Before flying off to Houston to make sure I’m there for Rick Neuheisel if this is going to be his last year, I stopped by his office to see if he had any last requests.
Or, any last words, and almost right away he says, “I believe I’m a good football coach.”
He’s going to have to prove it, all right, or more than likely find employment elsewhere.
“I don’t feel any of that trepidation that would accompany walking to a firing squad,” he says. “It’s healthy; I don’t sit and wonder what it will be like to sell a house or any of that stuff.
“At the end of the day, I’ve always been lucky and I always feel things will work out. And I think they will again.”
He says he’s upbeat because the Bruins now have competition at a number of positions, and while that sounds like recruiting is going very well, he’s the one saying so.
“My gut tells me we’re on track,” Neuheisel says.
Does he believe his fate as UCLA football coach rides on whether his team wins enough games to earn a bowl bid?
“That would probably be accurate,” he says. “There’s probably a scenario that could play out where the powers that be would say, because of this, we would love to have you stay.”
That sounds like a win over USC. Finally.
“But I’m not thinking that way,” he says. “I want us to be in a bowl game.”
But does this team have seven wins in it to assure itself of a bowl invite?
“I would be disappointed if it doesn’t,” he says. “I think that’s very realistic.”
It would be difficult to find someone better suited to stand tall as UCLA’s football coach, the good-looking, peppy recruiter who played for the school and who has proved the naysayers wrong by staying out of trouble since returning.
Unfortunately, his lofty, enthusiastic sales pitch for respectability has fallen flat. It’s always been my biggest problem with the guy; he talks a good game but his team can’t play one.
And now here he goes again, setting himself up for messy second-guessing with the decision to play two quarterbacks. It’s a practice seldom employed because it almost never works.
I would remind Neuheisel: Almost everything has to work this season.
“If you don’t have one quarterback, you don’t have any,” says Neuheisel, repeating a football truism. “But I’m going to play two quarterbacks until one clearly outdistances the other.”
Neuheisel became the team’s quarterbacks coach this season, and he’s worked with Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut as closely as anyone. And he can’t decide who should be the team leader on the field?
Wouldn’t it serve him better to appear in command rather than coming across wishy-washy, or not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings?
Practice reports suggest Prince has received the bulk of snaps with the first team, so with Neuheisel’s job on the line why would he want to subject himself to interrogation by inserting someone into the game who hasn’t had the same amount of preparation?
If the Bruins go flat or Brehaut makes a mistake in his limited play and the Bruins lose, uh-oh.
“Both deserve to continue the competition,” says Neuheisel, but in saying so he’s gambling. And the last time he got attention for that, it didn’t go so well.
In addition to the quarterbacks, he’s doing the same with the team’s kickers. Once again he will rely on his gut feeling, so who knows who will attempt a field goal.
As poorly as things have gone for Neuheisel at UCLA, he could always depend on kicker Kai Forbath. Now he’s going to have to roll the dice.
And sometimes it’s going to go his way, and sometimes he’s going to crap out — but at a time now when he needs to be on a roll.
UCLA recruited Kip Smith to be the kicker, but he’s had a problem: All of America is in play when he takes aim for a field goal. So does Neuheisel have his team go for it at times to compensate for his lack of confidence in the kicker?
Does he go to punter and kickoff specialist Jeff Locke and ask him to kick the field goals?
“At the end of the day it comes down to your gut feel, who do I trust to go make this kick,” Neuheisel says, and I wonder how many Tums he goes through in a season.
But why did UCLA go into this season without a special teams coach? Some folks in football think the special teams coach is the most important coach on the staff other than the head coach because he deals with players from every position.
Neuheisel says the rules allow for only nine assistant coaches and the tight ends needed one. He’s split the special teams between two coaches, and here’s hoping Saturday’s game doesn’t come down to a miscue on special teams.
There’s just too much wiggle room here for the media to swoop in and second guess if things go wrong. Take it from me, I know all about swooping.
So Neuheisel has to win — and beginning Saturday in Houston.
The Bruins beat Houston by 18 points a year ago, but the oddsmakers have Houston listed a three-point favorite.
A field goal — wouldn’t you just know.