Sports Nut

The Gambler

Rick Neuheisel got fired for the wrong reason.

He deserved the ax, but for his losses, not his winnings

Of all the college coaches who have been fired this offseason for personal vices (as opposed to job-related vices, mainly losing) the only one who has garnered much sympathy is Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel. Unlike fired Iowa State basketball coach Larry Eustachy, Neuheisel did not regularly attend parties at the homes of students, who at were at first star-struck but later, as he lingered awkwardly into the wee hours of the morning hitting on young women, increasingly creeped out. And unlike recently fired Alabama coach Mike Price, Neuheisel was not accused of spending  a night with a stripper who ran up $1,000 in room-service charges on his company credit card, and, according to the stripper, answering her midcoital cry of “Roll, Tide” with the rejoinder, “It’s rolling baby, it’s rolling!” Few of us shed tears for Eustachy or Price because few of us have found ourselves in these sorts of situations. (Although, in Price’s defense, anybody who has seen a room-service menu would know that spending $1,000 is not as hard as it sounds.)

Neuheisel’s crime, by contrast, seems rather prosaic. He took part in an NCAA tournament betting pool the past two years, albeit an unusually high-stakes one, in which he won about $12,000. NCAA coaches are expressly forbidden to wager on college sports, and, ergo, Neuheisel was fired. The punishment struck many people as manifestly unfair. After all, millions of Americans participate in NCAA tournament pools, and many of us devote several hours of work time to researching our picks and coercing colleagues to join, an abuse of company time that is tantamount to stealing from your employer. Moreover, Neuheisel’s crime is one of form and not substance—nobody alleges that a football coach could fix the NCAA basketball tournament. And so Neuheisel has the appearance of a man unfairly fired on the basis of a technicality. He may have lost his job, but, unlike his less-fortunate compatriots, he has not lost his public standing.

The real crime, though, is not that Neuheisel was fired. It’s that he was fired in such a way as to preserve his reputation. Here is a man so richly deserving of a pink slip that his dismissal on such minor grounds leaves a sour taste. It’s sort of like nabbing Al Capone for tax evasion. They got the right guy for the wrong reason.

Neuheisel, a blond-haired, rosy-cheeked former UCLA walk-on, achieved renown for his rapid coaching rise, first as an assistant and then later when named head coach of Colorado at the age of 33. Sports reporters fawned all over the articulate young star. Neuheisel was an irresistible novelty for the sports media: a players’ coach who eschewed the tough demeanor of his colleagues, instead taking his team out white-water rafting and playing his guitar for the cameras.

Successful football coaches and successful guitarists are generally distinct, non-overlapping categories, and it seems there was a good reason for this. Neuheisel’s mellow style may have won him acclaim from players and the press, but it didn’t help him establish a disciplined atmosphere. At Colorado he inherited Bill McCartney’s powerhouse program and compiled a 10-2 record in each of his first two seasons. But then he started slipping. His 1997 team, picked as preseason national champion by one magazine, finished a dismal 5-6 and often appeared demoralized. In 1998, he posted a so-so 8-4 mark.

Somehow, this mixed record persuaded the University of Washington to lure him away with a seven-figure contract, which Neuheisel quickly snapped up. In four years at Washington, he had one great season in 2000, going 11-1 and winning the Rose Bowl. The other three years, Washington went a combined 22-15, including a 7-6 record this past fall with a talent-laden squad whose players openly questioned each others’ dedication. Somehow, this even shakier record persuaded the San Francisco 49ers to recruit Neuheisel as a possible head-coaching candidate. (Neuheisel’s one great genius turns out to be his ability to make people think he is a genius.) He denied having been contacted by the 49ers until a reporter overheard him at the San Francisco airport discussing the job. Neuheisel explained that he lied to protect the 49ers—although it’s difficult to fathom why the franchise would have needed to conceal the identity of its candidates for an advertised vacancy.

From Neuheisel’s perspective, the great advantage of job mobility is that it allows him to stay one step ahead of the posse. After he left Colorado, the NCAA discovered 51 violations committed during his tenure, slapping the school with two years of probation. The American Football Coaches Association formally censured him for a lack of remorse. Neuheisel later described his approach to NCAA rules as “creative.” Even when not breaking the letter of a rule, he often found ways to violate one in spirit. For instance, during periods when he was forbidden to visit recruits, he would drive in front of a prospective player’s home, call him on his cell phone, and tell him to look out the window, where he would see Neuheisel waving. Washington high-school star Larry Stevens, who had spurned Neuheisel, described how the coach’s pursuit bordered on stalking. Nonetheless Neuheisel, with a straight face, accused Pac-10 rival Bob Toledo of continuing to recruit players who had declared their intention to attend Washington.

While he maintained his golden-boy reputation with the national media and prospective employers, fellow coaches and fans referred to him as “Neuweasel” and “Slick Rick.” The latter is a conscious reference to President Clinton, to whom Neuheisel was often likened by his critics. The comparison is deeply unfair. At least Clinton was a good president.