UCLA, Neuheisel can't afford to miss Texas-sized opportunity
He didn't grab the microphone.
If you want a gauge on how things are going for Rick Neuheisel and UCLA, start there. Through the years, the perpetually sunny coach has made a habit of taking a few moments to address the crowd after home games. It started with his very first game, an overtime win over Tennessee ("I was elated and euphoric," he said). Someone asked the new coach to speak; Neuheisel stood on the sidelines and talked a while. He also sang the fight song and just "had fun." It continued the next week, after a difficult loss to Fresno State ("I didn't want to look like somebody who was unwilling to talk because it was not a happy day," he said). Ever since, win or (more often) lose, Neuheisel has taken the opportunity to deliver a message.
"Never have I been one to shy away from a microphone," Neuheisel said.
Until last week. When Neuheisel headed immediately to the locker room after a 27-17 win over San Jose State, it was seen as a significant departure, considering the Bruins' lackluster performance, and taken as an indication of the increasing heat he's feeling.
Nope, said Neuheisel. It was an offseason decision, an attempt to quench something that had become a distraction. Which only means yeah, it certainly had something to do with the program's changing climate. Everyone understands this is a critical season. When the coach freely admits it, there's no debate; if the Bruins don't win, Neuheisel won't be the coach at his alma mater anymore.
Which brings us to this important juncture. There's almost zero buzz about what should be serious intersectional coolness. On Saturday, UCLA hosts Texas, the kind of nonconference matchup we all love. True blue and gold. Burnt orange. The Rose Bowl.
"The essence," Neuheisel said, "of college football."
And yet nationally the game is an afterthought. But while we're tuned to Oklahoma vs. Florida State, or Tennessee vs. Florida, or Ohio State vs. Miami, or even Auburn vs. Clemson, there'll be important drama playing out in Pasadena.
We should embrace this game for the uniforms -- strangely standard; in a departure from the new normal, we immediately know which teams are playing, but that's a topic for another day -- and for the venue. But also, for the drama.
"Both of us," Neuheisel said, "are trying to churn water."
The Longhorns are unbeaten, but unimpressive. They've got quarterback issues -- unless they just solved them by replacing Garrett Gilbert with Case McCoy (Colt's little brother) or David Ash, or a combination of the two. They're still trying to prove last year's 5-7 aberration won't become a trend. And it's worth recalling that Texas' tumble began last season when the Bruins traveled to Austin and delivered a surprising whipping, 34-12. The Longhorns haven't forgotten.
"Embarrassing," Texas safety Blake Gideon said.
Neuheisel would love to have Mack Brown's problems. Texas might be down, but it's hard to fathom it will last long. Brown replaced his offensive and defensive coordinators after last season, and now he's replaced the quarterback. The Longhorns' roster is filled with talent, and the expectation is they'll be contending for conference and national championships again, and really soon.
It's harder to predict Neuheisel will turn things around. He replaced both coordinators, too, during the offseason. Two weeks into the season is too early to expect a finished product, but in the fourth season of his tenure at UCLA, the Bruins need a win in the worst way. No, check that. Let's rephrase, because there's a general sense the Bruins just won in the worst way. Only 42,000 showed up last week at the Rose Bowl (capacity: 91,000). The Bruins themselves didn't show up until late, when they pulled away from a 17-all tie.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Neuheisel said afterward, and he insists he won't judge victories by "sexiness." Everyone else will, though. There's no ignoring San Jose State's 11-game losing streak against opponents from AQ leagues. Or that the Spartans have now lost 24 of their last 27 games. And that a week earlier, the score was Stanford 57, San Jose State 3, but with a backup quarterback the Spartans somehow had UCLA all tied up going into the fourth quarter.
Neuheisel admitted this much: "I think it was a missed opportunity," he said, "to get all the people who are still questioning us to relax."
Instead, UCLA is 1-1, but the critics are revved up, and it's still baffling that it has come to this. Neuheisel arrived at his alma mater with boundless optimism and swagger. In retrospect, it was an especially opportune time; crosstown rival USC's dominance was about to end. But Neuheisel's 16-23 record at UCLA includes one bowl game bracketed by two losing seasons. During a practice last week, reporters heard him yell at the Bruins -- "I can't be the only one who cares!" -- and then came the underwhelming performance against San Jose State.
If Texas' quarterback situation is uncertain, one of the few constants during Neuheisel's tenure has been quarterback quandaries. This week, the question is whether he'll play Kevin Prince or Richard Brehaut. The answer isn't forthcoming.
"I've got a couple of ideas," he said, "But I'm not sharing it because I don't think I need to. ... We'll have 'em both ready. I'm not going so far as to say I guarantee they'll both play. We have some figuring out to do."
Neuheisel has also taken questions about why he didn't address the fans after the San Jose State game. It's another indication of how he can't seem to win for losing. When the Bruins win, the postgame talks are hokey fun. Too often, they've been painful scenes, the coach imploring fans to stick with the team. And as the atmosphere around the program soured, the habit became a point of contention. Critics said he was making excuses and, as Neuheisel put it, "pleading for my job."
"It was just meant to be about me embracing those people who went to the same school I did and (saying), 'Hey, we're gonna get better, hang in there,'" Neuheisel said. "It was not meant to be a publicity stunt in any way, shape or form."
Still, the guy remains irrepressible. His public persona is relentlessly upbeat. If the stadium was more than half-empty last week, he still sees the bowl as half-full. Beat Texas, and then go to Corvallis, Ore., and beat suddenly sad-sack Oregon State, and the Bruins would be 3-1, with more than a flicker of renewed life.
"I think we're closer," Neuheisel said. "There's more talent on the field. We're like Texas in a couple of ways. We feel like we've got a top program, but we're also going through a transition. ... Do I think our program is where it needs to be yet? No.
"Do I think we're making strides toward it? Absolutely."
It's a pretty good pep talk, the kind of thing you could hear him preaching to a jubilant crowd after a big win. While he doesn't plan to resume the practice, he's not ruling it out.
"If the fans would like me to come back and do it, I'll do it," he said.
Either way, Neuheisel knows he can't afford to miss many more opportunities.