Thursday, November 11, 2010
Is Rick Neuheisel really to blame for the downfall of Husky football?
When the Washington Huskies(3-6,2-4) host the UCLA Bruins(4-5,2-4) next week on Thursday November 18th plenty of talk will be centered on UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel. That game will be played on ESPN and will also be senior night for the Huskies who are still trying to reach a bowl game. If the Huskies win the final three games of the year they will go to their very first bowl game since 2002 when Rick Neuheisel last coached the Huskies. Many Husky fans and media blame Neuheisel for the downfall of the Husky football program. In this upcoming blog post I'll talk about the stuff that Neuheisel did wrong but I'll show you guys that blaming Rick Neuheisel for the downfall of the Husky program is not only silly but simply false.
When UCLA plays at Husky Stadium next week you'll see plenty of signs about bets or other signs ragging on Neuheisel. If you are 15 years and younger if you just listen to what people told you Rick Neuheisel is the reason why the Huskies have lost six consectutive seasons. In fact this will be the eighth year in a row the Huskies won't have a winning season in the regular season. When Washington fired Nueheisel it was a shocking move that the Huskies still haven't recovered from. That is where things can easily be confused people tie in results and made an opinion based off that. The fact the Huskies fell apart after Neuheisel's firing wasn't all his fault like the media and most fans want you to believe. Before I dive into what happened I'll flash back to when Husky fans were ready to give Neuheisel a statue.
After the Huskies finished an unacceptable 6-6 season in 1998 Barbara Hedges decided to fire long time coach Jim Lambright. With the Seahawks set to make the big news in sports that weekend hiring Mike Holmgren away from the Green Bay Packers Hedges knew she has to make a big move. In an unexpected move Rick Neuheisel had left Colorado Buffaloes to come to Washington. It also helped the Huskies made him the third highest paid coach in the nation behind Bobby Bowden of Florida State and Steve Spurrier of Florida. Neuheisel was just 38 years old at the time but had already built up a 33-14(.702%) record and 19-12(.613%) in the Big 12 while going 3-0 in bowl games. Neuheisel was young and cocky and was known as "Slick Rick" since he was always bending the rules. He also had some baggage from Colorado besides all his rule bending he was only 13-10(.562%) and 7-9(.437%) in conference. Even with the red flags Hedges ignored Don James advice to hire Gary Pinkel from little known Toledo University.
The career of Rick Neuheisel got off to a rough start after losing to BYU in the opener down in Provo the Huskies were then destroyed by Air Force at home. Marques Tuiasosopo was struggling as a drop back quarterback which Neuheisel had enjoyed while at Colorado he knew Tuiasosopo was a great athlete so Neuheisel decided to adjust his offense after Tuiasosopo. The Huskies became an option team with Tuiasosopo and were 0-2 facing off with the Colorado Buffaloes the team Neuheisel had coached his previous four seasons. The Huskies defeated Colorado and took off from there. At one point the Huskies after Tuiasosopo became the first and only player in NCAA history to pass for 300 yards and rush for 200 yards against Stanford the Huskies controlled their destiny for a Rose Bowl. The Huskies would lose to UCLA in overtime in 1999 finishing in second place in the Pac-10 going 7-5 but 6-2 in conference. The Huskies were also 3-0 against the Northwest teams in Neuheisels first year. That would set up a magical season that for whatever reason is forgotton amongst Husky fans.
The 2000 season had plenty of hope and hype heading into the season under second year man Rick Neuheisel who had Marques Tuiasosopo returning as quarterback. Neuheisel continued the option the attack and fed off the big offensive lineman that previous head coach Jim Lambright had recruited. After destroying Idaho the Huskies took on powerhouse the Miami Hurricanes. The Huskies led by Tuiasosopo beat the Hurricanes 34-29 and led 27-9 at one point. The Huskies upset the 4th ranked Hurricanes in a huge win at Husky Stadium that showed the rest of the nation Husky football was back. Not that Husky football was terrible under Jim Lambright but the Huskies hadn't been to a Rosebowl in seven seasons and at Washington that was unacceptable. The Huskies continued to roll under Neuheisel and the option attack finding ways to win in the fourth quarter.
