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Lessons learned from Neuheisel's firing
Richard Linde, 20 May 2007

To be, or not to be--that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them. -- Hamlet, William Shakespeare

On June 4, 2003, the Washington Huskies lost their biggest game of the season, surrendering their niche among the Pac-10 conference’s elite to three scenarios involving “confusion, ambush, and sensationalism.”

It is our contention that the University of Washington should have supported former coach Rick Neuheisel during the gambling investigation by either placing him on probation or on a short suspension until the NCAA and Pac-10 could make a preliminary or final judgment of his case. Instead, he was given a six weeks’ suspension and then fired in July 2003 before the NCAA and Pac-10 had rendered their verdicts.

The final outcome of the NCAA investigation (2004) allowed Neuheisel to continue his college coaching career and supports the notion of his retention by UW, as does the outcome of his successful lawsuit against Washington and the NCAA. His legacy at Washington (find below) trumpets the idea as well.

In addition, this notion is buttressed by the Pac-10 findings (11 March 2004) relating to its investigation of Washington’s gambling incidents. Responding to those findings, Neuheisel’s lawyer Bob Sulkin was quoted as saying, the report "made it clear the University of Washington did not have to fire Rick Neuheisel since he wasn't barred from coaching in the league.“

Recently, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen told Neuheisel he would be welcome to coach in the league again. This was about the time the Arizona State coaching job opened up, though Neuheisel did not apply for the job, as far as we know. 

The mistakes Washington made in firing Neuheisel mirror the errors it made in 1993 that led to the retirement of Don James. (See “Tabloid Times”)

Confusion: Misrepresenting the truth was the main reason given for firing Neuheisel, according to the termination letter sent to him from former AD Barbara Hedges.

Commonsense, along with testimony at his lawsuit trial in January 2005, suggests he was fired for participating in two March Madness auctions with neighborhood friends, even though an internal UW e-mail gave him permission to participate in such activities.

It is our contention that Neuheisel's firing was never about dishonesty and always about fear of the NCAA. (*)

If you accept the university’s explanation for terminating Neuheisel’s contract, the following discussion is moot; otherwise, hear us out.

Ambush: Former Husky quarterback Hugh Millen has left the building. (see “Hugh Millen was both right and wrong”)

Neuheisel told the truth the same day he provided false information to NCAA investigators (June 4, 2003), who earlier in the day had blindsided him about his gambling activities in violation of an NCAA bylaw. During Neuheisel’s wrongful termination lawsuit against Washington and the NCAA, it was revealed that an earlier version of that bylaw was erroneously entered into discovery, thus leading to the settlement of the lawsuit and the approximately $4.7 million awarded Neuheisel. 

The updated bylaw, 32.3.7, requires the NCAA to inform the subject of the forthcoming allegations involving unethical conduct.

On October 20, 2004, the NCAA released its findings, entitled, “University of Washington Public Infractions report.” In its findings, the NCAA imposed no penalties on Neuheisel for his two high-stakes gambling activities nor did it sanction him for initially misrepresenting the truth to NCAA investigators on June 4, 2003. This judgment freed him to seek other job opportunities in college coaching.

The NCAA report, in effect, exonerated Neuheisel because of his reliance on the e-mails that a former UW compliance director wrote permitting participation in March Madness sports pools (done with certain limitations). Note that the NCAA has a general policy of not charging an individual with unethical conduct if that person ultimately provides truthful information the same day false information is given.

In retrospect, we feel the UW acted prematurely in firing Neuheisel. Placing him on probation or on short suspension until the matter had been been preliminarily adjudicated  -- this, at the very least -- would now seem  a fairer, more responsible approach. Like the aggregate in a modern highway, the shattered rocks of Neuheisel's road to fame are mindful of what could have been -- now a broken path at Montlake once leading to success.

Going to bat for Neuheisel meant that the UW needed to inform the NCAA of the internal e-mails that granted him permission to participate in March Madness pools. Also, a little digging into the NCAA bylaws would have discovered that his interview with NCAA investigators – in effect, an ambush -- was in violation of an NCAA bylaw. A phone call to the NCAA would have revealed that telling the truth the same day one is questioned by investigators is not a violation in most cases, according to NCAA policy.

Furthermore, according to one legal scholar cited by Neuheisel’s lawyers in the lawsuit trial, the NCAA gambling bylaw (10.3) is vague about betting in March Madness basketball pools. Other legal experts reaffirm that opinion. Of course, the NCAA contends that the bylaw is properly written. But the fact that there are differing opinions about its vagueness attests to its ambiguity. Learned people can’t agree on its meaning.

Had it supported the interpretation of the bylaw by its former compliance director, the university could have submitted written opinions from legal experts regarding its haziness. (Note that a couple of legal experts at UW supported that interpretation).

Hence, we feel an effective appeal could have been made to the NCAA and Pac-10 that would have allowed Neuheisel to continue coaching at UW until a full examination of the gambling incidents had been conducted. As it turned out, the NCAA report of October 20, 2004 allowed him to continue his college coaching career, as did the Pac-10 report rendered seven months earlier. 

Sensationalism: During the interim, strong leadership at UW would have been needed to extinguish the fires lit by the local media to quell an "outraged public." Admittedly, effectively countering a biased, sensationalized media is almost impossible. And, if so, that may be the kicker voiding our argument, sending it to a weaker posit led by the opening phrase, “In a perfect world…”

Supporting Neuheisel would have sent a message to his players and coaching staff: that the University stands behind them when misconduct is alleged – as one supports a family member who is in trouble -- until the time they are found guilty of such misconduct. That support would have led to success on the playing field, in place of the turbulence and apathy that followed Neuheisel’s firing.

