LOS ANGELES — For better and worse, not much is slick about Rick Neuheisel these days.
The UCLA coach is no longer the flashy young offensive mastermind who engineered big victories and endured messy departures from his previous top jobs at Colorado and Washington. Neuheisel is now a profoundly earnest 50-year-old man in an old-fashioned sweater vest with a small Bruins helmet embroidered on the breast, looking very much like a direct coaching descendant of John Wooden, one of his idols.
Slick Rick, the nickname once slapped on him by envious opponents and supporters alike, no longer fits a coach who has strived to do everything by the book at UCLA — and who might be five games away from losing his dream job anyway.
"I don't think that this is the end by any stretch of the imagination," Neuheisel said Monday while the Bruins (3-4, 2-2 Pac-12) began preparations for the game against California. "As a matter of fact, I look at it as a beginning, and look at it as a fantastic challenge that we should embrace. Adversity is nothing more than an opportunity camouflaged."
Neuheisel began his fourth season by acknowledging he's on a hot seat, and his Bruins haven't done much to cool it down in the last three months. After an embarrassing 36-point loss at Arizona last week punctuated by a brawl and six suspensions, Neuheisel might be nearly out of time to show enough progress to keep his dream job.
Yet Neuheisel's optimism is indefatigable. Even with four of his top receivers and two key linemen suspended, he spent the long weekend figuring out how to beat the Golden Bears this Saturday.
"I've made it clear to everybody I work for, I'm not going to give up," Neuheisel said. "There is absolutely zero in the way of a throw-up-your-hands-type mentality if you're asking about me and anybody that works for me. I am committed. I am still as positive as ever. This is nothing more than camouflaged opportunity, and we are going to find a way to get this thing done right."
Neuheisel knows his 18-26 record at UCLA has alienated many fans and alumni who were confident the local boy would make good. Even his biggest detractors acknowledge Neuheisel has been a remarkable advocate for his school, running a largely clean program and landing three elite recruiting classes with his heartfelt sales pitches about the wonders of Westwood.
None of it has translated into football success for UCLA, which hasn't managed a significant conference victory in Neuheisel's tenure. The Bruins finished no higher than eighth in the Pac-10 standings in his first three seasons, and they've alternated narrow wins with blowout defeats for most of this fall.
UCLA's 48-12 loss at Arizona was the lowest point yet, and not just because of the suspensions resulting from a fight that broke out when officials became distracted by a streaker. The Bruins returned from their bye week looking thoroughly unprepared to face the 1-5 Wildcats, who had just fired Mike Stoops.
"I believe wholeheartedly that we can fix the things that were broken the other night," Neuheisel said before obscurely citing "pad level on the defensive front" among the first corrections he hopes to make.
A year after UCLA's passing offense ranked among the NCAA's worst, resulting in offensive coordinator Norm Chow's expensive departure, the Bruins have made only small improvements. UCLA is 11th in the Pac-12 with just over 211 yards per game despite trailing in several games, and the Bruins are 10th in the conference in total offense while alternating quarterbacks Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut, who's now out with a broken ankle.
Neuheisel's dedication to UCLA comes through in his plans for quarterback Brett Hundley and receiver Devin Lucien, two of his highest-profile recruits. Both are redshirting this season, and Neuheisel so far has resisted the urge to throw two major talents onto the field before they're ready in a bid to save his own job.
Lucien is almost certainly keeping his redshirt on, even though the Bruins could use all warm bodies at receiver this weekend. Hundley might get to play in the last few games, but only if Neuheisel thinks he's "100 percent ready."
"I can't make these decisions based on what's best for my career," said Neuheisel, a former UCLA quarterback himself. "I've got to make them based on what's best for Brett and for UCLA. I'm excited to have him play, but I want to know he's ready to play. I put Richard Brehaut in there too early a couple of years ago. I have too much respect for the young man and his family, and too much respect for the position to put him in there early."
Athletic director Dan Guerrero has sent mixed signals about his plans for Neuheisel, although the growing outcry from his alumni base is impossible to ignore. Guerrero repeatedly has said he didn't hire Neuheisel for a short-term job, and he insists he'll wait until after the season to evaluate the coaching staff, ruling out the possibility of a midseason firing.2 comments on this story
Yet Guerrero fired Karl Dorrell in 2007 after the coach went 35-27 and built five bowl teams. Neuheisel has led the Bruins to just one bowl game in three years, and even a 3-2 finish this fall wouldn't guarantee another minor bowl appearance.
"I have felt nothing but support from Dan," Neuheisel said. "I appreciate the entire administration's support. I think that we are all in this together. I think that we are all dying to turn the corner and become the program that we all envision it should be."