The Huskies would defeat the Purdue Boilermakers in the Rose Bowl who had Drew Brees 34-24. Marques Tuiasosopo was the Rose Bowl game MVP. The Huskies controlled the game in the fourth quarter with their big offensive line dominating the line of scrimmage and eating up the clock. Drew Brees can't score if he doesn't have the ball. After the game Neuheisel gave a speech to the crowd which in Los Angeles figured to be tons of big time recruits. Well that speech worked as the Huskies brought in the third ranked recruiting class including top receiver in the nation from Lakes High School Reggie Williams, third receiver in the nation from Florida Charles Frederick and then a four star quarterback from Illinois in Casey Paus who was the younger brother of starting quarterback Corey Paus of UCLA. Things were looking great for Washington as they made the most money they have ever made in their history that season. The Huskies finished the year 11-1, ranked third in the nation and Neuheisel was looking like he was going to go on a Don James like run. Little did anyone know the Huskies would play in just two more bowl games after that.
In the 2001 the Huskies graduated a lot of players and there was a transition. The Jim Lambright players were mostly gone and Neuheisel was bringing in his guys that fits his style. The Huskies were no longer a running team who featured the option. In fact with sophomore Quarterback Cody Pickett from Caldwell, Idaho the Huskies featured passing with freshman phenom Reggie Williams. In the opener against #11 Michigan in front of 74,000 fans at Husky Stadium the Huskies had found themselves trailing 12-6 with Michigan attempting a field goal the field goal was blocked by Omare Lowe which Rock Alexander scooped up for a touchdown. Then on the second play of Michigan's next series Omare Lowe intercepted a pass for a touchdown. The place was shaking and the Huskies once again under Neuheisel pulled off another fourth quarter miracle. The Huskies had won that game 23-18. The Huskies continued to roll this season.
The Huskies started the 2001 season off 7-1(5-1 in conference) and ranked eighth in the nation. It had appeared Washington was truly back because in a "rebuilding" season they were ranked in the top 10 as late as November 10th. Then the Huskies got destroyed 49-24 to Oregon State which was the first time since 1985 the Beavers had defeated the Huskies. The following week the Huskies did upset #9 Washington State 26-14 at Husky Stadium behind over 300 yards passing from Cody Pickett and close to 200 yards receiving from Reggie Williams. The following week on primetime national tv on ABC the 12th ranked Huskies lost 65-7 to eventual National Champion Miami Hurricanes. That is when the honeymoon for Rick Nueheisel had officially ended. The Huskies closed the season out losing their third game in four games by allowing over 40 points in all three losses losing to Texas 47-43 despite the Huskies at time having a 36-17 lead. The Huskies finished the year 8-4(6-2 in conference, second place) and ranked 19th in the country. The ending to the season left a sour taste in the mouths. Husky football is about good line play, tough good defense and running the football. The 2001 didn't have that at all and 2002 was even worse despite high expectations.
The Washington Huskies were picked to finish second in the conference in the 2002 season and began the year ranked 11th in the nation. Then the first game of the year against Michigan really got the fans to turn against Neuheisal. The Huskies to #13 Michigan 31-29 on a last second field goal which was set up because of 12 men on the field penalty. The Huskies under Neuheisel weren't a very disciplined team at all under Neuheisel and after a timeout there was 12 men on the field. The Husky fans were outraged and rightfully so, I remember listening to the end on the way to my football scrimmage and was just disgusted. It had felt like the season was over because there was some talk of a possible National Championship. After winning the next three games the Huskies would lose to California at home 34-27. The same California who was 1-10 the year before, the same California who hadn't beaten Washington since 1976. Two long winning streaks that spanned decades had now ended on Nueheisal's watch. The Huskies instead of competed for a Rosebowl were instead 4-5 and just 1-4 in Pac-10 play. The crowd was booing Neuheisel after a 34-24 loss to UCLA at home the Huskies were averaging less than 70 yards rushing a game on the year. The season then changed in the following weeks.
The Huskies had to end the season with their three Northwest rivals and Rick Neuheisel coined the term "Northwest Championship". The Huskies defeated Oregon State on senior night 41-29 and like another legendary Husky coach nobody knew at the time that would be his last game coaching the Huskies in Husky Stadium(Don James was the other in 1992). The Huskies then defeated #23 Oregon down in Autzen 42-14. In another example of Nueheisel changing the culture of Husky football the team acted classless. Under Don James and Jim Lambright the team had class and earned respect. Under Neuheisel you heard such brashness like "scoreboard baby" and when asked why he let the team dance on "O" at midfield he shrugged his shoulders and explained it was a tough year. He was rationalizing Washington's classless behavior. The following week the Huskies upset third ranked Washington State Cougars in triple overtime 29-26. The game ended in controversy and the Huskies stormed the field on the road which cause mass chaos with beer bottles flying on the field. Again this wouldn't have happened under previous coaches. At the end of the day Neuheisel job was to win and he finished the year 7-5 and 4-4 in Pac-10 play. The team was passing to much as Cody Pickett set a Pac-10 record for throwing for over 4,000 yards in the season, Reggie Williams was an all-american as a sophomore. In the bowl game the Huskies lost to Purdue 34-24 after being up 17-0. The Huskies finished the year unranked and just 7-6 which at Washington was unacceptable.
