Rick Neuheisel skipped to the dais for his first Pac-10 media day on Thursday like a blond surfer who just caught a fresh wave.
Two words later -- two words! -- he was buffeted by a swell that has seemingly tossed him around forever.
“Rick, USC has built its defense around . . .”
Neuheisel interrupted with a complaining cry.
“First question, USC!” he shouted.
But he was still beaming.
The mention of the Trojans wasn’t the end of his fun, it was only the beginning.
“You have to embrace it,” he said. “They’re that elephant in the living room. . . . You can’t be a football coach at UCLA and not find ways to be successful against USC.”
And yes, he said, he will find a way.
“The good news is that when we catch them -- I say when we catch them -- we’re going to not only have caught the leader of the Pac, but be among the programs that challenge for the big prize,” he said.
About 30 minutes later, the Trojans’ Pete Carroll took the same dais, wearing the same smile.
He was talking about his involvement in an Aug. 2 Live Peace walk, inviting the presidential candidates to join him, when I couldn’t resist.
“Are you going to invite Neuheisel and Chow as well?” I asked.
“I’m sure they’re going to be busy,” he said.
When the laughter died, he quickly explained that, of course, everyone was invited.
But the shiny, new-car feel to this rivalry needs no clarification.
College football around here hasn’t felt this much preseason sizzle in years. College football around here has become bigger than one team, bigger than one coach, as big as it’s been since before Toledo was holy.
It’s become pressure squared, drama doubled, a story of two teams fighting different fights but, for the first time in a long time, staring mostly at each other.
USC will battle for a national championship, UCLA will struggle just to make a footprint, but the programs are now connected by three of the most visible coaches in the game, producing a season-long subplot pitting Carroll against Neuheisel and his offensive coordinator Norm Chow.
They will watch each other. They will be asked about each other. They will laugh at each other, tweak each other, nudge each other.
Then, of course, they will battle each other, on Dec. 6, and when was the last time there was so much summer anticipation about an autumn game that should be a blowout?
Said Neuheisel: “We’re going to fight them on every corner.”
Said Carroll: “Who has the edge here? I don’t know about any of that. I’m just looking forward to going over there and playing and getting this thing started with the new program.”
This buzz is being fueled by Neuheisel, of course. That’s part of the reason he was hired this spring, to stick his chin directly into the mighty Trojan stare.
“It’s a blessing that they’re right here, it’s a positive,” Neuheisel said of the Trojans. “The team you’ve got to beat is right there, you’ve got to reel them in.”
That buzz won’t be squelched by Carroll, who knows a good drama when he sees one.
“As far as it changing [the rivalry], I don’t think it does,” he said of the new UCLA additions. “But I think it definitely does from a media standpoint because you guys ask questions about it all the time, I totally understand that.”
Not that they are even in the same league at the moment.
When asked about his team, Carroll said Thursday he’s more jazzed than at any other time in his USC career.
“We sense a whole new excitement about our program, I’ve never been more pumped about it,” he said. “I know it’s year eight for us, but it feels like the first time for us.”
When asked about his quarterback, Neuheisel asked esteemed veteran Associated Press scribe John Nadel whether he had any eligibility remaining.
“We have to stay healthy,” Neuheisel said.
Yeah, in which case they might win half of their games.
On the cover of the USC media guide passed out Thursday, there are photos of four defenders with All-American and/or Rose Bowl MVP credentials.
On the cover of the UCLA media guide, there is a photo of a guy with one career touchdown, and another guy who missed all but two games last year because of an injury.
The Trojans could have the best defense in USC history, a handful of All-American running backs, the best wide receivers in several years, and have two quarterbacks -- Mark Sanchez and Mitch Mustain -- who could start for almost any team in the country.
The Bruins currently have one projected starting offensive lineman playing his natural position.
On the field, the teams aren’t close.
But off the field, they are finally acting like the nosy, annoying, across-the-fence neighbors that they are.
Both coaches said Thursday that it is a thrill to coach in this town at this special time.
The pleasure will be all ours.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.