State of the Program: Neuheisel Gets It

UCLA went 4-8, and you ask what do you have to be "relentlessly optimistic" about? We've been watching UCLA Head Coach Rick Neuheisel all year, and hearing many things inside and outside of the program. We're now ready to go out on a limb and make some bold statements about UCLA's head coach...

Over the course of the football season, we've been gathering information on Rick Neuheisel's football program. Little tidbits here and there. Now, with the program starting into the home stretch of the recruiting season, we've learned more, and it's made us come to some probably premature conclusions about Neuheisel and his program.

We'll go on record and say this:

Rick Neuheisel has the best chance of succeeding of any head coach hired by UCLA in football or basketball in the last 27 years.

Now, of course, this is a UCLA site and you could conclude it's just the ranting of a UCLA-homered writer.

But long-time readers of the site know that we're not much for hyping UCLA's programs unnecessarily. In fact, we here at Bruin Report Online have received heat from UCLA fans – and from UCLA, in fact – for not being cheerleaders, but trying to be objective in our reporting on UCLA football and basketball over the last ten years.

We never -- ever – really got on board with Bob Toledo, Steve Lavin or Karl Dorrell. Even if early on in their programs there was reason for optimism, we were still skeptical. There were just too many unknowns about each of them, too many things being done within the program that were questionable. There was a lack of good self-scouting, and a lack of vision, an inability to accurately recognize the formula for sustained success at UCLA. And many issues then developed that we recognized would limit the programs under those coaches.

And, with Neuheisel only one season into his program, we're still going to retain some skepticism, and not anoint him King of All That Is Bruin just yet.

But in gathering information about Neuheisel and his program since he was hired last winter, we definitely believe we have enough to back us with that claim – that he has the best chance to succeed of any coach we've seen since covering UCLA.

Yes, that includes Ben Howland. So, that's saying something.

Neuheisel has come to make a believer out of me, at least as much of a believer as my naturally skeptical nature can allow. And I was skeptical of Neuheisel when he was hired, given his history and reputation. For the last decade, within the football program, Neuheisel was not held in very high regard, in fact, and I heard all of the reasons why. It was one of the factors, which I wrote about during the coaching search last winter, that I thought would contribute to Neuheisel not being hired.

But Neuheisel made believers out of the athletic department, the football program, the boosters and big supporters, and most importantly Athletic Director Dan Guerrero.

At the time, it was hard to completely believe why. But a year later, I now know.

At the time of the hire, many UCLA fans were, well, skeptical. We knew about "Slick Rick," and his ability to talk and sell. But we also knew that Dan Guerrero was a smart guy who wouldn't be taken over by unfounded, weak hucksterism. Initially after Neuheisel was hired I could recognize his talent for inspiration (his first press conference was evident of that), but that wouldn't be enough. Slick Rick, the used-car salesman, was going to have to show some considerable substance to sustain any kind of real change and success at UCLA.

He garnered some quick credibility by hiring – remarkably – Norm Chow and DeWayne Walker as his offensive and defensive coordinator. These were two guys who were actual candidates for the head coaching job themselves. Chow was considered an enormous coup, being perhaps the best-known and most-respected offensive mind in football in the last 30 years, and USC's former OC who many credited for a great deal of USC's success under Pete Carroll.

But heck, anyone with any good salesmanship might have been able to pull that off.

As we said, though, we've learned some things about Neuheisel over the season and during the recruiting period that have led us to believe it's not hucksterism. Neuheisel has developed into a guy of, believe it or not, substance. He's still a great salesman, with an infectious personality, but we've learned that it's built on substance rather than thin air. I don't know first-hand how he was during his stints as head coach at Colorado and Washington, but I've spoken with some writers who reported on him during those stints. In comparing notes with them, they also are of the belief that Neuheisel still has the salesmanship, but he's grown and matured. Before he was more apt to stretch the truth and cut corners in his desire to win, but now his "relentless optimism" is founded on more solid ground. He's older and wiser, and values the job at UCLA far more, since he realizes that, after what he's been through, it is clearly a once-in-a-lifetime chance to resurrect himself. He has realized some things about what builds and sustains success, and it has to be more than just salesmanship.

And probably one of the reasons why we've begun to buy into Neuheisel's program – more than any football program since we've been reporting on UCLA – is because much of the building blocks Neuheisel espouses are the same that we've been asserting for the last ten years. Neuheisel gets the one simple theory – that UCLA is a sleeping giant, and that elite recruits want to come to UCLA, they just need to know that they'll get good coaching while in Westwood. It's why Neuheisel didn't fool around when he went to hire his coaching staff. And you can rest assured, even if UCLA loses Walker, Neuheisel recognizes that he'll have to go out and get a defensive coordinator of equal or superior coaching value. He's recognized he needs to pay his assistants to get good ones, and has done some smart and creative things to be able to do it.

So, first off, you can believe more in Neuheisel merely because he hired Chow and Walker, and will do more than Toledo, Lavin or Dorrell to go out and find an elite coordinator when he needs one and pay him a commensurate salary.

That's the basic tenet to success at UCLA – show that you have the coaching and the recruits will come. UCLA has recruiting advantages. It's done well in recruiting over the years in short stints despite not having good coaching to consistently sell to recruits. Toledo brought in #1-ranked and #2-ranked national recruiting classes after putting together two consecutive 10-2 seasons. Lavin, at the beginning of his head coaching tenure, recruited well, just a year and a half off UCLA's last national championship. Dorrell parlayed one 10-2 season and a win over USC into some good recruiting coups.

Elite recruits signed on to UCLA during those periods because they wanted a reason to come to UCLA. The only way to consistently do that, though, is not just after riding the coattails of Cade McNown, or the 1995 basketball championship, or one big upset win over USC; it's by consistently showing recruits that they'll get good coaching.

