The camera first found Rick Neuheisel on an autumn afternoon in
1994 when he was quarterbacks and receivers coach at Colorado.
The Buffaloes were playing at Michigan, and Neuheisel, then 33,
was all over the ABC telecast, guiding quarterback Kordell
Stewart through a cacophonous afternoon in the Big House.
Neuheisel was boyish and blond, animated and telegenic. The lens
loved him. That game ended with one of the most memorable plays
in college football history: Stewart's 64-yard, Hail Mary
touchdown pass to Michael Westbrook that gave Colorado a stunning
27-26 victory. "You never know why, all of a sudden, people
decide to put you in the limelight," Neuheisel said two years
later. "I'm sure that game helped me."
That game made Neuheisel a star and jump-started a meteoric
coaching career. When Bill McCartney abruptly left Colorado at
the end of the '94 season, athletic director Bill Marolt handed
Neuheisel the keys to one of the hottest college programs in the
country, bypassing more experienced candidates. "We needed
somebody who could look down the road and make [the program]
better," Marolt said at the time. The implication was obvious:
Neuheisel was something special.
Four years later Washington athletic director Barbara Hedges was
similarly smitten. She hired Neuheisel at nearly $1 million a
year to replace longtime Huskies foot soldier Jim Lambright, who
had won 63% of his games. In 2002 she raised Neuheisel's salary
to $1.2 million a year and gave him a $1.5 million loan that he
didn't have to repay if he stayed until 2007.
Last week Neuheisel's honeymoon formally came to an end when
Hedges fired him "for just cause," because Neuheisel wagered more
than $6,000 on NCAA basketball pools and then wasn't forthcoming
with Hedges or the NCAA about it. Hedges described the betting
scandal--for which Washington is under NCAA investigation--as the
latest in a series of transgressions that left her no choice but
to ax Neuheisel. Among them: In the winter of 1999, less than a
month after his hiring, Washington had to declare it would accept
no transfers from Colorado, because Neuheisel had made improper
calls to Buffaloes players. In October 2002 the NCAA found that
Neuheisel was guilty of more than 50 recruiting violations at
Colorado. In February of this year, after secretly interviewing
for the 49ers' coaching job, Neuheisel lied to Hedges and the
media by denying that he had.
Neuheisel is fighting for his job. Last Saturday he held a press
conference on his front lawn, and on Sunday he and his newly
formed, NCAA-savvy legal team met with Washington officials. He
has argued that an internal Washington e-mail permitted
participation in nonuniversity NCAA pools, though the NCAA's
overall position on gambling is clear beyond interpretation.
Whatever the outcome, Neuheisel's once bright star has dimmed
Will it shine again? His first two Colorado teams went 20-4, but
the next two slipped to 13-10. His 2000 Washington team went
11-1, beat Drew Brees and Purdue in the Rose Bowl and finished at
No. 3. But his other three Huskies teams were a combined 22-15.
Off the field he has been a cool breeze in an often stuffy world.
At Colorado he played guitar on his weekly television show and
took his players tubing to build unity. "He's been good for his
players and good for his coaches," says Montana head coach Bobby
Hauck, an assistant under Neuheisel at Colorado and Washington.
There is little doubt that Neuheisel has a gift for offense and
for motivating young players. Though there are questions about
the depth of his talent (his teams have never excelled on
defense) and no question as to the breadth of his poor judgment,
he is too good to be unemployed for long. If Washington doesn't
want him, somebody else will. It may be time for Neuheisel to
move on to the NFL, beyond the reach of NCAA spies. Wherever he
gets his next chance, rest assured, the camera will be
watching. --Tim Layden
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER
"The Cubs got tired of seeing brokers and scalpers make a killing."
--SCALP TREATMENT, PAGE 22