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Neuheisel deserves another chance at coaching college football
The unsolved mysteries of the Neuheisel era
Richard Linde, 27 May 2006

Ostensibly, former UW coach Rick Neuheisel (1999-2003, 33-16) was fired, in part, for lying about a job interview with the San Francisco 49ers and for lying about his participation in two basketball auctions (although he told the truth the same day he was untruthful).

In my opinion, he was unfairly fired and would be coaching at Washington today -- after a short suspension, perhaps -- if the NCAA and media hadn’t overreacted to a story handed to them by a snitch.

This impulsiveness in firing Neuheisel led to his “successful” lawsuit against the University of Washington and the NCAA, the settlement of which collectively cost them $4.7 million.

Neuheisel’s recruiting classes at Washington were among the best in the nation. Eighteen of his recruits are headed to NFL training camps this summer. At least thirteen members of this year’s team, all recruited by Neuheisel, have NFL potential, including expected starting quarterback Isaiah Stanback, who has speed and athleticism to burn. One of Neuheisel’s most notable recruits, Nate Robinson, is playing NBA basketball. Robinson was the catalyst for Washington’s most recent successes in basketball. Kai Ellis is playing in the CFL and Craig Chambers, who transferred to Montana, has NFL capableness.

Charisma, charm and persuasiveness lend themselves to Neuheisel's fundraising skills. Among all of Washington’s past coaches, arguably he was the most charismatic of them all.

I believe that Neuheisel deserves another shot at a head coaching job in college football, and I hope that the substance of this article will clarify the issues that have dogged him over the past few years. These issues concern his motivation for being untruthful, his participation in two auctions, and the identity of an informant who most likely had an ax to grind.

In four seasons with the Huskies, Neuheisel forged a 33-16 record and led the Huskies to four bowl appearances, including a Rose Bowl victory in 2001 and a No. 3 national ranking. The miraculous comebacks engineered in the 2000 season will always be part of his Husky legacy, along with his inspiring speech at the Curtis Williams memorial and his devotion to Curtis before he passed away. As a devoted father and players coach, he should be an inspiration to all young men that play college football.

Currently, Neuheisel is working as quarterbacks coach for the Baltimore Ravens.

An editorialist, an eavesdropper, a snitch and two investigators.  

I. The Editorialist and the setup (December 14, 2002)

Since it was obvious to former AD Barbara Hedges that the multi-talented Neuheisel would be in high demand, she amended his contract in September 2002, which in effect tied him to Washington through 2008. It would have cost would-be employers $2.1 million to lure him away from Washington, as well as bettering or matching an annual salary of $1.8 million (providing all incentives were met).

However Neuheisel’s new contract didn’t stop the Seattle Times from speculating on his interest in other jobs

After UCLA fired Bob Toledo in December 2002, a Times editorial, anonymously written, speculated on Neuheisel’s potential candidacy for the head-coaching vacancy.

The editorialist told the UW to “find a coach who sees the UW as a milestone not a stepping stone…” while, “Cougar coach Mike Price is a different matter. His solid reputation and patient success naturally attracts attention. He has made Washington State University proud, and he has earned the right to seek new challenges and other coaching opportunities.”

A few days later, Karl Dorrell signed a contract with UCLA, reportedly for $600 thousand per year, at least a couple of bucks short of Neuheisel’s $1.4 million guaranteed salary contract with Washington.

And a few months later, Price shot himself in the foot, while seeking another "coaching opportunity," at Alabama -- this in his dance with Destiny.

II The Eavesdropper and the sting (February 12, 2003)

What are the odds that Neuheisel would plunk himself down in a chair about six feet away from the chair belonging to a Seattle P-I reporter in the San Francisco Airport?

The reporter wrote, “Lest you think I was prowling the airport in the foliage of a Ficus benjamina, I was reading the Sunday papers in the gate area when Neuheisel plunked himself down in a chair about 6 feet from mine.”

A few minutes later, the reporter eavesdropped on a cell phone conversation Neuheisel had with his mother, telling her that it (the 49ers interview) went well.

Later, in the departure area, the reporter asked Neuheisel if he had interviewed with the 49ers and he answered no, saying that he cut short a Sun Valley skiing trip with his family to play golf in the Bay Area with fraternity buddies. The next day the coach made a public statement, saying he did not interview with the 49ers. Later in the week, published stories in the Seattle P-I forced Neuheisel's hand, and he told the truth about the 49ers interview. Neuheisel said that he lied to protect a confidentiality agreement he had with 49ers management.

In my opinion, Neuheisel never had any interest in the 49ers’ job and the 49ers weren’t interested in him because of the $2.1 million buyout in his contract. Common sense tells me that Neuheisel interviewed with the 49ers as a favor to his close friend, former UCLA coach Terry Donahue, who was the 49ers general manager at the time. Good friends do that type of thing, hugging each other from time to time in reciprocal fashion.

In addition to the confidentiality agreement, he was given additional motivation to lie – call it a white lie -- by the double standard the media had set for him in the Seattle area, even long before the “Rick Hamlet” editorial was written. Successful, talented people at Washington shouldn’t interview for better jobs goes their message, this under the umbrella of blind loyalty to the Dub. Tell that one to Charlie Weis.

