No Hard Feelings Even after a loss to their former coach, Rick Neuheisel, spurned Colorado players were able to forgive and forget

October 03, 1999

A very odd scene unfolded in Husky Stadium as Colorado players
lined up to hug their old coach, Rick Neuheisel. This was the
guy who'd left them in the lurch for a $7 million contract at
Washington and had just beaten them in their first reunion. But
themes of greed and betrayal, or whatever occupied the rest of
us in the days before this game, dissolved in the Northwest
sunshine, and not even the disappointment of a 31-24 loss to the
Huskies last Saturday could prevent the Buffaloes from paying
their respects. One by one they lingered at midfield, the chaos
of a home field victory spilling around them, until they
clutched Neuheisel in the kind of father-son embraces that made
the more heartless among us avert our gazes.

The display couldn't have been more unexpected, given the tenor
of the buildup to the game, but remember that the buildup was
generated by adults, who are rather more cynical than college
kids. The Neuheisel angle was so overwhelming and so goosed
along by his successor at Colorado, Gary Barnett, that the kids
and their stories were entirely overlooked. "Not one media
request all week," said Washington quarterback Marques
Tuiasosopo. "That was kind of weird."

Instead the talk was all about Neuheisel's abrupt departure from
Colorado, where he had been installed as a boy wonder in 1995
and, a 5-6 season two years ago notwithstanding, had been
expected to stay into his maturity and lead the Buffaloes back
to the national championship. When he left last January for a
more vigorous program at Washington, not to mention a $997,000
annual salary (he had been making $635,000), he was reviled
throughout the Rockies as a greedy goofball. All of a sudden
Neuheisel's guitar-slinging, law-school-grad persona didn't seem
so refreshing.

When Neuheisel fumbled his departure--surprising players with
scripted farewell comments and with subsequent goodbye calls
from Washington that made Barnett suspect Neuheisel was trying
to tempt some Buffaloes into becoming Huskies--things got ugly.
From then on, this season's Colorado-Washington meeting figured
to be some kind of morality play or an occasion for
old-fashioned revenge.

Instead it was a football game, on the kind of gorgeous autumn
day that frames your best memories of the sport. Soft clouds
billowed in the distance, considerate not to shadow the field,
and boats bobbed in Lake Union, just outside the stadium. More
than 72,000 people, not all on hand to see a comeuppance, stayed
on their feet as the game went back and forth--big plays
breaking this way and that, the result in doubt right up to the
final seconds.

Except for all the controversy surrounding Neuheisel, the game
had little importance. Washington had gone 0-2 out of the box.
Colorado had squandered its preseason No. 15 ranking with a loss
to Colorado State in its opener, and two subsequent victories
hadn't been enough to confirm Barnett's Return to Dominance
theme. Neither lineup had stars of any magnitude.

Yet these unproven kids kept doing improbable things. Buffaloes
cornerback Ben Kelly, one of Neuheisel's favorite recruits
("Ben's been to my house many times, a kid nobody but us and
Eastern Michigan wanted--a true success story," Neuheisel said
after the game), answered the Huskies' first touchdown with a
spectacular 98-yard touchdown return, breaking four tackles at
the Colorado 20. Then, in the third quarter, with the game tied,
Kelly scooped up a fumble and returned it 38 yards to give
Colorado a 21-14 lead. Meanwhile, Washington running back Willie
Hurst, demoted last week, replaced the injured Braxton Cleman
and picked up one key gain after another, finishing with 85
yards rushing. Tuiasosopo, a junior who had thrown three
interceptions against Air Force the week before, passed for 210
yards, including a 36-yard end zone strike to Gerald Harris and,
with the score tied at 24 and just over three minutes left, a
nine-yard touchdown pass to Chris Juergens. That stood up as the
winner when Colorado's subsequent 64-yard drive ended with an
interception in the end zone by Washington's Anthony Vontoure.
"It was just as everybody expected," said Barnett, perhaps
disingenuously. "After the opening kickoff it became a football
game between two teams that needed to win. I think everyone got
his money's worth."

It was, of course, more than anybody expected, and it was, of
course, more than a football game. Maybe the players maintained a
purity of heart and a simplicity of purpose, but nobody else
found the showdown nearly as uncomplicated. "It's like a runaway
train," Neuheisel had said before the game, reflecting on the
disaster his departure became. "When all this ugliness happened,
it was, like, are you kidding me?"

