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Rick Neuheisel, born to be lucky?
By Richard Linde, 27 October 2001


Rick Neuheisel, Mr. Lucky?
Some people have called Rick Neuheisel lucky, others have referred to the brilliant play of his quarterbacks, Marques Tuiasosopo and Cody Pickett, as the reason for his success. Others point to his clock management skills. Still others say the football Gods are giving Washington the manna it deserves after being unfairly torpedoed by the media and Pac-10 in 1992 and 1993. 

Luck, quarterbacks or manna, it all depends on with whom you talk. 

It could have been a much different story for Coach Neuheisel when he took over the coaching job for the Huskies in 1999. He could be practicing law somewhere now or doing football commentary in front of a TV camera, trying to over talk some egomaniacal ex-jocks who won't stop talking. 

His salary, some quiet-day visits and a fraternity-house incident sparked a furor from the media and other critics, which almost led to his ouster.  

In part, Rick Neuheisel survived this maelstrom because he was able to field a winning football team--and in remarkable fashion. In the Huskies' last 19 games, they have posted 10 come-from-behind wins in the fourth quarter while going 17-2. From the Oregon game last year to the UCLA game this year--both games they lost--the Huskies won 12 straight games.

It was a remarkable personal victory for him when you consider the milieu at Washington when he took over as head man in 1999. This all becomes clear when you look back at the year 1992 and subsequent months, when Washington experienced some of its blackest days in history. When Rick took over the helm of the good ship Washington, he took command of a ship with a bull's-eye painted on its helm, still listing to port from a broadside taken in 1993, even though it appeared right side up.

On August 23, 1993, Don James, stepped down as Washington's head football coach and made this statement. "I have decided I can no longer coach in a conference that treats its players and coaches so unfairly. We have suffered for nearly 10 months from media character assassination. By looking at the penalties, it appears we are all guilty, based in large part upon statements of questionable witnesses." 

These "questionable witnesses" told the Los Angeles Times that James wasn't babysitting a summer job's program (run by a booster) in the Los Angeles area. Long before, some of the informants had sued Washington and lost their cases in a court of law. Some of them had been kicked off James' team and seemed more than willing to get even. They said they had been paid for work not performed in the L.A. job's program, which is not surprising when you think about it. 

Well known for its pro-UCLA slant, the Los Angeles Times "investigated" the Washington program, and other media outlets joined in. Although the Times said that the Rodney King beating trial motivated their investigation, the improper loans made to Billy Joe Hoebert, Washington's quarterback, provided the sensationalism needed for the stories. The way the investigation was conducted and presented to the public smacks of bias. Certainly, the Times and other media outlets had papers to sell, but most likely the editorial board at the Times wasn't too unhappy with UCLA's potential fallout. The Bruins were bound to pick up some blue chip players in California that Washington, otherwise, might have recruited--and use them against the hated Trojans. 

Inflammatory stories about the Washington program that had no relationship to NCAA rule breaking whatsoever were mixed with the one that did, that is, with the apparent mismanagement of the L.A. summer job's program. Part of one negative story appearing in the Los Angeles Times was retracted later on. In toto, the media's coverage led to sanctions against the University that were not proportional to the crime. All of the allegations made against Washington involved booster violations. The coaching staff was not involved. 

Someone had to lower the boom when you consider the manner in which the press covered the Huskies' program; otherwise, you would have looked like a nincompoop in the public's eye if you'd slapped them on the wrist, which is precisely what they deserved. Instead, Washington was stripped of twenty scholarships and lost the right to make postseason appearances for two years. Out of protest, they lost one of the greatest coaches the Pac-10 has ever seen. One of the crimes: Prospective recruits were given fruit baskets by Seattle hotels. 

Six years later in January of 1999, Washington's athletic director Barbara Hedges made Rick Neuheisel an offer he couldn't refuse.  One month earlier, she'd given Washington's head coach Jim Lambright a vote of confidence. A month later, she fired him and made the offer to Neuheisel, who was the head coach at Colorado. He inked a 5-year contract worth $897 thousand per annum with a two-year option. He was given $1 hundred thousand in incentives, which he earned his first two years. (He was replaced at Colorado by former Northwestern coach, Gary Barnett). See Table 2, for data on his renegotiated salary.

