Rick Neuheisel will walk through the tunnel and into Husky Stadium on Saturday, as he’s well aware, to a chorus off boos and jeers.
Some of the Washington fans in attendance surely will want to take out an 0-9 season’s worth of frustration on the former Husky coach — the man many people say is to blame for the current mess on Montlake.
But at the same time, seeing Neuheisel certainly will conjure up some good memories for Husky fans longing for the days of bowl games and conference titles. Some will see Neuheisel, now a first-year coach at UCLA, and remember the 2000 season that ended with a Rose Bowl victory. They’ll see “Slick Rick” and remember the thrilling comeback wins and the teams that didn’t lose an Apple Cup in Neuheisel’s four years at Washington.
And as much as Husky fans will show their disdain for the coach of the Bruins Saturday, he might not even be the most unpopular coach in Husky Stadium thanks to Tyrone Willingham’s presence.
Saturday will be, in a word, complicated. But isn’t that always how it is with Neuheisel?
Neuheisel went 33-16 in his four years at Washington, but was fired for participating in an NCAA tournament betting pool and lying about it to NCAA investigators. He also was under fire late in his UW career for hiding the fact that he had been in contact with the San Francisco 49ers about the head coaching job there. Neuheisel later sued Washington and the NCAA, and eventually received a $4.5 million settlement.
Six seasons after Neuheisel was fired following a 7-6 campaign, the Huskies are still stumbling around. They have not had a winning season since Neuheisel was dumped, and once again are in the process of searching for a new head coach — Washington has had two since his departure.
And now, as he prepares to coach in Husky Stadium for the first time since his 2003 firing, Rick Neuheisel says he’s sorry.
“I just want the fans to know that I am truly sorry for the messiness of how things shook out,” he said. “Husky football is a great entity and a great program and I believe that good things are in store.”
Neuheisel says that, in retrospect, there are things he would have done differently. He wouldn’t have entered that betting pool with friends, he would have handled things differently with the 49ers, and, as he said in a radio interview on KJR AM Wednesday, he would have been more heavy handed with troubled tight end Jerramy Stevens.
“I think we all have regrets,” he said. “When you try to put all the pieces together and say could this have been settled in another way shape and form, I think the answer’s yes. I don’t know that everybody will come to the table and admit that. But the fact of the matter is that didn’t have to be the way it was. I certainly regret being involved in a basketball pool given what took place. … So, certainly there are regrets. But it’s behind us. Hopefully everybody can move on and look toward the future.”
But while he’s sorry for the way things ended, and while he feels bad for the way things turned out at Washington, Neuheisel doesn’t feel like any of Washington’s current struggles are his fault.
“That’s not to say that I don’t feel badly for the current state of Washington football,” he said in the KJR interview. “But if I had stayed at Washington, do I believe that the program would be in the same situation, and had none of this happened would I still be at Washington? The answer is yes. I was very happy, the dalliance with the 49ers aside, I had made my decision especially after that that this was where I was going to stay and I was going to try to build the program back to the level that coach (Don) James had it and call it a run. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the way it was.”
Remember, it’s complicated with him.
So complicated that, while Husky fans will be booing Neuheisel, at least one Husky will make a point of finding Neuheisel before or after the game to say hello. Sophomore cornerback Vonzell McDowell, Jr., has a special connection to Neuheisel because, unlike the rest of the Huskies, he played for the former Washington coach.
After losing his job at Washington, Neuheisel was in the process of suing his former employer and the NCAA, so a job in college wasn’t really an option. Rather than sit at home and wait for the lawsuit to play out, Neuheisel picked up the phone and called Dan Jurdy, the athletic director at Rainier Beach High School.
Neuheisel was familiar with Jurdy and Rainier Beach from his time recruiting Nate Robinson, a football recruit who eventually switched sports and helped rejuvenate Husky basketball. Neuheisel spent two seasons as a volunteer assistant at Rainier Beach, working mostly with quarterbacks and the rest of the offense.
“I haven’t seen him in what, four years, so yeah, it’ll be fun to see him again and catch up,” said McDowell, who worked with Neuheisel as a receiver during his freshman and sophomore years. “He was a really, really smart coach. He brought a real exciting joy when he came in. He helped our team a lot. We won a Metro championship my sophomore year and we hadn’t done that in a long time. He brought a good vibe to us there.”
Trying his best to fly under the radar, Neuheisel did a lot for Rainier Beach on and off the field, Jurdy said.
“When he came to Rainier Beach, he was very humble, very gracious and simply asked for a chance to coach,” Jurdy said. “During that time, he was an outstanding role model for our students. He helped show our kids what volunteerism is all about. He was a great man, and he did a lot of stuff and never asked for any recognition for it. He purchased books for the school for our advanced placement history class. He helped kids that were real poor get clothes and stuff like that. He was just outstanding, and he did it in a very low-key, unassuming way.”
Low key? Unassuming? Neuheisel?
Remember, it’s complicated.
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com. For more on UW sports, check out the Huskies blog at heraldnet.com /huskiesblog