Commentary

Neuheisel, Bruins fight 'til the end

The overmatched Bruins honored their exiting coach by never giving up against Oregon

Updated: December 3, 2011, 2:45 AM ET
By Peter Yoon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

EUGENE, Ore.-- One last time, for Rick Neuheisel.

The coach who never gave up, who never stopped believing, watched as his team reciprocated that attitude one last time for their coach who is on his way out.

UCLA had no chance to win the Pac-12 championship game at Oregon by the time their last drive started, but the score mattered little. What mattered was that the only college coach most of the players had ever known was down to his last few minutes at the school he loves so dearly.

[+] EnlargeRick Neuheisel
Kirby Lee/US PresswireRick Neuheisel walks off the field for the final time as UCLA coach after the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon. The Ducks defeated UCLA 49-31.

The coach with UCLA blue and gold running through his veins, the former Bruins quarterback who poured his heart and soul into the project of reviving UCLA football, stood on the UCLA sideline with a headset for the last time.

Everyone knew he had failed. Athletic director Dan Guerrero fired Neuheisel Monday because the Bruins had not turned the proverbial corner.

But they could at least make him feel like a winner for just one moment. His players looked into their coach's eyes -- the same eyes that teared up two days ago when the players carried him off the practice field -- then looked into one another's eyes and drove 94 yards against one of the best teams in the nation and in one of the most difficult road environments in the nation.

A spectacular one-handed grab by Nelson Rosario ended the drive with a touchdown that made the final score 49-31, but the touchdown was much more than a score-changer. It served as a tribute to a man who gave his best even though ultimately it wasn't good enough.

"We wanted it more than anything," quarterback Kevin Prince said. "It would be special to score one last time."

Neuheisel has always believed in fairy-tale endings because he had one as a player. He went from walk-on to Rose Bowl hero during his UCLA career, one of the driving factors in his relentlessly positive attitude.

It hit him before the game, he said, looking around the stadium at all the pomp associated with the game. Several big banners hung from the stadium reading "Pac 12 Championship, Bruins-Ducks." He tossed a football with his sons, Jack and Joe, as the players warmed up.

"It's one of those things where I didn't want it to end," Neuheisel said. "But it did end and we'll move on."

His players didn't seem to want it to end, either. When Neuheisel arrived at UCLA, the program was heading downhill. He never quite got it going back up, but he at least slowed the downward momentum.

"He gave the program some hope," said Rosario, a senior. "He never gave up on us at all. He always instilled in us to never quit. We're going to miss the guy. He was a tremendous leader, a great coach and it's unfortunate he has to leave."

But leave he has to do, even though he's left his mark on a program that seems to have the ingredients to make a turnaround. The Bruins came to Oregon as 32-point underdogs and did not embarrass themselves as they battled to the bitter end. Oregon has beaten better teams by more.

Which leaves some wondering what might have been.

"He loved this program," cornerback Andrew Abbott said. "He didn't have any bad intentions. He didn't have any bad thoughts. It just wasn't his time right now, I guess. He's a Bruin. You can tell where his heart is at and you never doubt where it's at and where his mind is at. We're sad to see him go."

The scene as Neuheisel left the field for the last time was the stuff of dreams. Confetti floated from the sky with fireworks bursting overhead. Players and family members hugged the coach and the sold-out crowd cheered wildly after a big-stakes game in a national television environment.

Unfortunately, the celebration was for Oregon, a subtle reminder that Neuheisel was on his way out because the Bruins simply didn't win enough on his watch. He finishes his Bruins career with a 21-29 record.

"You're just not sure if you're going to get to do this again," Neuheisel said. "Our business is one that it's hard to predict that stuff. So walking off the field knowing that I don't know when I'm doing this again is an emotional thing."

He tired to soak in the moment. After weaving through the crowd of people gathered on the field and past the stage the conference had set up in the end zone to crown the team that just handed Neuheisel his final loss as UCLA coach, he stopped and paused to acknowledge the small group of cheering UCLA fans with a tip of his cap.

And with that, he disappeared into the locker room.

One last time.

Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLA.com.

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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