UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel tried a preemptive strike a few weeks ago at the Pacific 12 Conference’s football media day.
He opened with a joke: “I’m excited to be here. As a coach on the proverbial hot seat, I’m excited to be invited to any of these things.”
Laughing it off?
In the game of college football monopoly, Neuheisel may have just one dice roll left. After three seasons in which UCLA has looked no better off then when he was hired in 2008, fans are restless.
Athletic Director Dan Guerrero has done nothing to alleviate the pressure, saying as far back as last winter, “Rick knows there is maybe one shot to straighten this thing out.”
So this could be win or go home.
But that doesn’t mean it’s definitely a farewell tour.
Former UCLA coach Terry Donahue survived the hot seat in 1980 by beating USC to cool things down. More recently, Arizona Coach Mike Stoops, with Athletic Director Jim Livengood blocking, held off a pitchforks-and-torches mob.
“When your back is against the wall, you have no choice but to succeed,” said Donahue, the Bruins’ coach from 1976 to 1995. “It’s like Cortez, who had his men burn the ships so they wouldn’t retreat. There is nowhere else to go, so come out fighting.”
Neuheisel is 15-22 at UCLA, the worst three-year start by a Bruins coach since Harry Trotter went 2-13-1 from 1920 to 1922. Neuheisel also is winless in three games with USC.
His predecessor, Karl Dorrell, beat USC once and was 22-15 in his first three seasons, including a 10-2 record in Year 3.
Neuheisel was 4-8 in 2010, his third season, and while firing offensive coordinator Norm Chow and defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough redirected some finger-pointing, UCLA’s fan base is not united behind him.
Neuheisel, who always pitches with positive spin, would rather the season not be about him and says he’s not worried about the future.
“If UCLA decides there is a better football coach for their program — and I’m telling you right now, there isn’t — then that’ll be what happens,” he said. “That will not mean that I’m going to go hungry. That will not mean my family will go hungry. I will go find another job. I’ll do something and I’ll be good at it.”
Donahue faced a similar situation in 1980, and the heat was at full boil just before UCLA played USC.
“The word on the street was if I didn’t win that game, I was out,” said Donahue, who was 0-4 against USC heading into the game.
UCLA beat USC, 20-17, ushering in a decade of success in Westwood. The Bruins won three Rose Bowls and finished in the top 10 five times during the 1980s.
As to whether he would have been fired, Donahue said, “Who knows if that was accurate, but that was what the press was reporting. [Athletic Director] J.D. Morgan never talked to me about it.”
Current management is sending clear messages.
Asked whether he would guarantee Neuheisel would return in 2012 for the fifth and final year on his contract, Guerrero said, “I can’t speculate on that now. I’d love to give him five years and a lot more. That’s what we want. Our ability to play great football will give us a chance to put this all to rest.”
Reminded that he could put the issue to rest now, Guerrero said, “That’s all I’m going to say.”
Neuheisel said a vote of confidence from his boss wouldn’t change anything. “I don’t need somebody saying, ‘We’re going to stick with you this long’ to make me a good coach. It won’t make me do things differently. If it’s good enough, then great. If not, then the powers that be will make the decision they need to make.”
Donahue said the uncertainty might help.
“When you’re in trouble, it’s easier to keep your foot on the accelerator,” he said.
Sometimes trouble comes with the job.
Gene Chizik was hired at Auburn in 2009 after going 5-19 at Iowa State. He was greeted at the airport by a fan shouting, “We want a leader not a loser.” Auburn won the national title last season.
Georgia Coach Mark Richt is 96-34 in 10 seasons. Yet the heat is on after Southeastern Conference schools not named Georgia won the last five national titles.
That is the SEC. This is UCLA.
“It would be more difficult if [UCLA] had been to big bowl games five straight years,” Donahue said. “Mediocrity can slip in unbeknownst.”
Neuheisel has not altered his direction, except for altering his staff. His public stance remains the same, even if the intensity in practice has picked up this summer.
“You don’t want to show you’re nervous, or that there is any issue, because scared money never wins,” Neuheisel said. “Look, I know how this business is. It’s just like I tell my quarterbacks, fair is where they give the pig a blue ribbon.”
This all sounds familiar to Livengood, now athletic director at Nevada Las Vegas. While he said he couldn’t compare his situation at Arizona to what Guerrero is facing at UCLA, he did back Stoops when desert winds of change swept through Tucson.
Stoops had a 12-22 record in his first three seasons at Arizona and then went 5-7 in 2007. The howling only increased.
“I heard all of it,” Livengood said. “It starts on the Internet and mushrooms. I understood the frustrations, but these were people who weren’t there every day.
“I saw the type of players Mike was bringing in and how they conducted themselves on campus. It was really easy to be patient, even if it was making some people unhappy.”
Stoops has a 23-16 record the last three seasons, taking the Wildcats to a bowl game each year.
“Things change very quickly in college football,” Donahue said. “Look at Ohio State. They were on top of the world. Now they have lost the coach and the quarterback.
“It’s a very shaky position at best. It can go the other way just as fast.”