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Message to Rick: Slicker doesn’t cut it in this city

Merry Christmas, Rick.

Don’t blow it.

Gift of a lifetime, Rick.

Don’t break it.

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UCLA summoned home its prodigal son Saturday, offering one more swing to a notorious hacker beset with two strikes.

Last pitch, Rick.

Miss it, and you’ll never see another one.

After spending a month apparently trying to talk themselves out of it, UCLA officials have finally sighed and wiped their palms and handed their football program to Rick Neuheisel, boy wonder turned boy blunder turned . . . new man?

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Five years after being fired by Washington after a basketball betting incident, nine years after committing recruiting violations that put Colorado on probation, Neuheisel needed about 10 seconds to run his first UCLA play.

Call it the power-I remorse.

“I used poor judgment, I made poor decisions, and I take all the responsibility for them,” he said in a conference call.

Then he ran a down-and-out maturity pass route.

“I’m not proud of it, but I’ve learned from it,” he said.

He finished with an off-tackle vow.

“You have my absolute, unequivocal promise that this will never take place again,” he said.

At age 46, Neuheisel is clearly older.

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But, thrown into a big-city heat far worse than anything he encountered in Boulder or Seattle, will he be wiser?

Is asking a recruiting violator to compete with USC like asking a chronic overeater to live in a Cheesecake Factory?

This is the question upon which the future of this program rests.

If Neuheisel stays out of trouble, his brains and enthusiasm will be well worth his five-year, $1.25-million-a-year contract.

If he strays, then the entire program goes bankrupt.

Following Neuheisel to the street would be Dan Guerrero, the athletic director who has made his mark by running a program committed to academic and athletic integrity.

Yeah, Mr. Clean just hired a guy once known as “Slick Rick.”

“As part of due diligence, we did speak to a number of people about Rick, I needed to get assurances in my mind,” Guerrero said. “I looked Rick in the eye, he looked me in the eye.”

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And then, when nobody better became available, the athletic director held his breath and slipped on some sunglasses.

“In the end, it was all about 66 collegiate wins, a percentage that places him among the top active coaches in the country, and an opportunity for Rick to start anew with a clean slate at his alma mater,” Guerrero said.

Hmm, when Bob Toledo was fired, Guerrero said it was about everything but wins. But, hey, let’s look at what’s happened since.

Karl Dorrell, given a first chance as a head coach, proceeded to carefully turn a once-swashbuckling program into something only faintly clearer than invisible. He lacked charisma, he lacked imagination, he’s the only coach in UCLA history to ban his players from talking to the media during the week after they beat USC.

By giving Neuheisel a last chance, Guerrero is suddenly hitting to the opposite field, mostly because he didn’t have a choice.

Established college coaches like Boise State’s Chris Petersen and Oregon’s Mike Bellotti didn’t want the job. Hot assistants like Bruins defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker were deemed too inexperienced for the job.

On the advice of former UCLA greats, one of the first calls made by Guerrero’s office was to Neuheisel. That the ensuing search took nearly another month is proof that they were trying to hire someone just as qualified, but someone neater, someone easier.

As the days dragged on and other candidates faded away, Neuheisel’s image grew stronger. As weeks passed and the mini-investigations were completed, Neuheisel’s baggage grew lighter.

Finally, in a move that screamed of four words -- aw, what the heck? -- Guerrero threw his giant arms around Neuheisel and began the process of walking him past the critics.

The problems at Colorado? Actually small infractions, like calling a recruit at the wrong time of year, nothing involving money or academics.

“I tried to outhustle the other head coaches and made some silly mistakes,” Neuheisel said.

The problems in Seattle? Neuheisel’s involvement in an NCAA basketball pool ended in a lawsuit that resulted in a settlement in his favor, essentially clearing him of wrongdoing.

The biggest issue there was that, when asked about his involvement in the pool, he initially lied, something which is not tolerated in this town, not even when talking about the health of your quarterback.

Said Guerrero: “Those things happened five-10 years ago. He’s much wiser, much more mature.”

Said Neuheisel: “You do grow a little wiser.”

A five-season exile from the college game, which included two years coaching high school football, can truly make a college coach grow up.

If Neuheisel has, well, then this was a heck of a move, because the dude can coach.

He can scheme UCLA’s offense into something that pushes, inspire its defense into being something that shoves.

Eight seasons, seven bowls, three top-10 finishes -- think UCLA fans would like that?

Three times he’s won at least 10 games. Only once has he finished below .500.

He is 1-1 against Pete Carroll, and he’s not intimidated by the mere thought of USC because, after all, that’s where he earned his law degree.

“It’s up to us to become the type of program where, when USC and UCLA square off, it’s the game of the year,” he said.

Mostly, though, it’s up to him.

It’s up to him to retain Walker as defensive coordinator, giving the Bruins a formidable hook-jab combination.

It’s up to him to shed everything else.

Lose that child-prodigy attitude that found him so much trouble. Lose the idea that he’s smarter than everyone else.

Rick Neuheisel has the potential to be the best UCLA coach since his mentor Terry Donahue, if he can just concentrate on being a coach.

Happy New Year, Rick.

Don’t blow it.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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