Then the offseason happened and this would change Husky football forever. Had Neuheisal pulled the same stunts following the 2000 season good chance the administration backs him 100% and looks the other way. Instead they were tired of how Neuheisel turned the Huskies into an embrassment. Under Neuheisel's watch several players were getting arrested in the offseason mainly Jerramy Stevens and Neuheisal sat by and did nothing. After an attempted rape and the following offseason a drunken hit and run by Stevens all that happened to Stevens was he was suspended....just for a first half. Neuheisal had got away from recruiting offensive lineman and focused mainly on skill players such as wide receivers. In his last recruiting class he signed just three offensive lineman while signing seven wide receivers. The program was defianetly changing under his watch and then Neuheisel was in even more trouble. The 49ers head coaching job had opened up and without asking permission Neuheisal went down to interview for the job which eventually went to Dennis Erickson. The university wasn't happy with Neuheisal going behind their backs on that interview given how they had just extended his contract despite the tough season. After that had blown over Neuheisel found himself in some hot water.
In late May I remember walking the halls at school and someone told me you hear about Neuheisel? I'm like what he do now? Well apparently he was busted for betting in an NCAA gambling bracket pool which everyone who has a pulse and money does in the country. He had correctly picked Maryland to win the tournament in 2002 and Syracuse in 2003 and won the bracket pool. It was amongst close friends including former Sonics center Jack Sikma. Neuheisel was in hot water and like Hedges had done with every other head coach of the football program she let him out there. She let Don James take the fall in 1993 and fired Lambright to save her own job in 1998. When the dust had settled the NCAA found Neuheisel guilty by NCAA rules against gambling but didn't sanction him because Dana Richardson the complience officer at Washington had sent him a memo saying it was okay.
The Huskies in June of 2003 despite having a potentially good team pressed the panic button and fired Rick Neuheisel. Neuheisel sued the school and the NCAA for wrongful termination of his contract. He was awarded 4.5 million dollars and coached at Rainier Beach High School in 2003 and 2004. The Huskies by firing Neuheisel in June couldn't find an effective college head coach so they promoted from within to Keith Gilbertson. The Huskies were picked to finish second in the Pac-10 in 2003 but would go just 6-6 and have some embarassing losses like to Nevada at home 28-17 and losing to California 54-7 while allowing over 700 yards in offense. The Huskies did close the season out with another upset win over #8 Washington State 27-19.
The Neuheisal players didn't take kindly to Gilberton's new discipline approach as Gilby was old school. Reggie Williams who was an All-American the year before was suspended a half for just being five minutes late to a meeting. The Huskies struggled as Gilbertson tried to feature the run and the personal was set up for the pass. What would happened next would be at total disaster of a season that Husky fans didn't think possible the Huskies would go 1-10 in 2004 with Neuheisel's recruits. His quarterback recruits of Stanback and Paus appeared to both be busts. Gilbertson was fired midseason but was kept on to finish out his contract. The Huskies then hired recently fired Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham. Willingham was the exact opposite of Neuheisel.
While Neuheisel ran a loose program that saw players breaking the law and was energetic, Willingham was the exact opposite he believed in discipline and wouldn't put athletics above being a good person while also showing zero personality. The Huskies then following up the miserable 2004 season by going 2-9 in 2005. That meant the third ranked recruiting class in 2001 went 3-19 in two seasons which shows recruiting rankings don't mean much. After that year again Neuheisel was to be blamed because once again those were his players. You kept hearing fans preach how once Willingham gets his guys in and how he inherited the mess that Neueheisel created the Huskies would be back on top again. In 2006 the Huskies started off 4-1 but lost six games in a row before beating Washington State to finish 5-7. Once again those were Neuheisel's players so he was blamed. In 2007 after starting off 2-0 the Huskies finished the year 4-9 and guess who was blamed for the losing season? Neuheisel was of course. The Seattle Times then ran a war of the Roses documentry detailing the arrests of the 2000 Rose Bowl championship team showing just how much Willingham had to overcome and how he has changed the culture at Washington. Instead of placing the blame on the coach who had three straight losing seasons the fans and media instead blamed a guy who hadn't coached at Washington in five seasons.
