Not quite business as usual
In how many professions could you be fired on a Monday, allowed back to work Tuesday, gratefully carried off the practice field Wednesday, and get a chance at one last shining moment in front of thousands of people Friday?
Welcome to the odd little corner of the college football world occupied by soon-to-be-former UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel.
He conducted practice Monday hours after he was dismissed and continued to prepare the Bruins the rest of the week for Friday’s Pac-12 championship game against Oregon at Autzen Stadium. Neuheisel said it was “business as usual,” but the circumstances were about as unusual as they get.
“I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t an awkward feel in the air, on the field, a little bit,” redshirt junior tight end Joseph Fauria said this week. “But at the same time we knew we had business to tend to. We’re still a team. We still have a game to play. It’s a big game too.”
In pro sports, this would be unfathomable.
“College and NFL sports are a lot different. Usually a coach isn’t going to be let go in the NFL if he was playing in the playoffs,” senior wide receiver Taylor Embree said. “That’s the magnitude of this game. It’s a playoff-type atmosphere. We’ve got a conference championship game that can lead to a Rose Bowl.”
And Embree said players were happy that Neuheisel coached them this week and will be on the sidelines Friday, even though a win won’t get him a reprieve. Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will coach the Bruins should they upset Oregon or be invited to a bowl game.
Embree said Neuheisel remained upbeat all week and kept up his habit of saying, “It’s a great day to be alive and be a Bruin,” each time he entered the locker room. “It’s exciting as a player to see him enjoy the last week that he has with us,” Embree said.
“He was here for the beginning, and the team wants to finish with him. Obviously, it’s rough, but it’s rough for everyone on the team. Especially when you care for your head coach as much as the team does. We’re blessed to have one more opportunity with him.
“Like he told us, they just made him a senior this year. So it’s sad to see him have to depart with the class that came in with him, but at the same time we’re all excited we’ve got one more opportunity to play for him.”
Cornerback Aaron Hester conceded it felt “different” this week knowing that Neuheisel won’t be back next season but said the team was able to focus on Friday’s game. But to him, Neuheisel was no different this week than any time before last week’s 50-0 trouncing by USC sealed Neuheisel’s fate.
“He’s the same guy from the first day he walked in,” Hester said. “He’s keeping it just like he’s had it since I got here. He’s the only head coach I’ve had in college football, so to me everything is still running steady.”
Fauria said he was grateful to Neuheisel for giving him a chance after he didn’t play much last season. Fauria leads the Bruins with six touchdown receptions.
“He’s a class act. I look up to him as a man, off the field,” Fauria said. “To see him go through this is tough, but it has brought us together, glued the team a little better. So that might help us on Friday.
“There’s definitely a little piece of us that’s playing for Coach Neuheisel, especially the guys that appreciate him and appreciate his time here and love the guy.”