A football cocked behind his right ear and his eyes trained
downfield, Rick Neuheisel surveyed the landscape before him.
Coolly, he motioned with his left arm for his primary receiver
to break off a route and turn upfield. At the last possible
instant, Neuheisel flicked a tight spiral...which his
three-year-old son, Jerry, bobbled and dropped as he disappeared
from view and into the training-table food line at the
University of Colorado.
"Gotta catch that ball," Neuheisel says, evenly and
mechanically. Jerry reemerges, shrugs and tears off across the
room with the undersized ball tucked under his right arm and a
Dallas Cowboy helmet floating freely on his tiny towhead. There
is damage to be done, there are kneecaps to be rammed. Smiling
deviously, his father returns to a conversation in mid-thought.
Something about Florida coach Steve Spurrier and learning to be
head coach while calling all the plays. Or maybe it was about
spring weather in Colorado. Anyway, no pause.
Rare is the person who can seem to be at play when he is at work
(Mister Rogers comes to mind and maybe Tom Hanks, but it's a
short list). Football coaches generally operate on the opposite
principle: games as global war. Neuheisel is the rookie coach at
Colorado, yet his approach will more resemble Pooh Bear's than
Bear Bryant's. "I'm taking the attitude that this needs to be
fun," Neuheisel says. "Life is too short not to have fun."
This is his attitude: concentration without consumption. It
sounds like a sneaker commercial, but get used to it. It is part
personality and part necessity, because Neuheisel, 34, is not
only the second-youngest head coach in Division I-A (the
youngest, by all of four days, is Ron Cooper of Louisville) but
also shoulders the weight of Colorado's newly won place among
college football's elite, earned in the latter half of coach
Bill McCartney's 13-year tenure in Boulder. The Buffaloes went
10-1 in the 1994 season (they would later crush Notre Dame in
the Fiesta Bowl and finish ranked No. 3), and McCartney seemed
to have the program on the sort of cruise-control course that
only a few, privileged schools can drive. Then, immediately
after Colorado's regular-season-ending win over Iowa State,
McCartney quit, saying he wanted to spend more time with his
August 4, 1995
It took just nine days for a search committee chaired by
athletic director Bill Marolt to select Neuheisel, the
quarterbacks coach, over three other Colorado assistants:
offensive coordinator Elliot Uzelac, defensive coordinator Mike
Hankwitz and assistant head coach Bob Simmons. The choice was
tinged with surprise and controversy. Neuheisel was the least
experienced of the four. Moreover, Simmons is black, which
prompted the Rainbow Coalition to protest the hiring. (Simmons
was later hired as head coach at Oklahoma State.)
Months after the hiring, though, Marolt remained blithely secure
in his decision. His reasoning was based on one factor: vision.
"I didn't feel, and I still don't feel, that you can maintain
programs," says Marolt. "You heard people saying back then that
we just need somebody to maintain our level of excellence. But
you can't ever stand still. You're always going forward or
backward. When you're looking down the road 10 years, you really
need to change your thinking. If we hire this coach or that
coach, are we seeking short-term gains instead of looking at the
long haul? We needed somebody who could look down the road and
make it better."
Translation: There was a sense that Simmons, Uzelac and Hankwitz
were all qualified. But in Neuheisel, it was possible--not
certain, but possible--that Colorado could seize something
special. More practically, if Colorado didn't hire Neuheisel,
wouldn't somebody? Michigan State had inquired. Others would
follow, and Neuheisel probably wouldn't wait. "That was a real
possibility," says Marolt.
Neuheisel recalls vividly the day he was hired, and he retells
the story with great fervor. This is another of his traits:
framing a tale with energy, detail and flourish, as if sitting
around a campfire or leaning on the bar in some musty pub. As he
talks, it isn't hard to imagine how effective he could be in a
pregame speech or a recruiting visit.
The date was Nov. 28. Neuheisel was recruiting in northern
California. He picks up the story: "I'm at Elk Grove High School
in Elk Grove, California, home of the Thundering Herd. The coach
is Coach Lombardi, of all things. I was told to call Bill
Marolt's office at a certain time, and that's all I'm thinking
about. But the coach, he wants to talk some ball, and I can't
just stiff him. Eventually I call Bill and I have to leave a
message. I leave Coach Lombardi's number. A few minutes later
his phone rings, and I can feel all this nervous energy coming
over me. The coach tells me, 'Go ahead, answer it.' By this time
he knows what I'm waiting for. I pick up the phone and somebody
says, 'Uh, Coach Lombardi, there's a truant out here, what do
you want us to do?' Anyway, a few minutes later Bill Marolt
calls and says, 'You're the 21st head football coach at the
University of Colorado.' I hung up, and Coach Lombardi pointed
to the phone and said, 'Call your wife.'"
