I’ve heard a lot of crappy things said about newly announced Head Coach Rick Neuheisel (AP photo at the right taken from BruinBlitz.com) that I can’t help but think have been unfair. Most people make comments based on what they read on the Internet or what’s been published in the press.
I, on the other hand, have at least had the opportunity to speak with him (in a past life) and see him in action in front of his players when, well, he thought no one was looking. Y’see I roomed with a walk-on running back during my undergraduate work at UCLA and I was a huge collegiate football stats guy. I kept stats on many of our players (during the Aikman, Johnson, Maddox, Fein, & Cook years) and personally analyzed match ups for my own pleasure – particularly cornerbacks-versus-WRs or linesmen-versus-linesmen for every game.
Through various connections in the Marching Band or friends in (pledging) Sigma Nu, the jock fraternity, I got the chance to hang out with several football players. Let’s just say that hypothetically of course, a certain 5′ 3" Asian guy got the chance to eat with several large corn-fed football players more than a few times (under rather interesting circumstances I might add… after all, how exactly do you explain having a short Asian kid at the table next to a 300lb lineman?) while they were at what is called "training table" – where all the football players sit down and eat on UCLA’s dime. And naturally, UCLA Quarterbacks coach, Rick Neuheisel was on hand with his players.
I remember quite a few stories involving Coach Neuheisel however here’s one that’s always stuck in my mind:
One day, the team was walking into the Treehouse for training table, a place in the UCLA student union where lots of home cookin’ was done – not like Panda Express or the other fastfood type stuff they have there today on the 2nd floor, but real food.
As they walked in, a skinny, somewhat obnoxious tall old guy was on his way out and stopped Coach Neuheisel by grabbing his arm and said, "Hey, you guys aren’t bad, but you folks need to tighten up that offense and mix it up a bit." Coach just nodded stoically and said something akin to, well, we’re workin’ hard at practice to get things moving and thanks for watching us at the games.
The skinny guy then said, "Yeah, well, you guys need those quarterbacks throwin’ better…" and as he walked away, he said: "Hell, I could throw the ball better than those guys."
Coach Neuheisel suddenly appeared to lose his composure, turned around in almost a fighting stance and yelled at the top of his lungs so everyone in the Treehouse could hear him, "THE HELL YOU COULD!?" And stared this guy down intensely..
Naturally, he startled the skinny guy who quickly scuttled away without a word. Coach was so angry and incensed, I really thought he was gonna tear this guy’s head off right then and there. I also remember swallowing another bite of sweet potato pie and thinking, "Good for you, Coach… good for you."
See, I think he could have let that slide. After all, it wasn’t like anyone necessarily had heard the conversation they two of them were having, but the fact that Coach decided that the pride of his quarterbacks was being soiled by some nobody, in front of other players who might have been listening, and that this guy deigned to do it in the Bruins’ own dining room… that showed to be a level of loyalty, unity, and self-respect that I think is the foundation of any good team.
If you give me a choice between a team that treats each other as brothers on the field and a team loaded with pure talent but lacks unity, I’ll take the former over the latter any day of the week.
Good luck, Coach Neuheisel. Consider my season tickets renewed for 2009 and go Bruins!