The Huskies gave Willingham a fourth year and they went 0-12 once Jake Locker went down. Rick Neuheisel returned to Husky Stadium to defeat them 27-7 on Senior night which saw the last Neuheisel player graduate in Juan Garcia. The Huskies are still losing going 5-7 in 2009 under another new head coach Steve Sarkisian and this year the Huskies are just 3-6 under Sarkisian. Now the new guy to blame is Willingham but you still hear blame of Rick Neuheisel despite him not coaching at Washington in eight years now. Recently the Huskies offensive line coach cites Neuheisel not recruiting any offensive lineman back in 2003 as why the team has struggled. Neuheisel wasn't reruiting enough and set the program backwards is the preceived notion and excuse for all of Willinghams first three years. Much like fans were blaming Don James quitting two weeks before the 1993 seasons for why the Huskies were failing in 2004. People tend to look for easy answers on why the Huskies are struggling even if it means stretching the truth.
Now I've told you everything that you already knew about why Neuheisel receives the bulk of the blame but I'll point out why the administration not Neuheisel is to be blamed for the Huskies seven year struggles. First of all I'll bring up the obvious points about Neuheisel that people forget which is he won and he beat the Northwest rivals. While at Washington Neuheisal was 33-16(.673%) while going 23-9(.718%) in Pac-10 play. Neuheisel was also 3-1 against the Oregon State Beavers, 2-1 against the Oregon Ducks and 4-0 against the Washington State Cougars which put him at 9-2(.818%) for his career against Northwest schools. Since Neuheisel's departure the Huskies have gone 26-66(.282%) and in Pac-10 play the Huskies are 16-50(.242%) so despite the myth of the toughest schedule in the nation the Huskies just aren't beating their conference opponents. Against the Northwest schools the Huskies are 6-17(.260%) since Neuheisel was replaced. Now Neuheisel receives the blame for the school going way downhill but nothing in his coaching track record has shown he would go that far downhill.
Now Neuheisel wasn't having the program going in the right direction after starting off his Washington career 25-7(.781%) and in Pac-10 play he was 18-4(.818%) but finished his Washington career going 8-9(.470%) while going 5-5(.500%) in Pac-10 play. What people never bring up is the fact Neuheisel had recognized the team needed a tougher defense and brought in defensive coordinator Phil Snow to change the defense. Another thing that isn't brought up is that Neuheisel kept talking about going back to the option so good chance Paus never starts or see the field in 2004 instead going with Isiah Stanback and becoming strictly an option team. As for recruiting what is often forgotten about Neuheisel is in his last year in 2002 since his job appeared to be safe he redshirted 22 of 23 freshman. The only true freshman who played was Nate Robinson who he knew was going to eventually play basketball anyways. So in 2006 the Huskies had 22 fifth year seniors. In 2003 the famous "bad" class that he brought in also had several seniors on that 2007 team most of which were starters. Who is to say that Neuheisel who was a good gameday coach would have let the program slip as far as it did.
That appears to be the theme at Washington amongst the fans and media is always blame the previous guy. Throughout the Jim Lambright years you kept hearing probation and sanctions as to why Washington couldn't make a Rose Bowl. Those are some of the problems but that didn't tell the story as the 1994-1997 teams were probably just as talented as any Husky team Don James ever coached besides the 1991 team obviously. The Huskies whether it was the players or coaches just couldn't get that final win to secure a Rose Bowl berth. People often say probation and sanctions killed the program. That simply isn't true now did it hurt the program? Yep sure did. It allowed the other schools mainly Oregon to catch up and the Huskies after going to the Rose Bowl six times from 1977-1992 have been there just once. In the 11 seasons though from 1993-2003 the Huskies went 83-47-1(.633%) and in Pac-10 play the Huskies went 58-29-1(.659%). As you can see the Huskies were still winning close to two-thirds of their games for a solid decade after the probation was struck and most importantly to the school still selling out the 72,000 seat Husky Stadium. Yet you always hear that myth how probation killed the program but what sent the program going downhill was Hedges and the administration.
