Neuheisel, Chow reinvigorate UCLA
LOS ANGELES -- It's another idyllic spring afternoon on UCLA's campus (75 degrees, sunny and not a cloud in the sky). Just outside Morgan Center, home for the Bruins' athletic teams, backpack-toting students walk by in shorts and sandals, while an acoustic guitarist serenades passers-by with a Matchbox 20 song.
Inside a sparsely furnished office with a view of the scene, freshly anointed UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel and his trusted offensive coordinator, Norm Chow, sit on opposite couches discussing the art of selecting a starting quarterback.
"You know how the Supreme Court once said you can't define what obscenity is, you just know it when you see it?" jokes Neuheisel, 47, the rare football coach to hold a law degree. "It's kind of the same with quarterbacks. You kind of just know 'em when you see them. ... Would you agree with that, Norm?"
"Between the two of us," says Chow, 61, referring to both himself and his new boss, "we've been doing it long enough to know to go with what you got."
On the surface, it seems like an unlikely pairing: Neuheisel, the terminally cheery former golden-boy, and Chow, the proverbial wise elder, joining forces to resurrect UCLA's long-dormant program. Not 15 minutes after the aforementioned conversation, Chow was back in his own office scripting practice plays when Neuheisel bolted in, giddily clutching a newly discovered framed photograph of himself in action as a Bruins quarterback.
"I'm so famous here," joked Neuheisel, "that they found it in the back of a closet."
Between the two of them, however, this Odd Couple of Westwood happens to possess many of the most crucial elements lacking from UCLA football for the better part of a decade.
The tone for predecessor Karl Dorrell's ill-fated five-year tenure was inadvertently captured early on by Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers, who sardonically referred to the coach in print as "Karl Dullard." While it seemed like a harsh label for a genuinely upstanding guy, the insinuation could not have described Dorrell's program more accurately. Even before the past five seasons, dating to the latter days of Bob Toledo's tenure, the Bruins have possessed almost no identity, very few star players or signature moments (their 2006 upset of second-ranked USC notwithstanding) and an offense so bland it could put babies to sleep.
Enter Neuheisel, the instantly recognizable -- and somewhat notorious -- new face of UCLA football, rescued by his alma mater after a five-year exile from college coaching following his scandal-plagued ouster at Washington. Neuheisel's mere presence brings a distinct personality to the program before the Bruins even play their first game under him.
"He's fun, but he's very smart with what he does," said quarterback Patrick Cowan. "I really enjoy coming out to practice."
Neuheisel even makes mundane, end-of-practice announcements seem fun. At the coach's prompting, every person who speaks -- from the strength coach to the managers to a student media assistant -- gets a collective "Whoo!" from the players huddled at midfield.
His lighthearted, almost boyish energy feels similar to that of a certain coach across town.
UCLA fans have suffered in recent years, having to watch not only their own team struggle (it's been 10 years since their last Pac-10 title) but also see their hated rival emerge as the nation's most dominant program under Pete Carroll.
Neuheisel, who spent 10 years as a player (1980-83) and assistant (1988-1993) under longtime Bruins coach Terry Donahue, possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the USC-UCLA rivalry, rattling off specific scores and plays off the top of his head. The Trojans have won eight of their past nine meetings against the Bruins. UCLA suffered through a similar stretch prior to Neuheisel's freshman season in 1980, losing to its nemesis in seven of the eight years.
Neuheisel went 3-1 against USC as player; 3-2-1 as an assistant.
"I've watched us conquer the thought that USC is insurmountable," said Neuheisel. "When you've lived it, you don't have to wonder what it's like, because things aren't as different as people might think. It's just about our recruiting getting up to the level of their recruiting. It's about creating a national reputation again.
"So I feel like I've got the knowledge of how to do it, and I think we've got the pieces in place from a coaching standpoint to do it."
It just so happens that the most notable of those pieces is one of Carroll's former chief lieutenants.
In four seasons as offensive coordinator at USC (2001-04), Chow helped develop two Heisman-winning quarterbacks (Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart) and won two national title rings. This after previously grooming the likes of NC State's Philip Rivers and BYU's Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer.