Before his final game as UCLA coach, Rick Neuheisel went on the field with his sons Jack and Joe and tossed a football around.
Fired earlier in the week, Neuheisel was facing quite a challenge against No. 8 Oregon in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game at Autzen Stadium.
And yet, he reveled in the moment.
”You know, say what you will about how we got here, so on and so forth, but looking up at those banners and seeing Oregon and UCLA on that deal was a treat for me, something that I’ll have for a long time,” he said. ”We didn’t get to where we needed to be, but they can’t take this away from us.”
The Bruins (6-7) lost 49-31 Friday night, giving the Ducks their third straight conference championship and a berth in the Rose Bowl.
It was Neuheisel’s last game with his alma mater. The former UCLA quarterback was fired this week after four years on the job.
As the clock ticked down, Neuheisel hugged quarterback Kevin Prince on the sideline. He paused before UCLA’s fans grouped in a corner of the stadium, and tipped his hat. Then he gathered his family close.
Later, he said he wasn’t quite sure about his next move.
"I have a great wife. I have three good boys. We’ll evaluate what’s next," he said. "You know, obviously I’ve got some decisions to make as to stay or move, all that kind of stuff."
Neuheisel’s dismissal was part of a wave of coaching moves in the conference. Arizona State also let go of Dennis Erickson and Washington State parted ways with Paul Wulff, then quickly hired former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach a day later.
The heavily favored Ducks (11-2) scored on their first series when LaMichael James ran 30 yards for a touchdown. James went into the game as the nation’s top running back with an average of 142.7 yards per game. He finished with 219 yards rushing and three touchdowns, becoming the league’s first player with three straight 1,500-yard seasons.
UCLA tied it when linebacker Patrick Larimore intercepted Darron Thomas and ran 35 yards for a touchdown. Neuheisel pumped his first in celebration.
Thomas scored on a 10-yard keeper and then found true freshman tight end Colt Lyerla alone in the end zone with a 7-yard scoring pass to make it 21-7.
UCLA narrowed it with Prince’s flea-flicker to Nelson Rosario for a 37-yard touchdown.
James added a 3-yard touchdown run to make it 28-14 before Thomas connected with Daryle Hawkins for a 25-yard TD reception.
UCLA’s Tyler Gonzalez kicked a 44-yard field goal to make it 37-17 at halftime.
Prince scored on a 1-yard run early in the third quarter to pull UCLA closer to the Ducks, but James answered with a 5-yard TD dash to make it 42-24. David Paulson added a 22-yard touchdown pass midway through the third.
Rosario pulled down a one-handed, 19-yard touchdown pass from Prince with less than two minutes to play. Rosario caught six passes for 98 yards.
Prince completed 13 of 26 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
”I’d like to thank Coach Neuheisel,” Larimore said after the game. ”Being able to play under him has been truly a blessing for me, and I know it has been for the rest of the team.”
The addition of Colorado and Utah to the Pac-12 paved the way for a league championship game this season. In previous years, the team with the best conference record claimed the title.
While No. 9 USC (10-2, 7-2) finished atop the Pac-12 South, the Trojans are ineligible to play in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, which put UCLA in the title game.
This week, the NCAA ruled that the Bruins could accept a bowl invitation even if they lost Friday. Because of Neuheisel’s dismissal, offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will take over if UCLA is selected.
The Bruins have reached just one bowl game in the past three seasons. Athletic director Dan Guerrero said he wants to reward the Bruins’ 18 seniors by going to a bowl even while the program is in upheaval.