Politics as usual for UCLA’s Rick Neuheisel
Thought we might have lunch, but stunned to learn President Obama was out of town.
So I took the guard’s advice at the White House and just kept on walking Monday, stopping down the street at the Mayflower Hotel to visit our very own politician of sorts with an obvious gift of gab, Rick Neuheisel.
Didn’t have the heart to tell him the president will probably be passing on the Eagle Something-Or-Other Bowl like pretty much everyone else today, and here it is a very important day too, the second anniversary of Neuheisel’s hiring to be UCLA football coach.
Right away Neuheisel is shaking hands and giving me “a happy new year,” and he’s the one who has to go 12-1 from now through the new year to match Karl Dorrell’s three-year start as Bruins head coach.
When it came time for his reelection as UCLA coach, the consensus seemed to be that Dorrell didn’t know what he was doing and UCLA needed an upgrade.
How’s that going -- UCLA two years removed from Dorrell and yet to record a significant Pacific 10 Conference victory?
“That’s true,” agreed Neuheisel, and so where is the improvement to date?
The Bruins didn’t qualify for a bowl bid last season but did so this year at 6-6 because there weren’t enough teams with seven wins to fill them all.
More important, as fans were told, it gave the Bruins more practice time. But what does it say about Neuheisel’s grip on his team, that after telling his players three days into bowl preparations, “Let’s have a good effort today,” they all leave the practice field?
“I would not have made the same decision,” he said. “A number of the players told me the same thing.
“On the positive side, I’m glad they all stayed together, but this was not the time to do it.”
Two years ago, when Neuheisel was fresh on the job, the Bruins ditched a spring practice. Not that they needed it, of course.
Neuheisel told his team it was a UCLA tradition to climb the wall, but only as a prize for earning a bowl bid.
“Apparently some of the players have too good a memory,” Neuheisel said.
Some might argue things are finally looking up for UCLA, but only because USC appears to be self-destructing.
“You have to like what’s been happening over at USC,” I told Neuheisel.
“I didn’t really pay much attention to it,” he said, and here’s a guy with credibility problems given his history at Colorado and Washington, and now he wants us to believe he’s not human.
“It’s just not something I pay close attention to,” he said, and who is buying that?
It’s why I’ve had a problem with Neuheisel, the words falling out of his mouth, for the most part, not to be believed.
He might very well be a good head coach, certainly looks the part, remains friendly and accessible, and by most accounts is a terrific salesman, uh, recruiter.
But the blarney is what got him in trouble from the start at UCLA, the school’s marketing folks taking a full-page advertisement to announce: “The Football Monopoly in L.A. Is Officially Over.”
UCLA had yet to beat USC, and while Neuheisel did not know about the ad before it ran, I suggested the marketing people were just buying into the lofty talk they were hearing from him.
“That’s an interesting point,” he conceded, while explaining he always gushes positively because it’s what served him so well as both a walk-on athlete and then coach.
Maybe, but in doing so now, he has raised expectations, telling everyone a year ago his team’s goal was to win the conference title. The Bruins finished 4-8 and in eighth place.
A new coach, almost more than anything else, needs time on the job to implement his plan, recruit his players and have a chance to win. Coaches are being given less and less time these days, and nothing sabotages them more than failing to meet fans’ expectations, in this case, Neuheisel guilty of raising those unrealistic expectations.
This year, almost subtly, but smartly, he backed off -- placing the emphasis and goal on winning a bowl bid.
The Bruins did so, but then he could not contain himself, gushing about the team’s progress while failing to note three wins in the last four games came against Pac-10 doormats.
“In two years here we’ve made some improvements,” he said. “We have two more wins this year than last and in a tougher conference.
“Next year we will have three classes of [his recruits] in the fold, and if we’re 6-6 again and don’t make any more hay in the conference, that would be disappointing.”
The Bruins open next season against Kansas State, Houston and Texas, a combined 29-9 this year, and good luck.
When Neuheisel arrived two years ago, the Bruins lacking a solid offensive line and quarterback, he was still talking a very good game. He can’t help himself. Since then, the Bruins have gone 10-14, and I wonder if that’s what Bruins fans were expecting.
When he was hired, those who were critical wondered if the strain of trying to compete with USC would eventually result in some of the same problems he had in Colorado and Washington.
“The NCAA has some land mines out there,” Neuheisel said. “I’ve avoided them thus far. There will be mistakes, but I will be honest, make them right and turn ourselves in -- and maybe dissipate the notion that I’m some kind of hardened criminal.”
On an upbeat note, though, the NCAA is probably too busy right now with USC to concern itself with Neuheisel, so his only concern is winning games.
He gets the chance to start today against Temple, looking like a pushover given its easy schedule.
A UCLA victory, which would also result in a winning season, would allow Neuheisel to do what he does best and end the year gushing.
It would also mean he has to go only 11-1 to be just as good as Dorrell by the end of next season.