Rick Neuheisel was driving home when he called back late one afternoon, and I remarked that about then he should have been on some 16th fairway.
“Got it in early today,” he said. “I shot 75.”
Nothing unusual there; he’s a 3-handicap. “You get enough practice,” he said, “you can figure this game out.”
It’s another thing Neuheisel has come to be good at. The TV analysis, the Pac-12 Networks, he’s hitting it out of the park. Tuesday night in New York, he’s up for a sports Emmy for his studio work, which is regularly lively and trenchant. Among the competition are Cris Collinsworth and former Mariner Harold Reynolds.
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Neuheisel is good at it. You knew he would be. Rick Neuheisel never had a problem communicating with people.
That wasn’t the issue.
Now it’s 11 years since the year that rearranged his life, 2003, the year that he was forced to come clean about interviewing with the 49ers, and got whacked by the NCAA and fired by Washington for taking part in NCAA basketball pools.
The years seem to have softened the hard feelings around here about Neuheisel. Maybe it’s because he’s worked at it, from donating to charity, to his weekly fall visits on KJR-AM, to strumming an ode to the late Don James on his guitar on that station, to doing three Seattle-related media gigs the day I reached him.
Skeptics might argue it’s because Neuheisel is best taken in small doses.
But there’s no question he has it going now, even as coaching again seems like a distant prospect. He’s 53 and wouldn’t mind cranking it up once more, but the dynamic makes it difficult.
He points out that just two years ago, the Western Athletic Conference produced three coaches who landed big-time jobs — Mike MacIntyre (San Jose State to Colorado), Sonny Dykes (Louisiana Tech to California) and Gary Andersen (Utah State to Wisconsin) — and that league was so sketchy it doesn’t sponsor football anymore.
“It’s a young man’s game,” he said. “While I know deep down I can out-coach a lot of folks who are still on the sidelines, I also know that athletic directors are looking for a guy who can win the press conference. That guy is usually coming off a hot year.”
Neuheisel, on the other hand, is coming off getting fired at UCLA.
“It was my dream job,” he said. “To come back and coach a Rose Bowl at my alma mater would have been the perfect way to end a coaching career.”
He says he inherited a team on which no offensive lineman could bench-press 300 pounds, which would be stunning. He did some things wrong, but he also wasn’t very lucky with quarterbacks who kept getting injured. Brett Hundley, whom the Bruins are now pushing for the Heisman Trophy, had a knee injury as a freshman in fall camp of 2011. By the time he was healthy in midseason, Neuheisel decided to redshirt him.
“He would have been our starter early on,” said Neuheisel.
It didn’t end well in Westwood, with a historic blowout by USC.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “50-0 is not going to be good for business.”
Still, he said, “I’m very proud of the job I did at UCLA. We didn’t win in the grand style they’re currently enjoying, but we found ways to get to bowl games when we probably didn’t have any business doing that.”
Right about the time the next season’s fall camps were starting up, so was Pac-12 Networks. From the beginning, he was one of its best things going.
“I don’t know that it’s very natural to look at a camera and act like it’s a person,” he acknowledged. “It grew on me.”
It’s still growing. Neuheisel has started a production company, Passion Bucket Productions. Right now, it has three people, if you count Neuheisel and his wife Susan. It was that group that generated “Under Center,” Neuheisel’s ongoing series (think Jon Gruden’s Quarterback Camp) with the top Pac-12 quarterbacks, filmed in the man cave of his Manhattan Beach home.
“We’re not short for ideas, we’re short for capitalization,” he said. “I want to learn how to do the production side of things. Ideally, I’d like to have a production company that produces a bunch of shows that air on a bunch of networks.”
Meanwhile, his oldest son Jerry is a rising sophomore at UCLA, second on the quarterback depth chart behind Hundley, and like his father did 31 years ago, he just might find his way onto the field. It seems fitting that just as Neuheisel has mended some fences with Seattle, his son turned the other cheek to play at the place that fired his father.
“I went to him when I was let go,” Neuheisel said. “I said, ‘This is your school, this is where you belong. You need to do what’s best for you.’ ’’
Not long ago, Neuheisel was at USC to interview Pat Haden, the athletic director. He bumped into Barbara Hedges, his AD at Washington, retired but doing some consulting for the Trojans.
“She still had a bounce in her step,” Neuheisel said.
What a pair they were back in 2003, Washington’s Year From Hell. There was Neuheisel’s dalliance with the 49ers and his denial — right there on university letterhead — and then the basketball-pool revelation and his firing. And for Hedges later that fall, a team doctor improperly dispensing drugs to softball players.
And then in 2005, the messy five-week trial in King County Superior Court in which Neuheisel won a $4.5 million settlement from the UW and NCAA, in what was largely a measure of which entity screwed up the least.
I asked him what he did the night of the award.
“I told my wife to go home and pack,” he said. “We had three days. I said, ‘We need to get on a beach.’ ’’
He said his time here was a great experience and he sounded like he meant it. He said he regretted sneaking around to check out other jobs. He said UW is a “wonderful place,” and better equipped to win than his other stops, Colorado and UCLA.
He said, “You live and you learn.” Eleven years later, he said it more than once. You live and you learn.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org