Conversation with Rick Neuheisel
2008 CFN UCLA Preview
The man has
paid his penance, and now he’s exactly where he wants to be.
Rick Neuheisel had
a meteoric rise
coaching stardom with some
great years at
both Colorado and Washington, but he didn’t leave either place on a
high note. Colorado went on probation from the Neuheisel era, and
Washington canned him after he participated in an NCAA tournament
pool. Even though he settled for $4.5 million in a wrongful
termination suit against Washington, he still was considered damaged
After a stint with
the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens as QB coach and offensive coordinator,
Neuheisel is starting anew at the school he quarterbacked to a 1984
Rose Bowl win, and even with all his
baggage, he might be the one coach successful
personable enough, to take on USC and Pete Carroll head to head
This interview was done the day after the infamous “over the wall”
incident. It’s a UCLA tradition for the team to skip out on a
practice each spring, but Neuheisel had wanted to get the practice
How would Rick
Neuheisel the player, back in the day, have handled the “over the
wall” incident as opposed to Rick Neuheisel the coach?
Rick Neuheisel: I now have both perspectives because I was a
player who went over the wall, and I never thought much of it. Now
as the coach, I really felt like we needed the day of practice, but
that comes from where I am in my life and where they are in theirs.
The good news is that there was solidarity. They were together on
it. It was also good news that the coaches were disappointed.
Everyone was on the same page, on both sides.
CFN: Compared to other places you’ve coached, how have the
players made the transition to you?
RN: The transition has been easier for me here because of my
past with UCLA, but it’s never easy for the players. I’ve been here.
I know the lay of the land, I know all the people, it’s remarkable
the number of people who are still here from when I played. I have a
history here, and I think the players can sense that. I’m not a
foreigner. I think that helps when you’re dealing with transition.
Transition is never easy, but I think the growing pains here can be
less than at other places.
CFN: How much
tweaking has to really be done? UCLA was good last year but it
suffered a ridiculous array of injuries. If everyone had been
healthy, Karl Dorrell is probably still the head man.
think that’s probably true, but when you look at a program when you
come in, you have to do your share of evaluation and you decide
where things need to be fixed and where things need to be changed,
even if they’re subtle changes, and decide where the attitudes and
what the kids need to do differently. We’ve been fortunate that so
far the kids are buying into that.
CFN: Not to knock Dorrell, but what needed to be fixed more than
RN: I felt like we needed to increase our awareness in terms of
strength and speed. We needed to go in a new direction. We also
needed to change and improve the offense, and I was able to attract
one of the best in the business in (offensive coordinator) Norm
Chow. Defensively, I think we have a good thing going, and I was
extremely fortunate to be able to keep (defensive coordinator)
CFN: Considering your past and everything that has happened, were
you surprised at all at the unwavering outpouring of support there
was from (former head coach) Terry Donohue and other UCLA types?
RN: I was very humbled by the reaction. It’s bittersweet; I’m a
Karl Dorrell fan. Karl Dorrell and I worked together for a number of
years; he was my first hire at Colorado and then at Washington. It
was exciting to come to UCLA, but I was a little bit leery because I
was replacing my friend. It was neat to see how the UCLA family was
not only embracing me, but also showing a great deal of respect for
CFN: After all the whirlwind around you getting hired and all the
excitement of getting the big gig at your school, what was going
through your mind when you were walking out for your first practice
and you realized that this was actually happening?
RN: It was a thrill. It was one of those moments when you take
stock of where you are and count your blessings. I felt like I was
extremely fortunate to be able to get out there and actually do
this, and I still feel fortunate when I get to go out and run any
practice. But, I was also excited and grateful to get back to
coaching college football. That was the big thing for me.
CFN: What’s the
biggest difference in coaching at the pro level and in college, and
what did you take from your time in the NFL that you can use here?
RN: I learned a great deal; it’s an invaluable experience when
it comes to being able to study football on a daily basis. But I
think what I missed most was dealing with young people, the kids.