Neuheisel beams at this tale, more because it's a good story
than because it's about his getting the job of a lifetime.
Yet there is nothing ordinary about this road that Colorado has
chosen. Neuheisel is glib, hip and bright. He is young enough to
connect with recruits and smart enough to impress academicians
with a drop-dead interview. All this, however, is window
dressing for the position of head football coach, a position
Neuheisel has never before held at any level. Colorado's
decision may be prescient. It may also be foolish. Clearly, it
is an experiment.
Two stories, one of self-deprecation, the other of
self-confidence. A hybrid of the two is the essence of the man
Colorado has chosen to run its football program.
Story number 1 (UCLA, fall 1979): Neuheisel has walked on at
UCLA, a 6'1", 180-pound quarterback from Tempe, Ariz. He is so
deep on the quarterback depth chart that he needs a periscope to
see second string. But he wants to play, so he volunteers for
special teams duty. In the Bruins' season-ending 49-14 loss to
USC, Neuheisel is assigned to the kickoff-return team and told
to block the fourth defender in from the sideline. The number 4
defender is future NFL linebacker Larry McGrew, who buries
Neuheisel early and repeatedly. His manhood challenged,
Neuheisel vows revenge. "I go running out onto the field in the
third quarter and I'm thinking, 'I'm gonna lay a hit on somebody
this time.' So I start counting again, 'One-two-three-four...
damn.' McGrew again." Neuheisel is removed from the field with
both his face mask and his faculties knocked loose.
Story number 2 (UCLA, fall 1983): He is now a fifth-year senior
who has finally become the starter, only to lose the job to
sophomore Steve Bono, then get it back when Bono injures his
shoulder against Stanford. Shortly thereafter, with UCLA in the
middle of a five-game winning streak, offensive coordinator
Homer Smith asks Neuheisel if he thinks he can complete 80% of
his passes in a seven-on-seven practice passing drill. "Eighty
percent if you call the plays," Neuheisel says to Smith. "Ninety
percent if I call them."
Football coaches are often either former stars who understand
greatness or former mediocrities who studied the intellectual
nuances of the game. Neuheisel is both. When that senior season
ended at UCLA, the Bruins had beaten Illinois 45-9 in the Rose
Bowl, and Neuheisel was the offensive MVP. But at one time he
had also been buried on the roster, without hope or a
scholarship. "I'm remembered as one of the great quarterbacks
ever to play at UCLA, when in fact I was truly average and
happened to be part of this one magical season," he says. In
this same vein, he sold himself to Colorado, and this is also
how he sells himself to his team.
"There isn't a guy on this team whose situation I haven't been
in," says Neu-heisel. "I've been fifth string and starter and
everything in between. I've been benched, I've been a hero."
Also, he was hungry far beyond his years. His career is a model
of quiet, studied aggression. He earned a law degree from USC
while working as a volunteer assistant coach at UCLA. (And he
briefly joined his father's law firm, Neuheisel and
Neuheisel. "I'm Neuheisel," he says.) He also played two years
in the USFL and then returned as a coach to UCLA, where he
tutored Troy Aikman into becoming the first pick of the 1989 NFL
draft. But in early '94, when Neuheisel was only 32 years old,
Homer Smith left UCLA to become offensive coordinator at
Alabama. UCLA coach Terry Donahue didn't hire Neuheisel to
replace him, and Neuheisel was bitter. "I wasn't happy at all,
but it wasn't Terry's job to make me happy," he says.
Smith saw in Neuheisel a finished product but wasn't surprised
that he didn't get the UCLA job. "Rick was certainly ready to be
a coordinator, eminently ready," says Smith. "But what Terry
probably saw was a young guy who came in as a player. It's the
oldest situation in the books. Sometimes it's easier to just
McCartney asked him to come to Colorado, with the condition that
Neuheisel agree to stay at least three years, long enough to
tutor both senior Kordell Stewart and sophomore Koy Detmer
through their careers. Neuheisel agreed, and became a featured
media player in the Buffaloes' season. Print media glommed on to
Neuheisel as the Svengali behind Stewart's sudden development
into a second-round draft choice. Television cameras easily
found his blond head and young, expressive face.
