Missteps and ill will have marred Rick Neuheisel's move to Washington
He took his players tubing down Boulder Creek, strummed his guitar on his live radio show and liked to crack wise. During his four seasons at Colorado, 38-year-old Rick Neuheisel left himself open to the charge that underneath that youthful exterior lay an immature interior. Was he more style than substance?
Until Jan. 9, when Washington signed him to a seven-year, $7 million deal, no one knew that Neuheisel was even considering another coaching job. Since then Neuheisel has been hailed in Seattle as a bold tonic for the Huskies and denounced in Boulder as a turncoat. The attacks by Colorado's fans and media have been breathtaking in intensity. Neuheisel says the timing of his hiring—on a weekend when 11 recruits were visiting Colorado—"made me come off as a person who lacked commitment, who lacked loyalty. I don't think those deficiencies are part of my character."
It is both the charm and the curse of Neuheisel that he wants people to like him. A coach less concerned about others would not phone some of his former players to say goodbye and wish them luck, as Neuheisel says he did in the days after arriving in Seattle. Neuheisel's successor with the Buffaloes, former Northwestern coach Gary Barnett, uncharitably labeled those calls "potential tampering," implying that Neuheisel might have been improperly trying to persuade some Buffaloes players to transfer to Washington. That proved to be the least of Neuheisel's possible NCAA worries last week. At the suggestion of Huskies special teams coach Bobby Hauck, four Washington assistants hit the recruiting road on the Sunday before the Feb. 3 signing date. Hauck came up with the idea because someone had offered him a ticket to the Super Bowl in Miami, and Washington had a commitment from kicker John Anderson of Boyton Beach, Fla. Hauck figured he could meet his new kicker and see the game. Three other assistants traveled to California.
However, in 1995, the NCAA ruled that coaches could not travel to recruit after the Saturday before the signing date. Neuheisel and his assistants say they didn't know the rule had changed because they typically finished their recruiting in mid-January. "I'm embarrassed by it," Neuheisel says. "In six years of taking recruiting tests"—quizzes on rule revisions given each year by the NCAA—"I've never missed a question."
Washington turned itself in for tire recruiting violation, which most likely will result in nothing more than a letter of reprimand. Barnett and three other coaches—Colorado State's Sonny Lubick, Oregon's Mike Bellotti and Washington State's Mike Price, have written the NCAA asking that a sterner penalty be leveled. The controversy overshadowed the Huskies' signing of high school All-America running back Paul Arnold of Seattle, who had also considered attending UCLA, Michigan and Notre Dame. The 6'1", 200-pound Arnold rushed for 1,974 yards and 32 touchdowns last fall at Kennedy High.
The lack of a running game plagued Neuheisel at Colorado, as did charges that the Buffaloes lacked discipline. The bottom line is that Colorado went 33-14 under Neuheisel and his players had far fewer brushes with the law than did players under Neuheisel's predecessor, Bill McCartney. With 16 Buffaloes starters back from an 8-4 team, Neuheisel would have had a Top 10 contender next fall. A successful season would have quelled the doubts about his substance.
Now Neuheisel must prove himself by rebuilding a Washington team that drifted into mediocrity under coach Jim Lambright, a career assistant who in six seasons never grasped how to communicate with his players or the public. Linebacker Lester Towns says that after Lambright's firing on Dec. 29, "Guys walked into his office and looked around, saying, 'Whoa! I've never been in here before.' "
Neuheisel's door is open, literally and otherwise. Under Lambright, Washington wore purple helmets the last four years. Every Monday last season, Towns says, he asked Lambright if the team could switch back to its traditional gold. The answer was always no. At his first meeting with his new team, Neuheisel talked of his days as quarterback of UCLA and how intimidating the Huskies had been in their gold helmets. Then he produced one from behind the podium and asked the players if they wanted to wear gold again. They roared their approval. "When they rose out of their chairs," Neuheisel says, "I realized these guys were just like the guys I left behind."
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