NCAA FB

UCLA mess adds intrigue to title game

Rick Neuheisel
UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel was doomed after Saturday's 50-0 loss to USC.
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Billy Witz

Billy Witz has contributed to The New York Times and covered a multitude of sporting events. A Tulane University grad, Witz has won Associated Press Sports Editor awards for investigative reporting, feature writing and game stories. He covered the Lakers' every move last season for FOX Sports West.

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LOS ANGELES

Dredging up some pity for Rick Neuheisel takes some doing.

If not due to his days as “Slick Rick,” the too-cool-for-school serial rule bender, then certainly for the empty promises of his four years as coach at UCLA, which were bookended by the Monopoly Is Over in LA proclamation and Saturday’s 50-0 shellacking by USC, which illustrated quite clearly who lives on Park Place and who doesn’t.

DUCKS SUPE!

Oregon's stars turned it on in Rose Bowl, Pete Stella says.

But he’s a sympathetic figure now. For that, Neuheisel can thank UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, who not only fired him Monday — five days before the Bruins are to play Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game — but who also stated that if, by some miracle, UCLA were to advance to the Rose Bowl, Neuheisel would not coach the Bruins there.

How petulant. How small-minded. How UCLA.

So, if you’re fortunate enough to take UCLA to its first Rose Bowl in 13 years, here’s the way we’d like to thank you, as a distinguished alum and former Rose Bowl MVP: by handing you a severance check and telling you to enjoy the game on TV.

That’s a great message to send to Chris Petersen, the Boise State coach who is the apple of Guerrero’s eye. Again.

Neuheisel, who is no dummy, smartly has taken the high road. Neuheisel says that even if he disagrees with the decision to fire him, he holds no ill will toward Guerrero and that nobody should feel sorry for him.

Now, the story of the Pac-12 Championship game (Friday, 8 p.m. ET on FOX), in which the Bruins (6-6) opened as 30 1/2-point underdogs, will be about Neuheisel and the players who spent Monday rallying around him. If Oregon (10-2) wins convincingly, it simply will be a disaster averted for the Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl, and another anti-climax in a season that is winding down with a bevy of them. (Oklahoma-Oklahoma State has lost much of its relevance. LSU can lose to Georgia and still play for the BCS title. And does anybody really want to see LSU and Alabama again, other than to see if somebody can actually score a touchdown?)

But, taking leave of reality for a moment, imagine just how compelling TV it would be if the Bruins are able to stay in the game — the possibility of a team that, if it loses, must campaign its way into a bowl game instead making it to the Rose Bowl, the players carrying their coach off the field because they can’t take him to Pasadena with them.

If that makes Guerrero squirm, it should.

But not as much as UCLA fans are squirming over how he will handle the job search.

Guerrero, who is on his third coaching search in nine years, pledged that UCLA will offer a competitive salary — one that the Los Angeles Times reported will be in excess of $3 million — for Petersen.

But Guerrero said exactly the same thing after he fired Bob Toledo in 2002 and Karl Dorrell in 2007. Each time he ended up paying mid-market salaries after whiffing on his top candidate, being unable to lure Mike Bellotti away from Oregon in 2002 and then Petersen away from Boise State five years later.

Petersen told the Times in 2007 when he was recruiting at a high school near Westwood: “If I’m at your press conference four days from now, throw tomatoes at me. I’m not a candidate. It’s not a good fit for me.”

So why would it be a good fit now?

The Boise State athletic director who hired Petersen, Gene Bleymaier, was fired last summer and UCLA is dangling more money. But UCLA is still UCLA — assistant coaches can’t afford to live anywhere near campus and the athletic department culture is akin to a velvet coffin, creating a comfortable resting place for a sleeping giant and a nuisance for anyone with ambition.

Thus it is no small irony that the Bruins are playing at Oregon with its Phil Knight-funded, high-tech, edgy, push-the-envelope mien. Some of it is good and some of it not so much. But it is clearly the anti-UCLA.

If Petersen says no, just like A-list coaches have before — Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Mike Montgomery in basketball, and Gary Barnett, coming off Northwestern’s Rose Bowl berth, and Bellotti and Petersen in football — then it gets dicey.

The last two coaches Guerrero picked would not have been hired by anybody else. Dorel was turned down by San Diego State and could not get an interview at Cal the previous year. Neuheisel was considered toxic after leaving two programs (Colorado and Washington) on NCAA probation. In hiring those two, Guerrero passed on Mike Riley, who has a strong track record of developing quarterbacks (Cade McNown was the last Bruin to start in the NFL) and Al Golden, who resurrected Temple before having the misfortune of walking into Miami.

And in 2002, Guerrero might have lured an unknown young coach who was getting ready to leave Bowling Green. Urban Meyer, anyone?

Now coaches like that clearly are out of the Bruins' league.

So if things go to form and UCLA looks out of its element on the football field and on the sideline Friday night, those who think it will soon get better might consider this.

It’s not the only place the Bruins are overmatched.

Tagged: Boise State, UCLA, Oregon

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