If you would have told Bruin Nation a month ago that Guerrero would hire Rick Neuheisel as its next head football coach, it would have collectively been shocked.
Neuheisel isn't a conventional hire, by any means. He elicits far more controversy and conversation that, say, hiring Mike Leach or June Jones, or even Steve Mariucci.
There is quite a bit that goes along with Neuheisel, from his past transgressions with the NCAA, to the issue of being in the Bruin family, and whether that's actually beneficial or not.
There are many things to weigh.
First, on the surface, you have to concede there is a bit of hypocrisy in the hiring of Neuheisel. Athletic Director Dan Guerrero has emphasized repeatedly, and laid it out plainly when he fired Bob Toledo, that the foremost concern of the program is its integrity. On the surface, if you're an athletic department that professes to be squeaky clean, hiring Neuheisel flies in the face of that.
But then again, what's more relevant in regard to that integrity – past transgressions from two other programs, or the projection of how Neuheisel will behave as UCLA's head coach? Is that integrity mostly about reputation, or about how literally the program could be run from here on out?
If you had to project, wouldn't you think that Neuheisel understands more than anyone the emphasis on running a clean program at UCLA? This is a guy who found himself coaching high school after he was fired from Washington just to get his foot back in the door of coaching. He's a guy that does understand how things work at UCLA. He has to be very motivated to do whatever it takes to remove the stigma that he's unscrupulous, that he's "Slick Rick."
If you wanted a coach who you thought would run a clean program, who would you choose among Neuheisel or, say, Leach, Mariucci or Jones? Do you believe that Rick is Rick and he can't change, or that he's smart enough to learn by his past transgressions and be even more attentive to the rules?
If there's one thing that Neuheisel is, he's smart.
Is Neuheisel literally a good coach? It's not completely certain, really. If you had to guess, you'd tend to say yes. He did coach Colorado and Washington through a number of successful seasons. Detractors could make the case that he inherited strong programs and then left them worse off than they were.
But college football isn't like college basketball, where the head coach does so much more hands-on coaching. In football, the head coaching position is more about leadership. Yes, there are offensive and defensive philosophies that programs get from their head coach, and many head coaches are hands-on in designing their schemes. But most of the time a college football head coach shows how good of a coach he is by hiring good coordinators.
So much of whether Neuheisel is successful at UCLA will ride on whom he hires as his offensive and defensive coordinators. It's vital, coming off the Karl Dorrell era, that Neuheisel has a dynamic offensive attack. There are two things going on here, too: Neuheisel winning over Bruin Nation initially and then winning them over by being successful on the field. If you're talking about winning over Bruin nation initially, nothing resembling Dorrell's West Coast Offense will go over very well. When Dorrell was hired, also, no one really had any clue what kind of offensive scheme he'd run. Dorrell was obscure about it, saying it'd be close to the Denver Broncos offense, and then he brought in an offensive coordinator who didn't know how to run Dorrell's version, Steve Axman. Whom Neuheisel hires for his offensive coordinator needs to make an immediate impact. The hire itself needs to make it clear what kind of offense UCLA is going to run. There is bound to be a learning curve with the offense -- a time when the offense under Neuheisel is just beginning and isn't successful yet. During this period, it has to be clear what the offense is working toward, not like under Dorrell, when there was no clue as to what the offense was before it started and no past success from another program to give you a hint as to what it was striving to be.
So, if Neuheisel is to get the backing of most of Bruin Nation over his hire, it's critical he hires an offensive coordinator that makes a clear statement. He especially can't hire a guy who has not been an offensive coordinator yet.
For his defensive coordinator, it's pretty clear what would be the home run for Neuheisel, and that's hiring current Defensive Coordinator DeWayne Walker. If Walker does get away, it's not the end of the world. Neuheisel could then turn around and hire a proven defensive coordinator. But so much has been made about Walker, his ability, and his candidacy for the head coaching position himself. And that's just considering the benefits of Walker's defensive scheme, and not what he brings to the table in recruiting, primarily in being able to keep most of the 2008 class on board. It's pretty clear -- If Neuheisel was able to keep Walker, the Neuheisel-Walker combo has a pretty powerful mojo going for it.