It is our contention that had Neuheisel (33-16, 1999-2003) continued his coaching career at Washington, the subsequent four seasons (14-33, 2003-2006) would have been supplanted by winning ones, the stadium would be full of fans on Saturdays and the fan base would still be generous in its financial support of the football program. Instead, Husky fans squabble and bicker with one another, either criticizing or supporting the current coaching staff and athletic department, as evidenced by a message board on dawgman.com and other Internet sites. One breakeven season followed by three losing ones have enervated the collective spirit of Husky fans, and that spirit will ebb ever more as the Huskies continue to play middling football. At times, Husky Stadium seems half empty nowadays.

There are painful lessons to be learned from the gambling incidents involving Neuheisel. Ignoring those lessons further and continuing down the road leading to football mediocrity paints a bleak future for the Huskies. (See “Pac-10 Review, 2007”).

These lessons involve confronting the NCAA and Pac-10 when their decisions are wrongheaded, supporting the family of coaches and players when misconduct is alleged, and standing up to what, in the main, has been, heretofore, a tabloid-driven local media.

Unfortunately, these are the very same lessons that should have been learned during the turbulence that led to the resignation of former coach Don James in 1993, ten years earlier. As fair or unfair as it might be to say, Barbara Hedges was a common thread in the imbroglios linking 1993 with 2003.

A portion of Neuheisel’s legacy at Washington follows

-- Rick Neuheisel has the fifth best record among Washington’s 27 coaches. Only James Knight, Gil Dobie, Enoch Bagshaw, and Don James posted better winning percentages. Paring the front of the list of past coaches starting with Bagshaw (1921-1929) moves Rick to second place behind James, who has the best winning percentage.

-- He is one of only three UW coaches to win a Rose Bowl game (Purdue, 2001). Don James and Jim Owens were the others.

-- His record of 33-16 over four years has been nearly reversed over the last four years by Keith Gilberton (7-17) and Tyrone Willingham (7-16), who collectively produced a 14-33 record.

-- He’s the last coach to beat USC (27-24, 2001).

-- He’s the last coach to garner a winning season (7-6, 2002).

-- He’s the last coach to bring in a top-5 recruiting class (2001).

-- He’s the last coach to finish in the nation’s top five (3rd place, AP Poll, 2000).

-- He is the only Husky coach to have recruited a student/athlete for football that morphed into an NBA first-round draft pick (Nate Robinson, 21st, Phoenix Suns). Robinson, officially measured at 5 feet 7 and 3/4 inches, won the 2006 NBA slam dunk contest.

-- He locked the fence around the state of Washington, corralling its best products and keeping them at home. After Neuheisel’s termination, highly rated local athletes have enrolled at schools outside of the state of Washington, for example, Jonathan Stewart, Steve Schilling, and Taylor Mays. Mays and Stewart are likely first round NFL draft choices.

-- He recruited Isaiah Stanback, who is arguably the most gifted athlete ever to play at Washington. He will be a standout Pro providing he is given a chance to play quarterback. Stanback was a certain first-round draft pick had he not suffered a foot injury in the Oregon State game this last season.

-- His 34-29 victory over Miami (11-1) in 2000 rivals in importance any win of any Husky team.  

-- He’s the last coach to produce an NFL first-round draft pick (Reggie Williams, Jacksonville, ninth overall).

-- He’s the last coach to take the Huskies to a bowl game (Sun Bowl, 2002).

-- He has the best winning percentage among UW coaches of the last 14 years (1993-2006).

-- His teams won all four Apple Cups.

-- By his own measure, he won 2 out of 4 Northwest championships.

-- The text of his speech at the Curtis Williams memorial should be posted -- by, say, a plaque on the wall -- at the new football Legends Center. It won’t be, but should be, in deference to C-Dub. In lieu of that, how about erecting a statue of Curtis in the Legends Center?

At Washington, Rick Neuheisel was an excellent recruiter, a players’ coach, an effective communicator and fund raiser, and was always willing to give something back to the community. After his termination at UW, he coached the quarterbacks at Rainier Beach high school as a volunteer. Presently, he is the offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens.

Due to uncertainty at Washington, many of Neuheisel’s records may last for years.


(*) According to Neuheisel, he was asked to resign or told he was being fired one day after his interview with the NCAA. The request for his resignation was based upon his participation in the basketball pool.

On the day of the NCAA interview, Barbara Hedges praised Neuheisel for being forthcoming about the gambling incident and, later that day, NCAA president Myles Brand praised him for being forthcoming about his involvement when confronted.

On June 5, the day after interview, Hedges sent a memo to university president Lee Huntsman and university officials that mentioned gambling but not dishonesty in relation to Neuheisel's suspension.

According to Neuheisel, it was only after he informed Barbara Hedges of the e-mails from the compliance director that she changed the basis for his termination to dishonesty.

Neuheisel was quoted as saying, “I think the NCAA has put on a lot of pressure because of some the statements they made. I think that the day after I was questioned by the NCAA, Miles Brand said I should be fired. There was no way they could know all the facts. The university felt pressure to make a decision. I think it was simple as that.”

Malamute can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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