What Matters in Football is Winning

Eugene – Rick Neuheisel calls it a "bizarre" situation in which he finds himself preparing the UCLA Bruins to face Oregon in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship game on Friday night. The Bruins were devastated last Saturday by arch-nemesis USC 50-0 in the LA Coliseum even though the Bruins had the ticket for a chance to play in the Grand Daddy of them all.

Rick Neuheisel will be coaching his last game for his alma mater on Friday night when the Bruins, 6-6, 5-4 in conference play face the Oregon Ducks, 10-2, 8-1. Oregon is the two-time straight defending conference champions and defeated their last opponent Oregon State in the 115th annual Civil War last Saturday, 49-21. The Bruins of course won the right to represent the Southern Division of the conference because USC is banned from playing in post-season games due to NCAA violations.

Last Monday, Neuheisel was informed that he would not be retained to coach the Bruins effectively making the conference championship game his final appearance as the Bruin headman. Neuheisel is not the only conference coach to be shown the door. After losing to Oregon State on October 8th, Arizona fired Mike Stoops. After the season ended Dennis Erickson was axed by Arizona State as was Paul Wulff of Washington State.

Neuheisel took the podium of a joint media conference for the two coaches facing each other in the championship game several minutes after Chip Kelly due to arriving late in Eugene because of problems flying out of Los Angeles. Kelly faced reporters for about 10 minutes and answered questions mostly about the attitude of his team, which is figured by Las Vegas oddsmakers as a 31.5-point favorite to capture the Pac-12 crown for the third straight year. Kelly indicated that the only real change in preparing for UCLA this week as opposed to regular season games is that routine was upped by one day.

"The only different was just the routine," said Kelly. "We had to practice on Sunday and we usually give our players Sunday off."

Kelly pointed out that while it was a short week for practice that both teams faced the same problem with preparation.

One problem Kelly did not face that Neuheisel did, was that win or lose, Kelly will still have his job.

Neuheisel is approaching the last game as a chance to make a final statement for his tenure as head coach and promises that his team will be ready to compete and will take their shot at upsetting a team that might be unstoppable.

"We're very excited to be here in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship game," Neuheisel said of the upcoming game. "Obviously we're here in some unique circumstances but we're here none the less. We look forward to playing our best. It will take that it will take that against a highly, highly talented and explosive operation in the University of Oregon. Chip Kelly is to be congratulated for the juggernaut he has created here."

Wednesday, after the final practice at home the UCLA players carried their coach off the practice field. Neuheisel said it was a moment he'll never forget.

Kelly, was asked what he thought might be the mindset of a team so emotionally involved with the dismissal of their coach.

"I don't know what another team's mind set is no matter if it is us playing our first game or us playing our thirteenth game, so we don't worry about that," Kelly said as matter of fact. "What we worry about is what we can control, how focused are we and what is our effort like."

For those who follow Kelly and his program, the response was not particularly surprising. After all, Kelly's whole point of being at the University of Oregon is winning football games and to that end, all his energy is dealing with things he has control over – preparing his team in practice to execute without flaws in game.

Neuheisel too would like his team to execute without flaws, but when asked why so many coaches had lost jobs in a conference that known relative coaching stability for several years, Neuheisel offered interesting observations.

"I think coaching changes are cyclical," Neuheisel related. "This is a tough occupation. Not only do you have to avoid the pitfall that has fallen on some other programs that are outside the lines but also you have to be very successful inside the lines and unfortunately, I wasn't successful enough."

Neuheisel, who also saw tours of duty at Colorado and Washington, had hoped he could have turned the experiences of those previous stops when he may have been younger and brasher into success at the school he graduated from. His point about the perils of success and risks of cutting corners seem evident. He went on to explain the motivations of those in charge of running athletic programs.

"The other thing that is happening in college football today as opposed to years and years ago is the perception of the programs becomes so important," related Neuheisel. "If you have a bad night that is a nationally televised game or something, the perception can get going down a slippery slope that is sometimes hard to stop. I understand the predicament those who make these decisions find themselves in because of the need for outside revenue, support for the programs. Football can sustain itself but the rest of the sports cannot and they are equally as important. To keep things going you have to have the generous support of the donors around the country and those generous donors also have opinions and perceptions so those have to be weighed into the equation. So there's going to be more volatility in the hiring and firing of guys in my position."

Football in Neuheisel's mind is the driving force in college sports and pays for everything or at least gets those who will contribute to donate. Wins means money not only in television and gate receipts, but also in support of the other programs in an athletic department.

Kelly was not asked such philosophical questions as were asked of Neuheisel.

Of the two hires to replace the four vacancies in the conference, Rich Rodriguez takes over at Arizona and Mike Leach is the new man at Washington State. Both are known for running dynamic spread offenses similar to Kelly.

For many years Duck fans felt that Oregon was perceived to be an also-ran. Looking back to 1994 when Oregon faced Penn State in the Rose Bowl, Portland sports announcers talked about the opportunity being a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Of course the Ducks have been back to the Rose Bowl and even made it to the BCS Championship game. In the five years since coming to Oregon first as offensive coordinator and then as head coach, Oregon is 51-12 over all and 2-2 in bowl games.

Kelly made it clear during his portion of Thursday's media conference that he is focused on Friday's game, not the Rose Bowl.

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