UCLA fans are always yearning to be a major player in college football. Getting the combo of Neuheisel and Walker is something that comes about the closest UCLA football has come to it in decades. USC football, its coaches, players and fans, probably haven't been wary of UCLA football at all in quite a while (the exception was probably having a bit of trepidation over Cade McNown slicing them up). But the Neuheisel-Walker combo is something that could actually send a few shock waves through Heritage Hall, and throughout the Pac-10. It's similar to what the Pac-10 basketball coaches were thinking when UCLA fired Steve Lavin and hired Ben Howland: "Oh, crap, the gravy train is over. UCLA will actually now have some good coaching and be formidable."
Neuheisel must know that getting top-flight coordinators is key. Again, if there's anything that Neuheisel is, it's smart. And he must understand that you need money to pay for top-flight coordinators. Neuheisel, you can expect, will have the money to pay coordinators. It can't be like the small-time operation of Dorrell trying to find inexperienced and cheap coordinators. Neuheisel knows more people and has a far more extensive network in football than did Dorrell, and, from what we hear, access to more money to pay his coordinators.
While many people, including Dan Guerrero, are basically denying that there was support among the UCLA donor money for Neuheisel, we've heard otherwise. From what we've been told, the donor money that generally has been sitting on the sideline during Dorrell's tenure is far more likely to jump on board with Neuheisel.
And the issue always comes up about the nepotism of trying to hire a coach with UCLA ties. Many times it should be irrelevant, such as in the case of Karl Dorrell. If he hadn't been an ex-UCLA receiver, he never would have gotten a sniff at the job. It shouldn't make you qualified for a job you're not qualified for. But in Neuheisel's case, he is qualified for the UCLA job other than by his connection to UCLA. And in Neuheisel's case, his connections to UCLA are vastly beneficial. Not only in his ability to give the best campus tour to recruits than any other coaching candidate (like Neuheisel said in his teleconference) but because of the UCLA community support and backing, particularly in terms of money, that he brings to the table. It might sound cynical, but the thing that will make UCLA a major player in college football is money. No matter how you generate it, by being successful on the field, or by having donors support you – or both. Money will continue to build facilities; money will pay for coordinators' salaries that allow them to live in the L.A. area comfortably, and money will get Pauley Pavilion renovated.
With Dorrell, too, he never filled the shoes of the head coach well. He never really seemed like a head coach. Walker did moreso in his one game as interim head coach for the Las Vegas Bowl than Dorrell did in five years. It's a presence, a swagger, the leadership you need to be a successful head coach. Someone like Norm Chow might have brought his very dynamic and proven offensive scheme to UCLA had he been hired, and that could have been powerful enough to make up for Chow's lack of head coaching presence. But Neuheisel has that presence. He inspires confidence as a football coach.
There was a stark realization of that in just listening to Neheisel's teleconference Saturday. Yes, while we realize he's an attorney and knows how to talk, it certainly is refreshing compared to what we've been used to under Dorrell. This is the type of dynamic and articulate personality that can truly inspire.
That personality earned him a reputation as one of the best recruiters when he was a head coach. The recruiting violations at Colorado and Washington indicated how Neuheisel, in the past, tried to cut corners in recruiting since he was trying to be very aggressive. Hopefully Neuheisel can still be the aggressive recruiter he was while staying within the rules. UCLA has had a rep for not being a hard recruiting program under Dorrell and Toledo. Neuheisel has a real chance to change that. He, unlike UCLA's past head coaches, is a recruitnik. He knows recruiting. He likes recruiting. He worked hard in recruiting. And, most importantly, a coach who is a recruitnik, who knows how hard you have to work in recruiting, makes his staff work hard in recruiting.
As most college coaches will tell you, it's mostly about recruiting. Neuheisel is an excellent recruiter. He's one of the best in the recruit's living room. The prospect of combining him and Walker, who has shown to be an excellent recruiter and responsible for a great deal of the committed guys in the 2008 class, is a very dynamic recruiting duo. Throw in the possibility of wide receiver coach Eric Scott and it has the potential to be the most dynamic recruiting staff UCLA has had in recent memory.
Overall, there is such a difference in this head coaching hire, as opposed to the hiring of Dorrell or Toledo, or Lavin. It's far more similar to the hiring of Howland. Neuheisel is a guy who you can easily see as the head coach. There were UCLA fans who never got on the Dorrell bandwagon. They just couldn't get behind him since he didn't inspire confidence. Neuheisel does. His detractors, unlike Dorrell's, will more than likely get behind him and give him the chance they never gave Dorrell. Is it fair? Perhaps not. But it's the way of the world. The dynamic personality inspires.