That is why it is dangerous to blame Neuheisel and to a lesser extent Tyrone Willingham. Throughout the Willingham years fans blamed Neuheisel despite the fact that he won over two-thirds of his games, beat the Ducks, never lost to the Cougars and most importantly brought home a Rose Bowl Championship trophy. Say what you will about Neuheisel but ever since James left the Huskies Neuheisel was the best game day coach around. He pulled off some big wins at Washington beating #4 Miami in 2000, beating #11 Michigan in 2001 and beating #3 Washington State on the road in 2002. Would have the program went to a Rose Bowl again under Neuheisel? Possible but no guarantees. Would the program struggle to win one-fourth of their games under Neuheisel? No way possible he would have found a way to coach up his players. His defenses might have still be terrible but the offense would have still continued to put up points.
At the end of the day Neuheisel had his flaws but the administration for hitting the panic button and compounding that mistake by constant other mistakes is why Husky football is in the spot it is in today. If the University instead of jumping the gun really wanted to get rid of Neuheisel and save themselves money should have waited. Simply let Neuheisel finish out the season in 2003 and who knows maybe Pickett doesn't fall apart. The Huskies might have finished better than 6-6 but even if they did the Huskies could have fired Neuheisel in the offseason. They avoid the legal lawsuits and all bad publicity that follows. Most importantly it allows the Huskies to land on their feet and hire a top tier coach because although struggling by their standards this was still a program three years removed from being ranked third in the nation while winning two-thirds of their games. Tons of top tier head coaches would have came to Washington in that scenario. Instead they fired him in June left the program with a guy who had already failed as a head coach.
The Huskies then replaced Athletic Director Barbara Hedges with Todd Turner who came from Vanderbelt. Vanderbelt not known for its football credentials at all made the Turner hire a bit perplexing. Turner came from Vanderbelt where academics and the lesser sports ruled and he wanted to get as far away from Neuheisel as he possibly can. Turner hired a coach just like him in Willingham. Everyone knows how that turns out as I already described that but the guy who got a free pass in this whole thing was president Mark Emmert. Emmert took over in 2004 and while other sports did improve the cash cow which was the football program suffered. Instead of getting over 70,000 fans every game regardless of the opponent the Huskies very rarely attract that many fans today. You'll hear more blame cast towards Neuheisel than you will Emmert.
Remember guys Emmert was the one who allowed Tyrone Willingham to coach his fourth season. The fans and media were to busy blaming Neuheisel instead of focusing on Willingham and Emmert. Emmert then hired Scott Woodward to become the Athletic Director before the 2008 season. Woodward had no qualifictations to be an Athletic Director and his claim to fame was he used to work with Emmert at LSU and followed him to Washington. The Huskies are also having problems funding money for the renovation project. After Willingham was fired Emmert who hired Willingham, gave Willingham his fourth year and then hired unknown Woodward were set to make a coaching hire. They brought in Steve Sarkisian who also had no head coaching experience at the time. Now you are hearing the same cries during the Willingham years only the names have changed. Instead of Neuheisel left a mess, recruited no lineman and left that coach with no talent it is Willingham who did all that. You know the same Willingham who every columnist kept proclaiming was doing such a great job rebuilding this program that if you fired him after year three that would lose everything that he had accomplished through recruiting.
Now back to my original point about blaming Neuheisel. Rick Neuheisel hasn't coached this program in eight years and the program hasn't reached a bowl game since he was fired. How can a coach who won a Rosebowl, beat his rivals and win games be so hated? because the media and University needs a scapegoat. It's easier to blame the guy who no longer works there anymore. I'm not saying Rick Neuheisel isn't without blame but to continue to blame this whole losing streak on him is crazy.
This Thursday when UCLA takes the field it is okay to boo the team as they are the opponent that day but please fans keep it tasteful when it comes to Rick Neuheisel. If you want to boo Neuheisel because he is the UCLA head coach then go for it. If you are booing him because you feel he is the reason Washington football went downhill think again. It's not Rick Neuheisel's fault that the team fired him so late in the offseason that the NCAA determined Washington was at fault for. It is not Rick Neuheisel's fault the Huskies followed him up with two bad coaches and a third one who is unproven to date. If you want to blame someone for the Huskies football problems stop blaming Neuheisel and probation and blame the administration. Also don't forget as your booing Neuheisel he did win a Rose Bowl for the Huskies. Should make for a fun Thursday game when Neuheisel runs out of the tunnel of Husky Stadium. Just remember don't be blaming him for the Huskies football program declining.