- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Everyone seems to want to put Rick Neuheisel on the hot seat as he embarks on his fourth season as UCLA's football coach.
It's win-or-be-fired time in Westwood, they say, demanding that the Bruins either make a bowl game or send Neuheisel packing.
A 15-22 record through three seasons will do that to a coach. So will a dismal offense during his tenure, one that ranked 111th, 88th and 100th in total offense over the last three seasons.
But the outside pressures to get UCLA's program turned around don't really bother Neuheisel much. It's the pressure coming from inside that has taken a toll. Neuheisel wants to win as badly as any UCLA fan because he is one. He cares as much about the program as any alum because he's one of those, too.
A former quarterback who led UCLA to a Rose Bowl victory in 1984, Neuheisel knows first-hand what UCLA looks like at the top and he is pulling is hair out in frustration trying to get the Bruins back there.
So all the talk from fans and the media about Neuheisel needing to win in order to save his job means little to him. Neuheisel doesn't want to win to save his job; he wants to win because he wants to win.
"I evaluate myself all the time," Neuheisel said. "I've always looked at myself as a guy who is going to do my damndest to get this done. I keep trying to think differently about how to get it better. I'm always thinking that way."
This offseason, the 'thinking different' approach led to a coaching staff overhaul. Out are offensive coordinator Norm Chow and defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough, replaced by former San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Johnson and Joe Tresey, who made a name for himself as a defensive coordinator at Cincinnati and South Florida.
This also happens to be the first season in which Neuheisel has a roster made up entirely of his own recruits, devoid of holdovers from his predecessor, Karl Dorrell. So, in essence, this is the first true Neuheisel team at UCLA, but because Neuheisel is the man in charge of a team that has been mediocre at best over the last three seasons, he will ultimately take the blame if the Bruins don't get it turned around.
"Fair isn't part of this," Neuheisel said. "I'm never worried about fair. As I like to tell football players, fair is where they give a blue ribbon to the pig. That's the fair. This is about doing what has to be done for the sake of UCLA football. That's why if the powers that be determine that there is a better coach for UCLA football, then that's their decision."
"There isn't," he continued. "I'm telling you right now, there isn't. But if that's the decision of the course they want to take, then they can do that."
And to have that looming over his head this season doesn't seem to bother Neuheisel as much as fans and media might think. In fact, Neuheisel kind of likes being backed against the wall. He draws upon his playing career at UCLA for inspiration.
He was a walk-on quarterback who became a starter, then got benched and got another shot. He took advantage and led the Bruins to the 1984 Rose Bowl title.
"That pretty much was my last chance and it turned out pretty good," he said. "And if the powers that be say this is my last chance, well, that's OK. I'll take my last chance. I've had last chances my whole life and I've always done well."
So what has to happen in order for Neuheisel to stick around for another year? The answers to these three questions will certainly have an impact:
Can the Bruins find balance in their offense?
Last season, the Bruins ranked No. 116 in the nation in passing offense. Two seasons ago, they were No. 116 in rushing. The inability to balance those two has enabled opposing defenses to key in and take away UCLA's strength. With 1,100-yard rusher Johnathan Franklin returning at running back, the key this season will be to find a quarterback who can move the ball through the air. The problem is, there is no clear-cut starter at quarterback and Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut may end up splitting time until one emerges.
Can the Bruins' defense stop the run?
With a young and inexperienced defensive front seven last season, UCLA ranked 108th in the nation at stopping the run. The Bruins gave up 205.5 yards a game on the ground and eight of their 12 opponents ran for more than 200 yards. The return of defensive end Datone Jones and middle linebacker Patrick Larimore makes this a much-improved unit, especially considering the numerous players who got extensive experience as freshmen last season and come in a year wiser.
Will the new coaching staff jell with the players and one another?
Johnson and Tresey aren't the only new coaches on staff. Run game coordinator Jim Mastro came in from Nevada to supervise the Pistol offense; Inoke Breckterfield, a former all-Pac-10 player at Oregon State, is in to coach the defensive line; and Angus McClure has taken over special teams. With so many new personalities in place, the risk of conflict looms. But Neuheisel has said one of the reasons for such overhaul was a lack of chemistry among the staff the last two seasons and he thinks he's found the right mix.
Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLA.com