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.