Rick Neuheisel is reviewing video of Oregon at play Monday afternoon on the office wall opposite his desk, with one more game to coach while reporters and UCLA administrators gather elsewhere to dwell on his firing.
As optimistic as he has been every day on the job at UCLA, he says there is another game to win, quoting the characters from “Dumb and Dumber”: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”
As gung-ho as he remains even after being advised he’s been a failure here, he says, “I’m not going to change now just because Dan Guerrero says I’ve failed. I have to accept it, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a good coach.”
As quick as everyone was to predict his demise over the last few weeks, he says he didn’t see it coming until Sunday when advised Guerrero would be meeting with him Monday.
“That’s the first time I had a bad feeling,” he says, while admitting he adopted a bunker mentality the last few weeks, avoiding all blogs and newspapers.
“I thought we had moved the needle as we had been asked to do. But I guess I was naive and I wasn’t aware of all the negativity on the outside. I understand the business decision, but I still believe we were on the verge of getting it done.
“To paraphrase something Thomas Edison said, ‘Failure is what happens when you stop just before you’re about to have success.’ I believe that, so I was ready to keep going.”
He took the job a little more than four years ago, attending the Rose Bowl a few days later to watch Pete Carroll and USC flex their domination.
“I thought to myself sitting there that I could have that same kind of success here,” he says.
“And as hard as it is to say now after not getting it done, I still believe this place has the fiber to be successful and with someone else. I just caught it at a bad place in time.”
Quick to recover -- and who would expect anything else from someone who has shown a lifelong ability to bounce back? -- he has already sent a message to recruits, urging them to keep UCLA in their plans. And he gave Guerrero a list of suggested improvements to make the UCLA coaching position more appealing.
“I’m a Bruin,” he says. “I’ll be pulling for the next guy.
“Someone can win here,” he says when asked whether it is possible. “But UCLA has to decide if it wants to be an elite program. It needs a face-lift in some areas. The programs that have moved to that elite level have done that.”
When UCLA hired Neuheisel, some thought it would be only a matter of time before he ran into trouble, given his resume. But now there seems to be only praise for the classy way he has handled himself in defeat -- even from his harshest critics.
“No one should feel sorry for me,” he says. “I had my shot.”
As he leaves, he does so praising USC Coach Lane Kiffin, calling what he’s done in improving the play of Matt Barkley a “masterful job.”
Before Saturday night’s game in the tunnel leading to the field, he pulled USC Athletic Director Pat Haden to the side and commended him on bringing the luster back to USC.
“Standing there and losing 50-0, it rips your guts out,” he says. “But standing there and thinking, ‘Who is to blame here?’ I already knew the answer. The easy human thing to do is point to everyone else, which is what the bloggers do.
“But I learned this, years ago from Homer Smith, the three most important words to be a quarterback are, ‘It’s my fault.’ The same with a coach. You can start to fix the problem quicker if you start there, so it’s my fault as head coach, and now how do I fix it?”
Neuheisel earned a base pay of $250,000 a year as UCLA’s football coach, earning an extra $1 million a year for services provided in promoting the program.
He signed a five-year deal but will get only $250,000 in base pay now that he’s been dismissed. Guerrero said UCLA will also have to “reconcile a $1-million loan”’ given to Neuheisel to buy a house.
“Termination is numbing,” says Neuheisel, but apparently not enough to knock him flat. “When one door closes; another opens.
“I’m going to take a little time now to decide what it is I want to do next. While it’s an unbelievable occupation and one I cherished, coaching is also a little bit selfish with respect to family. I still have to put food on the table and figure out how to do that. It would be difficult to leave the sport, but I’m not ruling out anything.”
He says he began at UCLA with a long list of great ideas, but they didn’t always turn out as planned. He cited the hiring of Norm Chow. “It didn’t work out; it wasn’t his fault or mine. It just didn’t work out.”
He never found the quarterback almost every coach needs to win consistently at this level, and he failed to recruit the talent needed along the offensive line.
“One of my favorite movies is ‘Apollo 13,’ ” he says. “There’s a scene where they dump a bunch of stuff on a table and say this is what we have -- how are we going to get them home? To me, that’s what coaching is all about.”
Unfortunately UCLA remains a work in progress. Only one more game for Neuheisel to coach, with the expectation by most it will end in disaster.
So why hang in there after being told he’s been fired?
“There’s another line in ‘Apollo 13,’ ” Neuheisel says. “Instead of focusing on what could be a great disaster, someone says, ‘This could be our finest hour.’ ”