ASU game critical for Neuheisel, UCLA - East Valley Tribune: Fox Sports Arizona

ASU game critical for Neuheisel, UCLA

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Posted: Thursday, November 3, 2011 5:32 pm | Updated: 12:24 am, Sun Nov 6, 2011.

Dennis Erickson was less than enthused with the topic.

"I'd prefer not to even talk about it," he said.

That's because Erickson has sat where UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel is sitting right now: On the hot seat.

Erickson was perched there just nine weeks ago, when the Sun Devils opened a season of mega-marketing and lofty expectations fresh off three consecutive bowl-less campaigns. Now he's a Pac-12 coach of the year candidate following the Sun Devils' 6-2 start.

"Everybody in this business deals with it," Erickson said of his fickle job security. "It's just part of life."

Life for Neuheisel in Westwood hasn't been so good.

He was 15-22 in his first three seasons (2008-2010), the worst three-year start by a Bruins coach since Harry Trotter went 2-13-1 from 1920 to 1922. Neuheisel is winless in three tries against cross-town rival USC.

His predecessor, Karl Dorrell, beat USC once and was 22-15 in his first three seasons, including a 10-2 record in his third year. Yet he only lasted five years before he was fired.

Things appeared to hit rock bottom for Neuheisel when the Bruins were hammered, 48-12, at Arizona on Oct. 20, giving the Wildcats their only win over a Pac-12 foe this season and their only win over a FBS team.

But UCLA rebounded last week, beating Cal at home to set up Saturday's showdown with Arizona State at the Rose Bowl -- a game that may be the linchpin in Neuheisel's future.

If UCLA wins, it can seize control of the Pac-12 South Division and the inside track to the conference's inaugural title game. If it loses, ASU will all but clinch the division and UCLA (4-4) likely will finish no better than .500, with games still to play at Utah, against Colorado and at USC. Despite a recent vote of confidence from athletic director Dan Guerrero, it's hard to imagine Neuheisel surviving that scenario given his growing crowd of detractors.

"The only thing you can do is ignore that - you don't have to, but I choose to," he said. "It does me no good. I can't answer all the critics. I can't type back to all the bloggers. All I can do is my best."

In some ways, life can't get any better for Neuheisel. Like many college coaches, every other job was a stepping stone for him to get to this ultimate resting place. He left Colorado for Washington and a mega-contract. Then he flirted with countless other jobs, including the 49ers, angering the Huskies fan base while earning the nicknames "Slick Rick" and "Neuweasel."

He was fired at Washington in 2003 for taking part in a high-stakes NCAA basketball pool, then lying to school officials. He has rubbed more than a few opposing coaches and school officials the wrong way and yet, he landed on his feet at UCLA, winning his dream job at the place he always wanted to be -- the place where he went from a walk-on quarterback to Rose Bowl MVP.

"I wake up every morning excited about coming to work," he said.

When he took the UCLA job before the 2008 season, Neuheisel promised to seize control of the city from mighty USC. He hasn't, but that's no surprise or crime, given USC's stranglehold on local recruiting.

"He's a very level-headed, fair, unflappable guy," said Karl Kiefer, Neuheisel's coach at McClintock high school, where Neuheisel won a state championship in 1977. "Sometimes as a coach you have to talk big, and Rick takes a challenge very seriously. Things haven't worked out as great as he would have liked, but I know Rick. He'll always come out on his feet."

One of the biggest criticisms of Neuheisel and his staff has been their inability to get the most out of -- or even know how to use -- what is annually a talented group of players. Last season, for instance, linebacker Akeem Ayers (Tennessee), safety Rahim Moore (Denver) and defensive lineman David Carter (Arizona) were all selected in the NFL Draft. Yet the Bruins defense finished ninth in the Pac-10 in scoring defense, allowing 30.3 points per game.

"It's not just the coaches, it's the players who have to own up to their responsibilities, too," said Carter, who wasn't used at nose tackle until his senior year, which was the only season he garnered significant playing time. "UCLA is expected to be great, and a lot of players when they show up there they think, ‘I'm going to get drafted just because I'm at UCLA,' but they don't put in the work or work together."

Erickson said part of the problem in judging Neuheisel is that time frames have shortened. Instant success is expected or there are consequences.

"I don't worry about it, but it sure seems like it to me," Erickson said. "That's just how people are nowadays."

Now in his fourth season with the Bruins, Neuheisel insists he sees progress from his current team, pointing to the 31-14 win over Cal as proof.

"Last week, you saw a real movement toward physical play," he said. "That's where we have to plant our flag the rest of the year."

If the Bruins don't this week, Neuheisel might be planting his flag in another locale.


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