"It must be a slow news day if you're talking to me," Rick Neuheisel said when I called to interview him last week. On the contrary, I told him: Lots of people are wondering what the heck was going on inside the UCLA program the past few months.
"Or what wasn't going on?" he joked.
It's been a rough six months for the Bruins. After improving from 4-8 to 7-6 in Neuheisel's second season, UCLA sank back to 4-8 in 2010. A stunning early-season upset of Texas proved to be a mirage as the 'Horns limped to a 5-7 finish, and the Bruins suffered humiliating beatdowns against Oregon (60-13) and Stanford (35-0).
But the real head-scratching ensued after the season. Neuheisel, the former Bruins Rose Bowl MVP quarterback who rode back to town three years ago, parted ways with offensive coordinator Norm Chow, but not before a weeks-long stalemate over the terms of Chow's departure to Utah. Neuheisel took almost two full months to find a new defensive coordinator. In the interim, he signed a recruiting class that the experts rated only slightly higher than those of Washington State and Indiana. Scout.com ranked Neuheisel's first three UCLA classes in the Top 10 nationally; this year's crop came in 54th.
"We were fired up after [Neuheisel's] recruiting haul from his first three seasons, and encouraged by his second season, which included a bowl victory over a well-coached Temple program. However, we now have serious questions," the editors of the blog Bruins Nation wrote in an e-mail. "The 4-8 season -- lowlighted by conservative and cowardly coaching -- in his third year did not meet our minimum expectations, and was capped off with the program apparently mired in a dysfunctional process of putting together a new staff."
On Feb. 15, 59 days after firing defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough, Neuheisel finally announced he'd hired former Cincinnati (2007-08) and USF ('09)coordinator Joe Tresey as a replacement. The fact that Neuheisel's hire spent last season as the secondary coach for the UFL's Omaha Nighthawks only heightened the sense of desperation surrounding UCLA football these days.
"It was the clearest indication yet that Rick Neuheisel's peers viewed the Bruins as a sinking ship they didn't want to board," wrote San Jose Mercury News columnist Jon Wilner.
Neuheisel insists he encountered "no disinterest at all" on the trail, but rather a whole bunch of bad timing. Before bowl season he had targeted Stanford defensive coordinator Vic Fangio (who worked with Neuheisel previously with the Baltimore Ravens) and San Diego State's Rocky Long (who held the UCLA job in the mid-90s). But then, "The wheels of college football turned," said Neuheisel. Fangio followed Jim Harbaugh to the 49ers, while SDSU promoted Long to head coach following Brady Hoke's departure to Michigan.
In the strangest sequence of the search, Neuheisel appeared to have offered the job to longtime Pete Carroll aide Rocky Seto, who said publicly he'd accepted it -- only to have the offer "rescinded" the next day. Seto, 34, served as USC's defensive coordinator in Carroll's final season but is currently a "defensive quality control coach" with the Seahawks. Most believe UCLA fans' massive backlash to the reported hire (they started an online "Veto Seto" campaign) caused Neuheisel to reverse course. "There were other factors that became available to me while I was waiting for university approval, that made me a little uncomfortable [with hiring Seto]," Neuheisel said.
Thus began a new round of phone calls and interviews, though Neuheisel had first spoken with Tresey early in the process.
"It felt like I was on a telethon," Neuheisel said of the search, which included interviews with a "double digit" number of candidates. "I've never interviewed this many coaches in my life. I made more phone calls than I ever have in getting recommendations. But even though it was long and painstaking, at the end of the day I think we're going to be where we need to be."
That's the part many are having a tough time believing.
Ever the sunny optimist, the former Colorado and Washington coach remains emphatic that despite the Bruins' woeful performance last season, the poor recruiting rankings and the arduous staff makeover, "We have the wherewithal talent-wise -- especially if we can get better quarterback play -- to turn the corner and become the kind of team you'll be talking about nationally."
