Bordow: A new Neuheisel is back coaching college football - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Bordow: A new Neuheisel is back coaching college football

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Posted: Tuesday, November 25, 2008 8:02 pm | Updated: 9:16 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Rick Neuheisel has done a few things in his life he'd like to take back. There were the 51 recruiting violations at the University of Colorado. The NCAA tournament betting pool at the University of Washington. And that 1979 Tempe McClintock High School graduation photo.

Read Scott Bordow's blog

"I can't believe I had puka shells on," Neuheisel said. "What a fashion faux paus."

Thankfully, Neuheisel has ditched the accessories - and the attitude. The coach who yelled, "Scoreboard, baby!" after Colorado beat Oregon in the 1998 Aloha Bowl has grown up and slowed down. These days, he's less consumed by his image than rebuilding a UCLA football program that has lost its way, not having played in a New Year's Day bowl game since 1998.

"I was given this opportunity at a very young age," said Neuheisel, who will lead his alma mater against Arizona State on Friday at Sun Devil Stadium. "Just like a new car, I was out to drive it fast. Now, I want to make sure I see everything on the way and enjoy it."

Perhaps it was inevitable that Neuheisel would crash and burn after getting the Colorado job at age 33. He had been on the fast track ever since his brief NFL career ended in 1987. He was certain he could overcome any challenge with the force of his personality or the brightness of his smile.

And if he had to tweak a few NCAA rules along the way - like the time he sat in his car outside a recruit's home, flashing his lights - well, better to sin than to lose.

Eventually, that kind of arrogance - even if driven by a deeper insecurity -always gets smacked in the face.

But after being fired by Washington in 2003 - he later won a $4.5 million lawsuit against the NCAA and the school - and then spending three seasons as an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens, Neuheisel has returned to the college game older and wiser.

He hasn't completely changed. He's still a rah-rah coach. He's still brash and cocky. Shortly after accepting the UCLA job, he talked about "taking back the city," from USC, which is sort of like the local talk-show host on the public access channel challenging Oprah.

But no longer does Neuheisel, 48, worry about proving his worth to others - or himself. He took Colorado to bowl games. He led Washington to a 2001 Rose Bowl triumph over Purdue. He received a master's degree in X's and O's with the Ravens.

He knows he can coach, so he doesn't have to go running around convincing everyone else of that. The days of him jumping on stage and singing with Jimmy Buffett, as he did when he was Colorado's coach, are long gone.

"From a managerial standpoint, I think I'm better because I've matured," he said. "I've gone through a lot, and you gain experience from those decisions. From a media side of things, I probably realize I don't have to be in the spotlight every day. It's OK to pass the light on to others who, frankly, deserve it."

Neuheisel's father, Dick, has seen the change in his son.

"He won't take the same risks anymore," said Dick, a Tempe lawyer. "It's like he says, he won't even go near a swimming pool."

Neuheisel's return to UCLA - he started his career as a walk-on and ended it as the starting quarterback on the 1983 Rose Bowl team - hasn't gone as smoothly as he would have liked.

UCLA is 4-6 and needs to beat ASU and USC to become eligible for a bowl game. He lost his top two quarterbacks to injuries on the same day. His offensive line has been decimated.

But you won't hear Neuheisel complain. It's not his nature. Had he been captain of the Titanic, he would have raved about the food.

"It's been a terrific year for me, personally," he said. "I know we've struggled on the field, but to be back in college football and at my alma mater is a huge thrill for me. I've enjoyed all ofit. ...

"I realized (when I took the job) there may be some trials and tribulations, but I've never really stopped to worry about that. I believe our future can be very bright."

Bright enough to "take back the city?" Yeah, Neuheisel still believes that.

"I don't think it's as difficult as people believe," said Neuheisel, pointing out that since 1979, the series between the two schools is 14-14-1. "I think it's about effort, rolling up the sleeves and getting busy in the recruiting world. At the end of the day, if you have quality talent, you can have equal results."

The Bruins are a long way off from stealing recruits - and wins - from USC. But don't count Neuheisel out. He's assembled a top-flight coaching staff - hiring former USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow was a shot across Pete Carroll's bow - and his upbeat, high-energy personality works well in recruits' living rooms.

"The way he recruits and how hard he works, in my opinion, they have a chance to get that program to the top," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said.

And if that does happen, and Neuheisel has learned from his mistakes, you know what the best part will be?

He won't have to take back a thing.

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