As Neuheisel came on board, he tripped and fell off the gang blank. Fortunately, he could swim. During the quiet-day period, he sent his assistant coaches out to talk with some of Lambright's verbals, along with other potential recruits, which is an NCAA violation. That was on a Sunday, just before Wednesday's letter-of-intent day. Some time before, after he'd accepted the Washington job, he'd talked on the phone with Taylor Barton, one of his former players, wished him well and encouraged him to stay at Colorado. Neuheisel was charged with tampering, since he hadn't obtained permission from Colorado authorities to talk to Barton. A little later, some of his Husky football players damaged a fraternity house on campus. That's another blot on his record, one Seattle sportswriter wrote. Neuheisel had yet to coach a game at Washington.

In response to the quiet-day visitations, Washington sanctioned itself. The five assistant coaches, who met with eight recruits on "quiet'' day, were penalized four weeks of off-campus recruiting; each was given a letter of reprimand.

Neuheisel, who committed several other minor violations, had 20 of his 29 permissible off-campus evaluation days taken away from the subsequent recruiting period. He also had a letter of reprimand placed in his file, and Washington had its number of official visits by prospects cut by six to 50.

For some in the media, it was a blast from the past, the1992 scandal all over again. Neuheisel's missteps would exonerate them, prove them right about James and the Washington program. It was a time to regain some respect, as their poll numbers were down. How do you look yourself in the mirror after you've pilloried a guy as honest as Don James? Answer: Prove that cheating at Washington is omnipresent. 

For others in the media, Neuheisel had dumped a story in their laps that could be magnified by the 1992 scandal. With that scandal in the back of the public's minds, this new pratfall, as minor as it was, would take on added meaning. 

They played it to the hilt. Seemingly, Barbara Hedges had hired a coach away from Colorado who was still wet behind the ears, and he was screwing up royally. Some in the press wept over the firing of Lambo; he had been unfairly targeted  they said. Hedges was paying a 37-year old brat one million dollars per annum; why he looked like a kid and acted line one.  Much was made of the fact that at the University of Colorado, Rick Neuheisel was mockingly referred to as "Slick Rick" and "Coach Kumbaya." 

As an assistant under Bill McCartney, the 33-year-old Neuheisel took over the top job when McCartney left Colorado. As head coach, he took his Colorado players skiing, inner-tubing down a river and played guitar for them. In 1995, he finished 10-2 his first year at Colorado, and that satisfied the alumni, while keeping the media at bay. 

At Washington, it was a different story, and the Seattle media tied young Rick to the stake, using his effusiveness against him. (See Table 1, which documents the media's early response to the quiet-day visitations.)

 

Table 1. Seattle Media Comments (CNN/SI College Football, "Neuheisel News," February 5, 1999)
Greg Johns, columnist for the Bellevue-based Eastside Journal. "At every public appearance he's made since arriving in Seattle three weeks ago, new Husky football coach Rick Neuheisel has been dressed all in black, from his overcoat to his shoes. Yesterday, he added a black eye to the wardrobe."
Art Thiel, of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer "Neuheisel's first significant moment as Husky coach raised a knot on his brow at least as ugly as any spotted on [former coach Jim] Lambright."
The headline over Blaine Newnham's column in The Seattle Times read "Neuheisel jumps gun, shoots himself in the foot" He wrote: "Neuheisel has a law degree. How can anyone so smart act so stupid?"

 


Rick Neuheisel with young fans at Picture day, 2001

His "enormous" salary, his illegal visitations, the brawl at a fraternity house, his guitar playing, his phone conversation with Taylor Barton all said that the Washington program was out of control again. To some, it was an 18-wheeler running down  hill, without brakes and a bailout ramp below.

In one month's time, Neuheisel had morphed into Billy Joe, Gary Barnett had morphed into Saint Peter, and the Seattle media had morphed into the paparazzi.

There was plenty of Neuheisel bashing on the Internet also. Most of the flamers were fans carrying festering wounds inflicted by losses dealt to their favorite teams by the Huskies. Others were Husky fans still loyal to Don James and Jim Lambright. Many posts on Internet message boards were headlined with endearments such as  "Neuweasel," "Skippy," and "Slick Rick." You still see them today. No other coach in the Pac-10 invokes so much unbridled passion among fans, with the exception, of perhaps, Mike Bellotti, Oregon's football coach.

