Preview 2008 - Q&A with Rick Neuheisel
UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel
UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel
Posted Jun 13, 2008

The CFN Conversation with UCLA Head Coach Rick Neuheisel

Preview 2008

Conversation with Rick Neuheisel

- 2008 CFN UCLA Preview

Interviewed by
Pete Fiutak

The man has paid his penance, and now he’s exactly where he wants to be.

Rick Neuheisel had a meteoric rise to 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 goods.

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 enough, and personable enough, to take on USC and Pete Carroll head to head

(Note: 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 in.)

CFN: 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?

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.

I 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 anything else?

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) DeWayne Walker.

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?

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 Karl.

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?

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?

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?

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?

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.”

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 dust clears.

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?

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.

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?

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 achieve.

CFN: How much better a coach are you now than your were at your previous jobs?

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?

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?

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?

(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 Trojan?

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.

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 Walker.

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?

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 this yet?

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.