UCLA fired coach Rick Neuheisel on Monday after four disappointing seasons in charge of his alma mater.
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Neuheisel will be allowed to coach the Bruins (6-6, 5-4 Pac-12) in Friday’s Pac-12 title game at Oregon, athletic director Dan Guerrero announced. Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will be the Bruins’ interim coach if they receive a bowl berth.
Neuheisel is 21-28 since taking over the program in December 2007, never building the momentum he needed to reach his goal of challenging Southern California for city supremacy. Guerrero fired Neuheisel two days after UCLA’s 50-0 loss to No. 9 USC, the Bruins’ largest loss since 1930 in their crosstown rivalry game.
”I thanked Dan for the opportunity,” Neuheisel said on the Pac-12’s promotional teleconference for the title game, less than an hour after his firing was announced. ”I don’t need reasons. Certainly when you’re UCLA coach, you’d like to play better against USC. When you lose in the fashion we did, that’s a difficult pill to swallow.”
The Bruins will represent the Pac-12 South in the inaugural league title game on Friday despite finishing two games behind postseason-banned USC in the division standings. UCLA is a 30-point underdog against the Ducks with a Rose Bowl berth on the line for the winner.
If UCLA loses to Oregon, the Pac-12 would have to petition the NCAA for bowl eligibility for a 6-7 team. The Bruins haven’t indicated whether they would pursue a waiver, although Johnson’s appointment as interim coach suggests they would.
UCLA made it to just one bowl game in Neuheisel’s first three seasons, winning the EagleBank Bowl in Washington, D.C., in 2009.
Neuheisel’s firing before the title game is an ugly end to the 50-year-old coach’s self-described dream job. He was a quarterback at UCLA, leading the Bruins to an unlikely victory in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2, 1984.
On Sunday, Neuheisel said he believed he deserved to return as the Bruins’ coach, citing their five conference victories, bowl eligibility and title game berth. He said he felt the Bruins had ”moved the needle” to keep UCLA on a path to excellence.
”We have certainly had some unfortunate evenings where things haven’t gone our way, but I think the program is headed in the right direction,” he said.
Neuheisel had more success during his first two head coaching stops at Colorado and Washington, leading the Buffaloes to 33 wins and three bowl victories over four seasons before taking the Huskies to four straight winning seasons and a Rose Bowl victory after the 2000 campaign.
Neuheisel eventually was fired by Washington after a series of problems in Seattle ranging from player discipline to a rift with school leadership to his infamous involvement in an NCAA basketball tournament pool. After two years out of coaching and a stint on the Baltimore Ravens’ staff, Neuheisel took over at UCLA.
But the Bruins went 4-8 in his first and third seasons, with a 7-6 finish in 2009. He had high expectations for his current team, but the Bruins have won consecutive games just once all season, usually alternating blowout losses and narrow victories.
UCLA still went 5-1 at the Rose Bowl this season, and surprising losses by Utah and Arizona State propelled the Bruins into the Pac-12 title game even before their blowout loss to USC.
When Neuheisel returned to UCLA, he declared the ”football monopoly is over” in the Los Angeles area – words that haunted him with each loss by his Bruins. Neuheisel ended up with much less success than former teammate Karl Dorrell, who was fired in 2007 after going 35-27 in five seasons that included four bowl berths, a 10-2 campaign in 2005 and a Sun Bowl victory.
Johnson joined Neuheisel’s staff this season, replacing Norm Chow after Neuheisel’s messy public breakup with the longtime offensive mastermind. The former NFL assistant coach was the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive coordinator for most of last season, and he has helped Neuheisel to lead a resurgence of UCLA’s offense this year.
Neuheisel and Chow installed Nevada’s pistol offense at UCLA last season, a surprising decision viewed as desperation by two veteran coaches with a wealth of experience in other systems. The switch revived UCLA’s nonexistent ground game, but the formation still felt gimmicky and unsuited to UCLA’s personnel even this season, when the Bruins had decent success with the emergence of Kevin Prince as a running quarterback.
Neuheisel remained confident in his abilities until the end, saying last week that he thought UCLA had ”closed the gap more” in its rivalry with USC. The Trojans then delivered the third-biggest blowout in the rivalry’s history, shutting out UCLA for the first time since 2001.