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 NCAAs overall position on gambling is clear beyond interpretation. Whatever the outcome, Neuheisel's once bright star has dimmed considerably.
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.