improve considerably.
He has also proved to be capable of competing at a high level in the conference. Neuheisel led Washington to a Rose Bowl victory and No. 3 finish nationally in 2000. The Huskies also had two second-place finishes in the conference.
What he also brings to UCLA is a strong personality that could counterbalance USC Coach Pete Carroll.
“I admire what they have built over there and it is up to us at UCLA to become the type of rival that when USC and UCLA square off it is the game of the year,” Neuheisel said.
USC has won eight of the last nine games against the Bruins.
“He’s always been a really good recruiter,” Carroll said. “The time up in Washington, he proved he could recruit and battle against the tops of this conference. They were an excellent program when he left there and so I don’t think there’s any doubt that he has a lot of energy for it. He’s a very competitive guy and I think he’ll do a great job.”
A job Neuheisel is happy to have.
“I missed Saturday [football],” Neuheisel said. “I’m not only returning on Saturdays, I’m returning to my alma mater. It’s a dream come true.”
Times staff writers Chris Dufresne and Gary Klein contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Rick Neuheisel’s head coaching record with Washington and Colorado, which forfeited its five victories in 1997.
Played at UCLA from 1980 to 1983.
Threw four touchdown passes (two to Karl Dorrell) and was named MVP as the Bruins upset fourth-ranked Illinois, 45-9, in the 1984 Rose Bowl.
Played two seasons in the USFL (1984-85) and one with the 1987 San Diego Chargers.
HEAD COACH (66-30)
Served as assistant to Bill McCartney at Colorado in 1994, then took over the program when McCartney retired and posted a 33-14 record in four seasons (1995-98), including three bowl berths.
Had a 33-16 record in four seasons at Washington (1999-2002), leading the Huskies to four bowls. Won the Pac-10 in 2000, culminating in a 34-24 Rose Bowl win over Purdue.