To the cynics he seemed too perfect--a photo opportunity and a
ready quote. But no one could deny that his work on the field
was impeccable. Stewart was transformed in one season from a
fragile athlete who seemed more at ease tucking and running than
throwing, into a solid pocket passer with the added threat of
breaking containment. And for this, Stewart credits Neuheisel.
"If I'd worked with him for four years," says Stewart, "it would
have been lights out, big-time. I would have been up there with
[the No. 1 pick] Ki-Jana Carter."
None of this comes as a surprise to those who have worked with
Neuheisel. Detmer, who takes over this fall as the starter, has
sat through dozens of quarterback meetings with Neuheisel
presiding. "He's fun, he's personable and he's played the game
not too long ago," says Detmer. Says Smith: "Rick has this
incredible knack of making the practice field feel like a game.
He's had a very advanced football mind for a long time."
But Neuheisel is something more, something vaguely cockeyed
among the fraternity of coaches. Consider: Last Oct. 27, two
days before Colorado played at Nebraska in the Buffaloes' most
important game of the year, Neuheisel was invited to speak at
the weekly luncheon hosted by the Buffalo Belles, a female
booster group that numbers more than 300. Customarily a coach
attends their gathering with a player grudgingly in tow and
dispenses some dry X's and O's and a bad joke or two, and exits.
Not Neuheisel. Music is his avocation, so he arrived with a
guitar and sang for the Belles an adaptation of a Jimmy Buffett
song whose title is inappropriate (for the Belles and for SI),
but which encourages drunken debauchery. Neuheisel's version,
reported by the Rocky Mountain News, went like this:
I really do appreciate the fact that you've invited me here
I also love the way you ladies all stand up and cheer
But this week's a little different, it requires a different
Why don't we all kick butt and take names.
The folks up in Nebraska don't think this is a big game
They believe they will win just upon their name
But they don't know the Buffs Belles are not that tame, so...
Why don't we all kick butt and take names
Michigan, Texas and now Nebraska, too, will all remember our
They say Colorado's no rival, well let's see what they say
We all kick butt and take names.
By the finish, the Belles were singing along, duly charmed. "The
consummate entertainer," said Belle member "Fritz" Satterly. "So
witty, so glib, so cute." (Nebraska wasn't so cute two days
later, starching Colorado 24-7. So blame Buffett.)
This is the extreme example. Neuheisel learned much of his
motivational technique from Smith, a freethinking offensive guru
who used to keep a dish of mini-chocolate bars in his office. If
a player caught Smith in a mistake, he got a piece of candy.
"Four out of five dentists do not recommend this teaching
method," says Neuheisel. Smith says, "Rick took a lot of candy
off me." Smith once arranged for a squadron of four jets to fly
in formation over a UCLA practice, simply as a visual image of
what an option play should look like fanned out to the sideline.
From this approach Neuheisel has drawn up his own coaching
philosophy. "This is what I've always wanted to do. I want to do
it full speed, all out and let everything fall where it falls.
And I want it to be fun."
And to everything that Neuheisel does there is a perva- sive
sense of joy. He possesses a spark, a positive attitude wrapped
in boyish charm. The grand question that looms over Colorado's
hiring of Neuheisel is whether he is too young and too immature
to take over such a high-profile program and keep it lodged near
the top of the Top 25. Colorado junior linebacker Matt Russell,
recalling the first time he met Neuheisel, says, "I thought for
sure he was a recruit." But Russell was also one of a handful of
players who cornered Marolt just minutes after McCartney's
resignation and begged Marolt to stay inside the Colorado
program in his search for a new coach. They didn't specifically
ask for Neuheisel to be hired, but they were willing to accept
him. "Even the guys on defense who had never played for Rick had
heard about him from the offense," says Russell. "I knew they
liked him an awful lot."
The question arises: Is affection a necessary quality for a
coach to inspire, or is it a superfluous one? Part of
Neuheisel's job is severing the loose friendships he established
in the role of "young assistant" and tightening the long leash
he gave players. When a Michigan State booster contacted
Neuheisel last October before McCartney's resignation, Neuheisel
thought the resulting media attention was "fun." Will he find
jousting with the media so pleasant when the subject is a loss
to Oklahoma or Nebraska?