Here, Neuheisel hits on the most baffling aspect of his tenure to date: The inability to produce an even semi-productive quarterback despite the presence of a renowned QB guru (Chow) and Neuheisel's own QB pedigree (he's coached Troy Aikman and Marques Tuiasosopo, among others). Granted, injuries haven't helped. Two seniors went down before they could even play a game in 2008, forcing the Bruins to go with 11th-hour juco signee Kevin Craft. He threw seven touchdowns and 20 interceptions. Redshirt freshman Kevin Prince took over the next year with high expectations, but injuries have cost him nine starts over the past two years, and he's completed just 53.4 percent of his passes when healthy.
Neuheisel has installed himself as the new quarterbacks coach, but he may again be forced to rely on a youngster. With Prince still recovering from October knee surgery, freshman enrollee Brett Hundley -- the shining star of Neuheisel's otherwise underwhelming recruiting class -- will compete for the starting spot immediately. The most impressive quarterback at January's Under Armour All-American game, Hundley will share snaps with rising junior Richard Brehaut, Prince's largely ineffective replacement last year.
"I think the world of Kevin Prince, he's shown in games he's healthy he can been a very good football player, but I can't ignore the fact he's been unhealthy more than he's been healthy," said Neuheisel. "We're hoping he can come back [in the fall] and be part of the competition, but Richard Brehaut and Brett Hundley will have great chances to get going."
The next question becomes what kind of offense UCLA's quarterbacks will be running this fall. Last year Neuheisel made the risky decision to switch almost exclusively to Nevada's patented Pistol offense in an effort to improve the Bruins' rushing attack. Chow and his staff went to Reno to study and implement it. It achieved its goal: UCLA improved from 97th to 32nd nationally in rushing. But critics were quick to blame the Pistol for the Bruins' nonexistent passing attack.
Neuheisel's new course of action is a hybrid attack. Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson, another former Ravens colleague who spent the past two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, is charged with resuscitating the passing game, but Neuheisel also hired Nevada running backs coach Jim Mastro -- one of the co-creators of the Pistol -- to help bolster that effort.
"I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater; I just want to make sure we're more balanced," said Neuheisel. "Mike Johnson and I are going to put ourselves to the task of building a pass offense, and Jim has the keys to the castle in making that Pistol go."
As for Tresey, he'll be inheriting a defense that slipped from 32nd to 94th nationally last season and must replace its two best players, linebacker Akeem Ayers and safety Rahim Moore. There's reason to believe Tresey was worth the wait. At Cincinnati and USF, Tresey produced aggressive defenses (his 2007 Bearcats squad led the nation in turnovers gained) using a base 4-3. He wound up in Omaha when USF fired head coach Jim Leavitt in 2009 and successor Skip Holtz brought in his own staff.
Neuheisel knows well what it's like to be rescued from coaching purgatory. Following his 2003 dismissal from Washington after the NCAA questioned his participation in a March Madness tournament auction pool, it took five years for him to break back into college coaching. (Neuheisel later received a $4.5 million settlement from the school and the NCAA over their handling of his case.) Even then, Neuheisel wasn't UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero's first choice (Mike Bellotti and Chris Petersen turned down the job). Guerrero ultimately pulled the trigger despite the coach's checkered past and has yet to see a return on his gamble.
"Rick knows there is maybe one shot to straighten this thing out,'' Guerrero told the Los Angeles Times last month. Citing that quote, the Bruins Nation guys wrote: "We are willing to give him 'one shot' for 2011. If Rick doesn't get the job done by the end of next season [which should be somewhere around the range of 8-9 regular season wins and a victory against Southern Cal], UCLA will need to look in another direction."
I asked Neuheisel, ever the recruiter, to make his "pitch" for why anyone should still believe UCLA is on the right track.
"It's just like when you drive by a house under construction and it looks like nothing's happened -- that's because they're spending all their time on the foundation of the home," he said. "Once they start to frame the home, that's when things start to take shape. That's what happened here. We've built a terrific base of guys with the talent to play at this level. We had a coaching staff that had to be rid of some of the dysfunction that was going on both sides of the ball. I think I've got that solved. It's a new era for Pac-12 football, and there's no reason to think UCLA won't start out of the blocks quickly."
Considering the glacial pace of Neuheisel's coaching search, his upcoming make-or-break season can't start quickly enough.