Did the paparazzi follow Neuheisel from Sun Valley to San Francisco and then alert the P-I reporter? Otherwise, the “plunking down about six feet away” seems like a million to one shot to me -- as one P-I columnist has called it. Other than those odds, there is no real reason to doubt the reporter’s version of the events.

III. The investigators and the trap (June 4, 2003)

Who was the snitch who turned Neuheisel in for the participation in the auctions involving March madness? What was his/her motivation?

As a passive member of a four-man group, Neuheisel participated in two March Madness basketball auctions, one in 2002 and another in 2003, his net winnings over the two years being $11,219, according to the NCAA. A couple dozen of his friends or more participated in the auctions. His ratio of income to winnings in relation to a person making $50 thousand per year translates into winnings of approximately $390, or $195 per year.

Neuheisel pointed to two e-mails (one in 1999 and another in 2003) circulated by the UW compliance director that allowed participation in such activities: "The bottom line of these rules is that if you have friends outside of (the athletic department) that have pools on any of the basketball tournaments, you can participate …You cannot place bets with a bookie or organize your own pool inside or outside of (the athletic department)."

Focusing on organized gambling, the NCAA rule on gambling does not mention sports pools or auctions.

In its ruling, the NCAA Infractions Committee concluded that reliance on the e-mails substantially mitigated the nature of the gambling violation and that his participation in the auctions was not a violation of NCAA ethical conduct legislation.

 

Before the ruling, thirteen college coaches wrote letters supporting Neuheisel, saying that they relied heavily on their compliance offices for rules interpretation. Among them were Joe Paterno, Jim Tressel, Mike Bellotti, Ron Turner, Lou Holtz, and Tom Cable.

Ironically, if Neuheisel had lost money in the auctions, the fact he had participated in them most likely would never have been reported to the Seattle Times and the NCAA. But the fact remained that he’d won money in the auctions, along with the fact that Mike Price’s alleged dalliance with a Tuscaloosa babe was in full swing with the media just before the second e-mail was sent.

In its story, “Diary of a downfall: the Neuheisel story,” The Seattle Times wrote, “The story actually began weeks ago, when an anonymous person sent an e-mail to the NCAA and The Seattle Times alleging that he — or she — had witnessed Neuheisel participating in an NCAA basketball-tournament auction with a group of friends and others in his Medina neighborhood…On May 13, (2003) the anonymous sender circulated another e-mail: ‘Let's just say Rick was up to his usual tricks again and the NCAA has taken an interest in his extra-curricular activities.’”

That e-mail was circulated eight days after I had published the spoof on Price, “Dancing with Destiny.” Was the anonymous tipster a WSU fan or alum? Later, rumors circulated the web that the tipster had been angered by what he was reading on the web concerning Mike Price. This website is hardly that influential; however, the miasma clouding Price’s reputation did hang over the web.

On June 4, 2003, two NCAA investigators ambushed Neuheisel in violation of an NCAA bylaw, questioning him about his auction activities without informing him beforehand of the true nature of their investigation. As a stunned Neuheisel emerged from the interview room, he was questioned by a Seattle Times reporter.

Later on, The Times wrote: “Through two independent sources, The Times learned that the two NCAA investigators were in town and pinpointed a date when Neuheisel would be called into an interview — Wednesday, June 4, at The Sheraton Seattle.”

Did one of The Times’ sources have an NCAA connection?

Still, the identity of the tipster remains a mystery.

According to published reports, Neuheisel told others, including boosters, people at the golf course and Seattle business leaders, that he had done well in the 2003 auction. His willingness to reveal that he’d participated in the auctions is not the action of a man who knowingly was violating an NCAA Bylaw; however, it expands the list of would-be snitches into the hundreds, perhaps.

The point is that we may never know who blew the whistle on Neuheisel. However, a literal interpretation of the Times’ article, to wit, “that he — or she — had witnessed Neuheisel participating in an NCAA basketball-tournament auction,” narrows the list of suspects down to the two dozen or more people who attended the 2003 auction. Focusing on WSU alums or fans, some embarrassed by Mike Price’s bad press, narrows that list further.

Contrary evidence is provided by an article written by P-I reporter Dan Raley ("Neuheisel leaker remains a mystery to all"): He writes that the tipster, identifying himself bogusly as 'Peter Wright,' " insisted he was a pool participant eight years earlier, then got out of the pool because the betting had become too rich. Still, the tipster was aware Neuheisel had become an active participant."

Raley quotes the tipster from an e-mail he wrote to Bill Saum, NCAA investigator: "I just hope that justice is served. Believe me, I don't want to be responsible for helping a person potentially get fired from his job but I have a firm ethical stance that what he did was wrong."

I wonder how the mysterious Peter Wright feels about his ethical stance now, under the light of the two UW e-mails okaying Neuheisel's participation in the auctions.

IV. Uncertainty

The gigantic seaplane resting on the shores of Union Bay is spreading its purple wings and ready to rev its engines. Its destination is uncertain, as it gently rolls from side to side, shrouded by the fog of a new flight plan and captaincy.

They say time heals all wounds. It's been three and one half years since Neuheisel has led a college football team onto the field.

In time, perhaps, the editorialist, the eavesdropper, the investigators,  and Peter Wright will join our crusade: Rick Neuheisel deserves another chance to coach college football.

Richard Linde (a.k.a., Malamute) can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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