So far Neuheisel has let his spirit move him and hasn't suffered
too much from the consequences. To wit:
--In the spring of 1983, Neuheisel at last earns the starting
quarterback job at UCLA. But before fall camp begins, he learns
that Donahue might prefer to start sophomore Steve Bono.
Incensed, Neuheisel writes Donahue a scathing letter, offering
to quit. Donahue never responds. At season's end, Neuheisel
learns that Donahue's secretary read the letter and kept it in
her drawer, never delivering it to Donahue. "Pure good luck,"
--In the summer of 1985, Neuheisel is invited to audition for
the Green Bay Packers. He flies from Los Angeles to Green Bay
and throws a total of three passes--one of which dislocates a
Packer receiver's finger--before offensive coordinator Bob
Schnelker terminates the workout. Neuheisel is thanked for his
time and told to buy dinner for himself, on the Packers, before
leaving town. "I'm infuriated at this point," says Neuheisel. "I
only threw three balls. I ate something and the guy brought me
the check. It was, like, 19 bucks. There's about five couples in
the room. I point to one of them and say, 'I'd like to buy their
dinner. And their dinner...and their dinner.' The bill came to
$300, and I left a $50 tip."
Neuheisel derives great pleasure from describing the hot
September night in Athens, Ga., when the Georgia mascot, UGA IV,
vomited on his shoes during the national anthem. Or how he
sneaked out of the team hotel with friends before a game at
Stanford that same magical autumn, found himself hungover for
the game and was inserted for the injured Bono. He had one
warmup throw, then led the Bruins to a 39-21 victory, their
first that season.
All of which can give the impression that Neuheisel is some sort
of a highbrow version of John Jenkins, the offensive mad
scientist who briefly built Houston into a powerhouse behind
David Klingler and Andre Ware in the late '80s and early '90s.
Jenkins, though, taught us that quirky doesn't look good on a
loser. But Neuheisel's football is well-grounded. As he sat in a
quarterback meeting last spring with Detmer and backups John
Hessler and Ayyub Abdul-Rahmaan, he dissected play after play
with instruction and humor, and he also paused when a block was
missed. "That," said the offensive boy wonder, "should be an
ear-hole shot," invoking footballese for the type of block a
player lives to deliver.
And on the morning of the '84 Rose Bowl, the game that would
define Neu-heisel's athletic career, he awoke with a case of
food poisoning. Barely able to stand and with little sleep, he
passed for 298 yards and four touchdowns.
Says Neuheisel, "I'm prepared for whatever comes along. But I'm
not going to overprepare for failure."
The job of head coach is entirely different from coaching
quarterbacks. Assistant coaches are the good cop to the head
coach's bad cop. Now Neuheisel is more than a coach. "It's
amazing the number of things that cross your desk that have
nothing to do with football," says Neuheisel. "I used to have
time to run every day at lunchtime. As a head coach, I'm
fund-raiser, administrator and many other things." But for this
job he has--here's that word again--a vision.
He has wanted to coach for a very long time. There is something
to be said for a career that began when Neuheisel was just 11
and coached a baseball team--the Saber Cats--of eight- and
nine-year-olds. It also is noteworthy that the Saber Cats went
During one of his first staff meetings last winter, Neuheisel
asked each of his assistants to write the name of a coach or
teacher who had made an impact on his life. "Every one of them
wrote down somebody who cared," says Neuheisel. "Somebody who
went the extra mile for him. Some of the names went back to the
fourth grade." Neuheisel pauses here, and for a rare moment he
seems serious to his core. No guitar, no jokes. He has landed in
a cutthroat business, following a legend of sorts. He is blessed
with youth and creativity, cursed with Nebraska and Oklahoma on
his schedule (and this year, Texas A&M and Wisconsin as well).
Still, his ideals are his strength. The smile fades. "Our job
is to be the type of coach that somebody will someday write on
that piece of paper," he says.
And one more thing: to be the type of coach who wins every game.
Or almost every game. Neuheisel isn't about to forget that.
By now, little Jerry has made another tour of the training-table
room in Boulder. The Cowboy helmet, homage to Neuhei-sel's buddy
Aikman, has fallen off. He tosses the ball to Dad, the new
Colorado coach. "Go! Go!" says Dad. Another throw clangs off
Jerry's chest. "Gotta catch that," says Neuheisel. "Just gotta