Commentary

Rick Neuheisel couldn't make UCLA his

Updated: November 29, 2011, 12:37 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Rick Neuheisel has been the UCLA Bruins' football coach for four seasons, and yet on the day he was fired it feels like we know less about him than ever.

[+] EnlargeNeuheisel
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireRick Neuheisel always believed in a team's ability to rally late. The problem was, that never became UCLA's identity.

His time here will largely be remembered for two statements that sound nothing like him: The ill-conceived August 2008 newspaper ad that pictured him under the headline "The football monopoly in Los Angeles is over" -- before he coached his first game -- and his uncomfortable response when asked if the Bruins had "closed the gap" on USC during his tenure, just days before the Trojans walloped UCLA 50-0.

He ran two different offenses in four years, started eight different quarterbacks and changed all of his assistant coaches at some point.

He was constantly tinkering to make things right, relentlessly adjusting and reworking. But instead of progress, he only seemed to kick up dirt that made it difficult to see where things were going.

His teams lacked identity and discipline. Big wins were followed by terrible losses. He smiled through it all and tried to hold his head high. But in the end it was as clear to him as it was to everyone else: the Rick Neuheisel era at UCLA never got started before it ended.

This was his alma mater, his dream job, and yet in his time as head coach here, he was never able to make it his.

In four years of covering the man, I still can't tell you what he believes in as a football coach, other than to stay positive and always believe you can rally a team in the fourth quarter. The problem is, that identity never became his team's.

Neuheisel never seemed to grasp that. He just kept saying the same things over and over again, hoping it might one day sink in. He's too smart not to have realized it wasn't working. But he was too stubborn, or perhaps too arrogant, to change course.

It's a funny thing, that line between brilliance and arrogance. The same belief that makes you great one day can make you blind the next.

Neuheisel has always been the smartest guy in the room, and yes, the slickest too. He could have been the kid who would roll out of bed 10 minutes before class, slide through the door a couple of minutes late and still get a better grade on the midterm than you.

A couple of years ago, I spent a few hours with him during a key recruiting weekend. Pete Carroll had just left USC. Neuheisel had the Bruins in a bowl game in his second season. Everything was looking up in Westwood and shaky across town, where the heavy hammer of NCAA sanctions was about to fall.

Neuheisel was 10 minutes late to meet me at halftime of a UCLA basketball game. He showed up walking briskly, but not hurriedly. We walked to his office and talked for nearly an hour, even though he was scheduled to address the crowd after the game.

At one point, I brought it up. Neuheisel nodded and gave me another good, thoughtful answer before we got up to leave. He had time. In a few minutes I'd learn why.

We walked briskly back over to Pauley Pavilion and entered through the service entrance. The employees inside all knew him. Neuheisel gave them a smile and a wave.

"I learned all the best ways to get around this place when I was a student," he said with a wry smile. "This place hasn't changed at all."

It was a great shortcut to avoid the crowd. One that only a guy as smart and charming as Neuheisel could've figured out, and then pulled off.

It told me something about the man, who he was and who he saw himself to be. In Neuheisel's world, there was always time because he was always going to be smart enough to figure it out.

Even when things weren't the way he wanted, he believed he could make them work. Neuheisel never really got to choose the staff he envisioned at UCLA. DeWayne Walker, who brought institutional knowledge as defensive coordinator, and Norm Chow, who brought buzz on offense, were accomplished coaches. While Neuheisel saw the obvious benefits of working with them, there is a difference between that and bringing in your own team.

This year, after firing Chow and defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough, Neuheisel knew he wanted to hire Mike Johnson as offensive coordinator and Randy Shannon as defensive coordinator. Johnson said yes, but he wasn't able to bring in Shannon -- or Rocky Seto after that -- and finally settled on Joe Tresey, in what turned out to be an abject failure on the field.

Still, Neuheisel remained positive. His demeanor never changed even as the climate around the program grew sad and toxic this season.

His players played hard for him some nights, but were too inconsistent in their effort to make any traction. They lacked focus and urgency.

It felt like they were searching for something, a direction, a vision -- something more than just relentless positivity and belief from their head coach.

Neuheisel worked hard at this job the last four years. But maybe he made it too complicated. Instead of trying to outsmart everyone and everything, he should have just coached.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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