Neuheisel's sudden characterization in the press and pubs in
Colorado as a villain had been, in a way, beyond expectation. "I
don't get it either," says Barbara Hedges, the Washington
athletic director who had sought him out and offered
otherworldly compensation to lure him to Seattle. "All coaches
come from somewhere else, don't they?"

Barnett, in fact, came from Northwestern, where he had nearly
fulfilled his 10-year contract, leaving only nine years early.
For this betrayal Barnett, who had ties to Colorado's 1990
national title team as an assistant to Bill McCartney, received
a mild spanking compared with Neuheisel's.

Though Barnett muzzled himself and his players in the days
leading up to Saturday's game, in the preseason he contributed
to the Neuheisel bashing in all-too-cleverly worded public
comments. Asked what he'd wear on the sidelines, he said, "It's
not going to be sweater vests," alluding to the garb of his
38-year-old predecessor. At every turn he seemed to promise a
more rigorous and disciplined program, casting Neuheisel as some
kind of Zen hustler. (Neuheisel's teams did lead the Big 12 in
penalties the last two years.) "He's chosen to compare and
contrast, which I promised [Jim Lambright, the previous
Washington coach] I wouldn't do here," Neuheisel says of Barnett.

Worse, in an interview on CNN/SI in April, Barnett implied that
Neuheisel might have been recruiting players in those goodbye
phone calls. "Only Rick knows," Barnett said.

Neuheisel angrily replied, "He has no idea who I am." Coloradans
probably don't know him as well as they thought, either. When he
was elevated to succeed McCartney after one year as an assistant,
Neuheisel was considered a free spirit because he played his
guitar and sang on his coach's show, behaving like one of the
kids he was supposed to be leading.

That worked for two 10-2 seasons, and the Neu Age coach was a
big hit. But that 5-6 record in 1997, an 8-4 season a year later
and repeated losses to Nebraska made Neuheisel look like a
college football Yanni. "I'm different, I'm younger, I'm not
from that generation where college football is war and coaches
are generals," he says. "Every one of McCartney's practice
scripts ended with the same word: 'Secure!' That's right out of
Patton. I'm not from that generation, and I don't think today's
kids relate to that."

So he did things like take the Buffaloes tubing on Boulder
Creek. He was seen as a players' coach, in tune with a new kind
of adolescence. But once Colorado stopped winning, everything
Neuheisel did seemed self-promoting. That river outing has since
become the most famous raft trip since Lewis and Clark's and has
been rendered all the more offensive because it was Neuheisel
who subsequently discovered the Northwest Passage.

Neuheisel takes some responsibility for botching his departure,
although he won't back down on his reasons for leaving. Besides
the money--"an eye-opener," he says--Washington offered him, he
claims, a better chance to win than Colorado did. "I complained
many times to them," he says, asserting that the Buffaloes'
program was relatively undercapitalized.

Rushed by Washington to announce his decision, Neuheisel says,
he couldn't reach most Colorado players for several days, and
then he read to them from prepared remarks. "I knew, from having
spoken to several other players in person, I'd just break down,"
he says. But none of his players had ever seen him so
calculated. "I know what they were thinking," he says. "Who is
this guy?"

What weighed on him most in the week before the Saturday's game
was the tension he imagined between himself and all those
Buffaloes he'd recruited and then ditched. Visits from Denver
newspaper writers, who reported the residual vitriol to him,
didn't help. "I didn't know what to expect," Neuheisel says, his
voice beginning to quaver. "You get attached to kids, and if
you've never experienced that kind of emotion, just try it. I
didn't know if there'd be bitterness or what. I just didn't know."

But they're kids, and mostly they're forgiving. As Colorado
junior linebacker Ty Gregorak, who seemed likely to remain
resentful--"See you September 25," he'd barked at Neuheisel
after the latter's farewell--told Denver reporters before the
game, "We had a good time with Rick, what's so bad about that?"
Maybe what the Buffaloes remembered wasn't a 5-6 season or even
a 10-2 season but a river tubing trip, or Popsicles, or going
over to Neuheisel's house, or hearing him sing. Anyway, when the
game was over they lined up at midfield, waited their turn and,
one by one, hugged their old coach.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Ear to the ground Hurst cartwheeled over the Colorado line to score the first of his two touchdowns for Washington. COLOR PHOTO: BILL CHAN "I didn't know if there would be bitterness or what," Neuheisel says of the reunion. "I just didn't know."

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