Neuheisel, despite his rep as a slick salesman, recognizes that you need the substance to get it done. All of the "relentless optimism" in the world ain't going to cut it unless he has the substance of good coaching to lure elite talent.

Toledo, Lavin and Dorrell never understood that. Each, in their own way, settled for sub-par coaching and then, subsequently, tried to make due with less than elite talent.

Howland gets it, of course. Howland is one of the best basketball coaches in the country himself. He definitely has a good-coaching-first approach to his program (often times being so focused on his season that recruiting – during the season -- comes in a distant second), and it has proven to be very effective in bringing in elite hoops talent.

There have been many instances this football season where the older, more mature Neuheisel showed he's more about substance than hype now as UCLA's coach. Despite being asked many times about how good Kevin Craft was as a quarterback, he refused to hype him unnecessarily, but said he respected Craft for his hard work, heart and willingness to improve. Behind the scenes, Neuheisel has consistently been a task master in terms of demanding hard work out of his staff and players. He's been "relentless" in trying to upgrade the football program's nuts and bolts, like the strength and conditioning regimen, some details about the facilities, and the program's resources (such as a helicopter to assist in recruiting). He's done wonders to build support among the UCLA community, reaching out to boosters and donors in an unprecedented way for a head football coach in the last 15 years. He's done wonders in terms of dealing with the media, making himself very available, while also providing thoughtful, substantive comments, and doing so in a positive coach/media environment, which is certainly unprecedented with the football program.

As an example of how Neuheisel "gets it," unlike any other coach, is his approach to UCLA's higher academic requirements for recruits. At UCLA, much of the acceptance committee's willingness to take riskier students is how well the current players in the program are faring academically. Give Dorrell some credit for setting the precedent of the football program doing better academically in the last several years. Neuheisel has taken it even a step further in demanding academic achievement from his players, recognizing that it is a key to him being allowed more leeway academically when it comes to recruiting. He has also been using subtle pressure through other means to try to get UCLA to loosen its academic standards for football players. Maintaining a high academic standard among his current players in the cornerstone of being able to accomplish it. We've also learned that there is an exploratory committee being established to investigate what changes could be made to UCLA's academic requirements for football players.

In recruiting, Neuheisel started off a little slowly when he first was hired. It was a matter of him getting acclimated back into college recruiting, having been out of it for five years. He has said on and off the record how the recruiting cycle has sped up, and how he needed to adjust accordingly. Over the course of the season, there was a marked evolution in Neuheisel's understanding of the current state of recruiting – to the point, right now, where he's definitely on his "A" game. The off-the-record reports we've received from prospects and their families of Neuheisel have been glowing.

Neuheisel's now relentless approach to recruiting – compared to when he first got the job – is now very evident. He has been dogged and tireless in the last month in seeing recruits, having in-home visits, making calls and writing letters. We've heard that the amount of contact the UCLA staff has made with recruits (within NCAA rules, of course), has been unprecedented this December (UCLA, ironically, has benefited in recruiting by not making a bowl game and having the coaches far more available this month). And Neuheisel has extended his aggressive recruiting beyond the 2009 class, having scouted and offered scholarships to more 2010 recruits of any UCLA football coaching staff since we've been doing this job.

Neuheisel understands like no other UCLA football coach in the last 20 years that he needs the horses to win. He has decided to try to recruit the best recruits in the country, despite not having that much to sell after a 4-8 season. He's gone aggressively after USC's commitments, sensing a vulnerability there, and being able to sell Norm Chow's offense.

He has, in an unprecedented manner, recruited junior college players. UCLA currently has four JC players committed, recognizing that his roster needs an immediate influx of mature talent. The UCLA head football coaches before him very, very rarely dipped into the JC ranks, citing that it was difficult for them, given UCLA's academic requirements, to get JC players past UCLA's admissions. Neuheisel rejected that quickly, and went out to find the JC prospects who might be able to give him some quick help that he could be able to get past admissions.

Neuheisel, very simply, is doing things at UCLA – going after JC players, trying to make the academic requirements for football players more reasonable, pursuing USC's commitments, building support among boosters and donors – that haven't been done in decades.

He, more than any coach, has the right formula for success at UCLA. Knowing that elite talent will come to UCLA if they perceive they can get good coaching was something his predecessors couldn't grasp, mostly because they felt they were limited by resources to pay for good coaches and their own blindness in terms of coaching and schemes. He's recognized what has to be done with the football program on a wider scale than his predecessors – not just demanding a work ethic and a higher standard of talent on the roster, but schmoozing boosters and making himself available to the media, and emphasizing improvements in resources and facilities.

This is in no way asserting that Neuheisel is destined to build UCLA into a top 10 program for the next 20 years. It is very evident, though, in watching the program from both the inside and outside, that Neuheisel easily has the best chance to accomplish such a feat than in any time in the last 15 years. Who knows, though, if Neuheisel will be as dilligent and, most importantly, as deferential as he's shown so far in his one year at UCLA. We can say, in watching many coaches at UCLA as well as many from different schools and different programs, the aspect that can most often bring down a coach is his own ego. When they start to have success, their egos begin to get out of control, and the tone, work ethic and approach to the program tend to degrade. Who's to say that Neuheisel, if he achieves some success, couldn't fall victim to his burgeoning ego like many coaches before him? Neuheisel, though, is a very smart individual, who has shown a penchant to learn from his mistakes. He has shown, at least so far in his one-year tenure at UCLA, the uncanny ability to subvert his own ego, and the value of it.

Neuheisel "gets it." At least right now. And that makes this, even after a disappointing 4-8 season, a time in the football program where UCLA fans should allow themselves to be the most optimistic than they've been in many years.

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