And in the history of college football, no incoming coach yet to coach a game for his new school, has been panned by the media and fans more than Neuheisel was in 1999. 

With two losses to start the 1999 season, the stage was set for the paparazzi and flamers. Slick Rick's Huskies were ready to play Gary Barnett's Colorado team in Rick's third game at Washington. A loss to Colorado would prove Hedges wrong about the new coach and his detractors right. Their holier-than-thou compulsion needed feeding and Washington's house needed cleaning. On their way to crush him, Neuheisel, who had set an NCAA passing record in 1983, developed a secret weapon, one out of keeping for him. As Barnett and the paparazzi drew near, Neuheisel modified his offense and installed the option, turning it over to Marques Tuiasosopo, later known as the Warrior.


Tui, courtesy of dawgman.com
Barnett and the paparazzi lost that day, 31-24. Their furor was temporarily quelled, an opportunity lost. Neuheisel won again in 2000, this time at Boulder, and more blood lusting was put in abeyance. Two for the good guy, nada for his detractors. 

The rest is history. We can all laugh about it now. Coach Neuheisel bested the "flamers" in the media and on the Internet by beating Colorado twice, then leading the Dawgs to victory in the 2001 Rose Bowl!

End of story? No, the rest of this story is about serendipity, a robust quarterback, and a lot of preparation. 

If Neuheisel had had a losing season last year, his job would be in jeopardy now, or in the worst case, his coaching career would be history. Ask any politician about changing public opinion. Seeing blood, the Husky haters would have parlayed the quiet-day scandal, the firing of Lambright, the fraternity house incident, Neuheisel's losses and the million-dollar salary into his ousting. Would that have been fair? Definitely not, but such is life. 

But sometimes fairness prevails. Rick Neuheisel was fortunate to inherit one of the greatest quarterbacks in Pac-10 history, Marques Tuiasosopo. (Mike Bellotti, the coach at Oregon, would probably call that dumb luck.) Ironically, when Neuheisel was at Colorado, he recruited Tuiasospo as a defensive back. Jim Lambright promised him a quarterback's role at Washington and Tuiasosopo accepted.  After the new coach came on board, Tuiasosopo told him, "Thanks very much coach, but I believe I can play quarterback." "And you know what, he was right," Neuheisel said later on.

Using Marques Tuiasosopo's skills and robustness, Neuheisel was able to maintain ball control and take some pressure off a suspect offensive line--and himself. Without Tui, as he is affectionately called by fans, the Huskies would not have won some of those squeakers last season. The Dawgs posted five come from behind wins in the fourth quarter. Tui made the difference in a league rife with parity. Running the option, the Huskies were able to win the time-of-possession battle in most of the games they won. If you don't have the ball, you can't score. Meanwhile, the defense rests. 

And sometimes a miracle takes place. There was that game against Stanford at Palo Alto last year, the Huskies behind 28-24 with 47 seconds to go, the ball on their own 20. A driving rainstorm and strong winds swept across the field. It looked hopeless, the team in tears, strong safety Curtis Williams taken to a hospital. He couldn't move; he'd struggled to breathe. Coupled with the Oregon loss, a loss to Stanford would derail any hopes for a Rose Bowl. 

Enter the Warrior. Tui completed three straight passes, one to Todd Elstrom, one to Wilbur Hooks and one to Justin Robbins for the touchdown, all of this taking just 30 seconds to accomplish. Tui and Neu buried the Husky haters that day, making them eat crow. The "Drive" was for Curtis Williams, who is still paralyzed today. Miraculously, C-Dub is breathing on his own again, something fans have prayed for.

The "Drive" made the winning streak happen. Under Neueheisel, Washington won 12 straight games before losing to UCLA on October 13, 2001. Mike Bellotti said that Washington's luck ran out on that day. 

But there's even more "luck" to be had. Cody Pickett, Washington's quarterback, is beginning to resemble Marques Tuiasosopo as each game passes. Somehow Neuheisel always finds the right quarterback and a way to win. How about Cordell Stewart, his quarterback at Colorado. In 1994, he threw that Hail Mary pass against Michigan.

