- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Rick Neuheisel spent the last few weeks tirelessly lobbying to keep his job at UCLA, displaying the "relentless optimism" that he has often cited as a foundation for success.
On Monday, less than hour after his termination was announced, a subdued Neuheisel seemed to have a good grasp on why he's not coming back for a fifth year.
"Certainly when you're the UCLA coach you'd like to play better against USC, I know that," Neuheisel said. "We had our chances. When you lose in the fashion that we did, it's a difficult pill to swallow."
You can't go 21-28 in four seasons at UCLA, the lowest win percentage -- .429 -- by any Bruins football coach who was around for at least 20 games. You can't go 0-4 versus USC. And you absolutely can not lose 50-0 to the Trojans, as Neuheisel did on Saturday in a game that was widely viewed as his Rubicon.
The source for Neuheisel's comments was ironic, considering the circumstances. He was appearing on a conference call in advance of the Pac-12 championship game. You surely have heard -- it's been relentlessly mocked everywhere -- that UCLA, despite a 6-6 record and said loss to USC, is playing No. 9 Oregon in the conference's first championship game.
The Bruins are the South Division "champions." And their coach is out after the championship game. Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will be interim head coach starting next week, according to a statement from the school.
So what if the Bruins, 31-point underdogs, win and earn a berth in the Rose Bowl?
"Let's ask that question at the appropriate time," Neuheisel said.
It is, however, the appropriate time to ask why things didn't work out for Neuheisel at his alma mater, where he once went from walk-on QB to Rose Bowl MVP.
It went wrong from the beginning when Neuheisel agreed to form a "dream team" with offensive coordinator Norm Chow and defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker. That was a mismatched troika from the start. Also, it's head coaching 101: Never, ever take a job where they suggest/tell you who will be on your staff.
Walker bolted after a year to become head coach New Mexico State, and the Bruins never again got good production at defensive coordinator. Chow hung around, but that turned out to be a bad thing. He and Neuheisel seemed to get along personally but not as coaches. The switch to a pistol offense was messy, and the prolonged process of cutting ties last winter just months after Chow was given an ill-advised contract extension was an ugly tango.
Recruiting peaked in 2010 -- the nation's 10th-ranked class -- and cratered in 2011.
And, really, Neuheisel never developed traction. Neuheisel upset Tennessee in his first game. The next week, the Bruins lost 59-0 at BYU. A 3-0 start in 2009 was followed by five consecutive losses. A strong 2009 finish was followed by an 0-2 start to 2010. A three-game winning streak after that 0-2 start -- including a win at Texas -- was followed by six losses in seven games. This year, the Bruins had won three of four before getting thumped by USC.
Neuheisel lost by 21, 21, 14 and 59 points to the Trojans.
The next coach can't do that.
What can we say nice about Neuheisel's tenure? Some used to question his character. That no longer is an issue. Neuheisel was by the book at UCLA and always conducted himself with class and graciousness. And that was doubly true of his conduct on a day that clearly knocked him for a loop.
Of his time at UCLA, Neuheisel said, "It won't be a bitter memory at all." As for what went wrong, he said, "I have plenty of time to think that over. I'm just thankful for the opportunity. This has always been a place where I wanted to have a chance to bring it back to being a place where everyone could be proud. Obviously, we have fallen short of that, but there are lots of things I'm proud of that happened during my time here. They don't always make it to the front pages of a newspaper."
According to the Los Angeles Times, Neuheisel's buyout is only $250,000. So he'll need to start thinking about his future fairly quickly, something he hadn't done on Monday.
"This has kind of hit me between the eyes a little bit," he said. "I hadn't thought about that. I'm on one track to do the best I can for this particular team. That'll be the case at least through Friday. I love coaching. I know that. I'll take some time to figure it out."
It's hard to imagine Neuheisel getting another shot atop a AQ-conference program any time soon. He could return to the NFL as an assistant. Or he could go into broadcasting.
What's next for UCLA? Almost immediately, big names were included in reports. ESPNLa.com reported that Boise State's Chris Petersen will be athletic director Dan Guerrero's first target. The LA Times said Guerrero "is expected to make a trip to Boise to meet with Petersen. UCLA is believed to be able to offer a contract worth more than $3 million annually that includes donations from boosters."
We'll see. I'd rate those odds as remote, though getting Petersen would be a monumental coup. The Times also lists Houston coach Kevin Sumlin and former NFL coach Jon Gruden as candidates. Yes, at this early juncture, you roll out the usual suspects.
But there's the immediate present first: Neuheisel's final game, one that most would project as a blowout defeat.
Neuheisel has made a habit of finding ways out of messes throughout his tumultuous career. But he wasn't able to do that UCLA, and it's hard to imagine a happy ending for the Bruins on Friday in Eugene.
1dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
3dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney