Neuheisel savors his return

September, 2, 2008
9/02/08
2:15
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

 
 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
 Rick Neuheisel pulled off a stunning upset in his return to college football.

PASADENA, Calif. -- Here's a guess that glib, garrulous, open to a fault Rick Neuheisel will tuck away a special nugget of satisfaction from UCLA's stunning 27-24 overtime victory over No. 18 Tennessee, placing it within himself where the public won't get to see and therefore pick over it like the rest of his coaching career.

Neuheisel knows where he stands with his myriad critics. And that clearly makes leading a seemingly overmatched team to a stunning upset win in his first college game since 2002 all the sweeter.

"It was a thrill -- thrill -- to be back on the sidelines," he said.

He was a golden boy at Colorado, then a hot shot at Washington. A lot of folks believed he was a climber, desperate to grab another, more prestigious rung on the coaching ladder. A lot of folks believed he was willing to take short cuts to get there.

He left behind bitterness in both places. His tumultuous ending at Washington had some speculating that he might not get another opportunity at a major program.

"A lot of people had to stick their necks out to get me this chance," he said. "It could have been an easier path maybe to go in another direction than to take the slings and arrows that go with hiring somebody who's got some blemishes."

What some folks forgot -- or even tried to deny -- is that Neuheisel can coach. He's now 67-30 overall and 17 of those wins came via fourth-quarter comebacks.

Make that 18.

It's not just about X's and O's. It's about getting players to believe, which probably was quite a struggle before the Bruins took the field at the Rose Bowl. Just about everyone in the media -- locally and nationally -- had spent the past few weeks writing them off, particularly a patchwork offensive line and a new starting quarterback, Kevin Craft, who was only running the show because the two seniors in front of him are injured.

To get them to believe in themselves, Neuheisel decided that he needed them first to believe in him.

So he showed them film of his special wins, such as Colorado's 1994 victory over Michigan on a stunning 64-yard touchdown bomb as time expired, when he paced the sidelines moments before hopelessness became magic, telling his players they were going to win.

There was the upset of Miami in 2000 that propelled Washington into the national title hunt and a final No. 3 ranking.

And what about his stellar performance in the 1984 Rose Bowl victory over Illinois as UCLA's quarterback?

He wanted them to know that there were rewards for buying in to his oft-repeated mantra of relentless optimism.

"The one thing I did tell them is that I am lucky," Neuheisel said of his pregame plan. "That I've got a horseshoe tucked somewhere -- that something good is going to happen so you believe it."

That's how a team with a quarterback who throws four (four!) first-half interceptions still wins -- with that same mess of a quarterback leading two long, high-pressure scoring drives in the fourth quarter.

That's how a team doesn't split apart when its strong defense is repeatedly put in bad positions by its floundering offense.

"The unity of the defense believing in [offensive coordinator Norm Chow] and his offense -- instead of it being just us and them -- I really believe that was tested tonight and it will serve us well down the road," Neuheisel said.

Coaches always say "players make plays," but you would be hard-pressed to find a game in which coaching so clearly mattered. And it wasn't that Tennessee was coached so poorly that it was taken advantage of -- it was that UCLA was coached so well that it simply couldn't be outflanked, even by superior personnel.

So call this a debut that even surpassed its hype of the superstar triumvirate of Neuheisel, Chow and defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker.

"Tonight you saw evidence that this is a really fabulous coaching staff," Neuheisel said.

Neuheisel began his postgame session with reporters with, as is his wont, a self-deprecating joke about his hair not doing so well having been showered in Coke.

He talked about being "unbelievably grateful" that he could be so bathed.

But when a reporter asked him about his journey to this point from his dark days in coaching purgatory, he pulled back just a bit and repeated a few phrases he's leaned on while fielding similar questions repeatedly since UCLA decided to take a chance on him.

This was a great win, but one win. He still hasn't approached the football monopoly across town.

He's ready to move on.

"It was a hard five years being away from college football," he concluded.

There, of course, was more. But that part was only for family and friends -- beaming to a person -- whom he embraced outside the locker room door, away from prying eyes.

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