The NFL isn’t exactly an over-the-hill gang, but the great athletes
that are there are at a much different point in their lives. There’s
a certain freshness that comes from being on a college campus that I
missed and am really grateful to be back and involved in that.
CFN: Do you think the people in L.A. really get that your players
aren’t pros? It’s a pro town without an NFL team. It’s not like
being in the fishbowl of Auburn, Alabama or Lincoln, Nebraska, but
it’s a different media, a different mindset, and a different fan
base, isn’t it?
RN: I think primarily the college fan who really gets the game
and loves the game understands that these kids have a lot on the
table. They have a lot going on in their lives, and I think they get
it, but that doesn’t mean they lessen their expectations or don’t
get mad when things don’t go right. But that’s part of the reason
why they get so passionate about these games because it’s so
unpredictable. These are kids. There are going to be surprises, and
that’s the fun. Who’s going to be the hero? Where are these
surprises going to come from? It’s a very, very fresh game and a
very exciting game.
CFN: Unlike Rich Rodriguez at Michigan and Bo Pelini at Nebraska,
where expectations are jacked through the roof, but there’s an
understanding that it’s going to take a year or so of rebuilding, is
there any grace period at UCLA? Do you feel more like you have to
win right now than you did at other jobs?
RN: It’s not necessarily that I feel it but that I want it. As I
said to our seniors, rebuilding is nothing but a coach saver. When
you say rebuilding, all you’re doing is trying to buy a coach time …
CFN: Otherwise known as the “five-year plan.”
RN: Right. It’s all just a way to buy as much time as possible.
I feel like we all got recruited to UCLA, let’s figure it all out
and let’s find a way to get it done right now. Why do we want to
wait? Anything else wouldn’t be fair to the guys who are in their
last year here. We’re going to set the same goals we always set
which is to try to win the Pac 10 title and then go from there.
We’ll do the best we can this year and see what happens when the
CFN: Obviously you know the program inside and out, but when you
got the job, what’s the best advice you got about coaching at UCLA?
RN: The best advice I got was from John Wooden. Coach Wooden has
given a lot of advice in his life, and almost all of it very good,
of course. He told me to not worry about the wins and losses. There
will be huge pressure to win and lose, and if that’s all you focus
on, you’ll never get the full satisfaction from the job. The full
satisfaction comes from teaching the proper fundamentals of not only
the game, but of life. And if your kids get that, and if you develop
those kinds of relationships, then the wins and losses will come
because they’ll buy in. And then you’ll achieve what all coaches set
out to achieve which is that great balance between a great winning
percentage and a positive influence on these kids’ lives.
CFN: And if you’re getting that advice from Coach Wooden, part of
it involves the players putting their socks on the right way.
RN: Yeah … it is a religious experience to spend that kind of
time with the coach. It all comes in rhymes, and in poems. It was
truly something special.
CFN: There’s always talent at UCLA … what’s missing?
RN: Consistency. They’ve played great some weeks and then woeful
in others. We have to find a way to play that great football on a
week-in-week-out basis. That doesn’t mean you’re going to blow
everyone out, but it means to be able to play everyone into the
fourth quarter, and then be magic in the fourth quarter and to find
a way to win. That comes from resiliency, that comes from effort,
that comes from mental toughness, and that’s what we’re trying to
CFN: How much better a coach are you now than your were at your
RN: It remains to be seen. I feel like I don’t have to hurry,
which is an interesting feeling. At Colorado and at Washington I
always had this feeling like I was behind and that I had to catch
up. I always felt like there was so much that had to be done.
Not that there isn’t a lot to do here, and it’s not like we’re not
behind and have catching up to do, but I feel like I don’t need to
hurry, and because of that, you take more time to make better
decisions which I hope will pan out and create the successful
environment and the successful program that everyone is looking for.
CFN: USC has set the current standard for consistency and
excellence under Pete Carroll, and everyone dreams of getting to
that point. Considering that’s your arch-rival, is it possible to
get too caught up and too obsessed with getting to such a level
that’s almost unattainable and unrealistic? Is it possible to be too
focused on trying to be USC and not focused enough on being UCLA?
RN: I don’t think you can coach at UCLA without spending an
immense amount of time focusing on USC; it’s part of the job
description. We need to beat the Trojans, or at least compete
successfully with the Trojans; the fans demand it. I don’t think
that’s a negative at all; I think it’s a positive. It makes us look
at all the alternatives on how we should catch up, and like you
mentioned, they set such a high bar, that when you get there, and
it’s not going to be if, but when, then you’re going to be where you
want to be on the national scene.
CFN: Do you like Pete Carroll?
RN: Yeah, I do. I have a great deal of admiration for him and
what he’s been able to do. I do like him.
CFN: Everyone forgets that no one was jumping for joy when he was
hired there, and now he’s a legend. What can you take from what he
did to rebuild the monster and apply it to your situation?
RN: (Neuheisel pauses and measures his words very, very
carefully.) I think you can study it and learn a lot from it.
There’s no question that he has created a competitive atmosphere
over there that makes top recruits come there in droves to
participate. I think we can do the exact same thing here.
CFN: I’m a
superstar recruit. USC and UCLA both have the great weather, the
city, and the hot co-eds. Why should I be a Bruin instead of a
RN: It’s UCLA. UCLA is a special place. That’s not to say USC
isn’t, but when you walk on this campus and you set foot in the John
Wooden Center and go by the Arthur Ashe Student Wellness Center, the
Jackie Robinson baseball stadium, the Ralph Bunche center, you
realize there’s been a group of people who came here as students,
athletes, and coaches, ando came here to do a job, but became so
much more because of the opportunities UCLA afforded them. Young
people can come here and realize that this is a place that can make
them who they want to be; this is where they can really take off.
USC has preached for years that you’re a Trojan for life while you
go to UCLA for four years. I’m setting out to prove that that isn’t
true. We’re going to make a full-fledged assault on that rumor.
CFN: Being a Bruin for life, do you internally feel any extra
pressure because this is your team. This is your
program. Not to say you didn’t feel pressure everywhere else, but
you’re a UCLA fan, not just a coach.
RN: Absolutely, but I don’t look at it as extra or added
pressure. First of all, if you’re in this job, you’re nuts. You
can’t be a head coach and not understand there’s going to be immense
pressure to deal with no matter where you are. I say you’re nuts
because you kind of have to like the pressure and the stress,
otherwise, why be in it if you don’t enjoy it? Extra and added
pressure doesn’t really factor into it. Bring it on and let’s go;
that’s what we’re in this for.
CFN: The pressure has to be lessened a bit when you have Chow and
RN: I feel blessed by having those guys because when we go into
rooms and scheme, we’re never going to be behind. Those two are
going to be better than everyone, and then it comes down to
executing. If we do a great job of recruiting, which we’re going to
do because of what we have to offer at this institution, then
combine the talent with those coaches and we’re going to be special
every Saturday. That’s all you can ask for. I’ve done this now for
eight years, being a head coach, and three of the eight we’ve
finished in the top ten. We can do the same at this place.
CFN: Yeah, Norm Chow’s an offensive god, but you’re an offensive
coach, too. The fate of the world is at stake and you have to win
that one big game; can you really allow someone else to
handle the offense without wanting to meddle?
RN: I’m absolutely going to let Coach Chow do his thing. I just
want to be a resource to him. If I can give him an idea that sparks
up a play-call or sparks up a specific situation, then hopefully I
can help. But he has full veto power, full authority to use his
ideas only. That’s how minds work. He’s a set-up guy; he’s going to
set things up and if I can help and we can work together, great. But
this is his show.
CFN: With all the work needing to be done and all the flurry of
activity when you were first hired, are you able to have fun with
RN: I’m having a blast. I’m having an absolute blast. Yeah it’s
long hours and a lot of work, but c’mon … this is amazing. As my dad
told me, get a job where you don’t have to look at the clock. I
haven’t looked at the clock once since I’ve gotten here.