Richard Neuheisel was bright enough to see the potential at Washington, and left Colorado to make the best of a golden opportunity. You make your own luck in this world when lady luck (in this case, Barbara Hedges) comes calling. 

He made his own luck by preparing himself for it. He worked six years at his alma mater, UCLA, under his college coach Terry Donahue, and at the same time studied for his law degree (awarded in 1990). He was an assistant coach for one season on Bill McCartney's staff in Boulder. He was named the head coach at Colorado on Nov. 29, 1994. At the age of 37, he took over at Washington in January of 1999 and led the 7-4 Dawgs to the 1999 Culligan Holiday Bowl, becoming the first head coach at Washington to take a team to a bowl in his inaugural season. An overtime loss to UCLA in Los Angeles cost him a Rose Bowl appearance. Last season, his team went 11-1, which includes the win in the Rose Bowl. His overall coaching record is 54-21.


Courtesy of dawgman.com
Since 1999, he's learned to handle the piranhas; he feeds them coaches' clichés, hides his emotions and keeps his guitar in its case. He's forty years old now and much wiser. 

 

Facts about Rick Neuheisel:

Born: February 7, 1961, Madison Wisconsin 

Overall coaching record (23-7-0; 56-21-0), eight years, as of 25 October 2001.

1979: He graduated from McClintock High School in Tempe, Arizona. He was the school's most outstanding athlete his senior year as he lettered in football (quarterback), basketball (guard) and baseball (shortstop, outfield, pitcher). He is a member of McClintock's Hall of Fame.

1980-1983: Quarterback at UCLA. Was a walk-on. Started for UCLA as a senior. Set a 15-year NCAA record for passing, going 25-27 against Washington in 1983. Was MVP of the 1984 Rose Bowl.

1984: Graduated from UCLA, Bachelor's degree in poly sci with a 3.4 grade point average.

1984-1985: He played with the San Antonio Gunslingers of the United States Football League. 

1985: Used an NCAA scholarship award to enroll in the law school at USC. 

1986: Joined Terry Donahue's staff at UCLA as a volunteer coach. Tutored Troy Aikman on the UCLA offense.

1987: Played for San Diego and Tampa Bay in the National Football League. Trivia: Was the last man to run for a 1 point conversion in the NFL. 

1988-1993: Worked as an assistant coach to Terry Donahue at UCLA

1990: Graduated from USC law school, J.D. law degree.

1991: Sworn into the Arizona State Bar Association.

1993: Assistant coach at Colorado; sworn into the Washington D.C. Bar Association.

1994-1998: Colorado head coach

1999-Present: Head coach at Washington

Salary: Neuheisel's contract was renegotiated at $1,212,000 per year, for three more years with an additional two upon mutual agreement. Incentives could push the pact to as much as $1,462,000. A $100,000 buyout remains in place if he leaves before the contract expires. 

He has a base salary of $425,000, a $150,000 annuity, a housing allowance of $200,000, and outside contracts of $385,000 (KOMO, Fox Sports NW, Nike, Husky Fever, Verizon). Other benefits include a leased car ($20,000), Country Club dues ($5,000), a family travel allowance ($25,000) and a courtesy car allowance ($2,000). Incentives are worth $250,000 (graduation rate compensations $100,000 and bowl incentives $150,000).

Table 2. Nueheisel's Salary. (Data taken from the Seattle Times, "Notebook: Neuheisel's salary goes up 35 percent to $1.21 million," Bud Withers, September 4, 2001.)

Base Salary $425,000
Annuity $150,000
Housing allowance $200,000
 KOMO, Fox Sports NW,  Nike, Husky Fever, Verizon. $385,000
Leased car (car coach program) $20,000
Family Travel Allowance $25,000
Country Club Dues $5,000
Courtesy Car Allowance $2,000
Total $1,212,000
Academic performance incentives
Graduation rate of 75% $60,000
Additional compensation, 90% or higher $40,000
Bowl Incentives
2001-2002 Options (maximum $150,000) $150,000
Non BCS bowl $40,000
BCS bowl $100,000
National championship bowl $150,000
Total $1,462,000

 

(For more on the 1992 scandal).

 
For more on Nueheisel's new contract. 

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/sports/134336972_rick04.html

 

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