Is this Rick Neuheisel's last stand?
The embattled Bruins coach enters what might be his final game in his dream job
As he walked to the podium for what could have been his final news conference at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night, an unlikely thing happened to UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel. The room cheered. Softly at first, then a little louder as folks got over the strangeness of it and let their emotions out.
In the corner of the room, the men who will soon decide Neuheisel's fate -- UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero and senior associate athletic director Bob Field -- nodded their heads but kept their hands at their sides.
In the middle of the room, the small press corps that has chronicled Neuheisel's four up-and-down seasons at UCLA sat quietly and wondered a bit how long this show of affection would last.
The man himself seemed touched, and a little embarrassed.
"When you play a game where you used to work, the crowd is a little bigger," Neuheisel said in a raspy voice that was clearly yielding to the cold he hasn't been able to shake for more than a month. "So I apologize for the ovation."
The apology was appropriate, but not needed. It was understood what was going on. This was a full-circle moment for Neuheisel. His Bruins had just defeated Colorado 45-6. The press room was filled with family and friends that knew him now, at the age of 50, and then, when he'd been the fresh-faced, guitar-playing 33-year-old entrusted with leading the Buffaloes.
If ever there was a moment for him to soak in a few friendly cheers, it was this one. It wouldn't be long before the drumbeats calling for his removal would start up again. Most men would take a few seconds to capture this moment and record it in their heads.
Neuheisel moved through it and past it, into whatever comes next for him, without pause. If these are his last days here, he will face them with the same sunny face he's worn relentlessly for the past four years.
"We find ourselves at 6-5, but more importantly we find ourselves with a chance to win the Pac-12 South and there weren't very many people, in this room, that believed that to be possible," Neuheisel said. "You can say all you want about the lack of great teams on this side, or blah blah blah.
"But the bottom line is we're playing for a championship and I'm thrilled to death about it."
His wife, Susan, stood and smiled as her husband reluctantly accepted the applause. She clapped too, but not as loudly as the rest.
She needs to be the one cheering when others aren't. The chorus tonight was loud enough.
"I've never met somebody who genuinely loves this place as much as he does," Susan Neuheisel said. "I know a lot of people think the relentlessly positive thing is a schtick, but it's as genuine as can be.
"He's always loved it here. It's always been his dream. So as long as we get to go and do it, we're going to be grateful and give it everything we've got."
She uses the word "we" often. That part is genuine, too. Which helps you understand a little more how Neuheisel himself has dealt with the lowest moments of this season.
He's joked to me on more than one occasion that a football coach either has "a great wife, or an ex-wife."
Neuheisel and his wife are college sweethearts. And you get the sense that she knows as much about the challenges he's been battling at UCLA as anybody. The dearth of talent he inherited, the turnover among his assistant coaches, the constant, cruel injuries that befell his quarterbacks, and yes, the looming uncertainty about his future. She gets it.
"It's like building a house," she said. "You think you're just going to have to paint one wall before you move in. Then you get in there and do your inspection and you realize: 'If we want to build this right, we've got to take it down to the foundation and build it back up.'
"You can take shortcuts, or you can build it to stand the test of time. And this place means enough to Rick -- whether we get enough time to do it or not -- that he needs to build it the right way. So you don't play kids that aren't ready. You save their years. Because you know that in the end it's the best thing for this program."
Susan Neuheisel was talking broadly, but she easily could've been referring to freshman quarterback Brett Hundley. He is, quite simply, the most highly rated quarterback Neuheisel has ever recruited.
He's also still adjusting to the speed of the college game and would clearly be better served by redshirting this season.
Playing him in a meaningful game is something Neuheisel has considered often this year. It's the kind of move -- if it went well -- that could buy him some time, no matter what his team's final record was.
After the Bruins' embarrassing 48-12 loss to Arizona on Oct. 20, it seemed like the only thing Neuheisel might do to stave off his elimination.
But on the Monday following that ugly, nationally televised loss, he seemed reluctant to make the move.
"I think about Brett all the time. You're always looking for what's that spark? What's that answer?" he said. "My concern is is Brett Hundley ready to play? I do not want to throw him out there to the wolves and have him not ready to know everything that he should know when the lights are on."
The answer surprised me, and others in the room. What if he never gets a chance to coach the best quarterback he recruited here?
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"The question isn't about me," he said, knowing he was essentially committing to this path now. "The question is about Brett. I can't make these decisions based on what's good for my career.
"I have too much respect for the young man and his family and too much respect for the position to put him in there before he's ready."
It was the kind of thing a coach with a lot more room for error might say, not one on as hot of a seat as Neuheisel has been this season.
The cynics out there might wonder whether Neuheisel thinks Hundley will fail if he is put into a game, and recognizes how much worse that would be for him.
I remain agnostic. How much does the purity of his motives really matter? Either way, he has done the right thing by holding Hundley back.
"I'm not trying to be chivalrous here," he said. "I'm just trying to be pragmatic about what's right for young people and what's right for the position.
Shortly after UCLA plays its final game of the season, Guerrero and Neuheisel will gather for a long discussion. By then Guerrero may have already made up his mind to fire the second football coach he has hired as athletic director, keep him on for the last season of his contract, or even extend his contract modestly.
They both grew up as Bruins and hold this place dear. Many moons ago, Guerrero walked on to the baseball team at UCLA and Neuheisel walked on to the football team. This is the place both of them spent the rest of their careers trying to get back to.
Despite his obvious frustration with the football program's inability to reach and then maintain the level of success UCLA once enjoyed under Terry Donahue, Guerrero has never publicly backed off his support for Neuheisel.
"Rick is my coach," Guerrero said after watching UCLA's lopsided loss to Arizona on Oct. 20. "I don't know who is talking about him being relieved early, but it's certainly not me. He's a great Bruin. I want to see him succeed."
You wonder whether wanting it is enough. Whether Guerrero himself has enough power to stick by Neuheisel after the season, no matter how well it ends.
Those questions hang in the air. Neuheisel has not ducked them. If this is the end for him here, he will face it bravely and with a smile.
"I'm full speed ahead," he said. "I'm planning to be here for the next 20 years. I hope like heck I get that opportunity.
"But I'm very aware -- it's been well-ingrained in my mind this year -- that these jobs are fluid. There's lots of factors that go into what course those that make these decisions choose. I haven't let it be a distraction. I just want to do my best.
"I never imagined anything else as my dream job, or of being in a position to help take UCLA to a place where I think it belongs. It's been there before. I think there's still more to achieve. Hopefully I get a chance to do it."
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.