So as I'm walking onto the field for the morning practice at Oakland Raiders training camp up in Napa a couple of weeks ago, I thought I noticed a familiar figure. He was standing between Raiders' senior assistant Bruce Allen and football talking head Artie Gigantino. The three had their backs to me, facing the practice field, and were chatting.
As I kept walking, I kept thinking to myself, "why does that guy look familiar?"
Then it hit me. The blond hair, the golf shirt, the made-for-TV smile…it was none other than Rick "Who, Me?" Neuheisel himself. I couldn't believe it.
It turns out that Neuheisel had simply been invited by the Raiders to check out a practice or two, and it didn't seem like Slick Rick was there to lobby Al Davis for a gig. Of course, being the cynical, snarky bunch that we are, it didn't stop the media contingent from cracking bracketology jokes at just about every turn.
About 90 minutes later, practice ended and I caught up with the former coach in the parking lot. After introducing myself as a Stanford alum, I jokingly congratulated him for ruining the Cardinal's seasons in 1999, 2000, and 2001. Those three games still give me nightmares to this very day.
"What are you taking about?" Neuheisel asked me. "Heck, you guys went to the Rose Bowl one of those years!"
I grinned devilishly, "That's right, we did beat you out for a Rose Bowl bid!" Knowing that he'd walked into a trap, Neuheisel laughed and said, "That was sneaky."
Coach and I made small talk for just a brief moment, and then we went our separate ways. He got in his rental car and drove to the airport. I went home and checked "being called 'sneaky' by Rick Neuheisel" off my list of things to do before I die.
By far the biggest story in college football this past offseason involved coaches behaving badly. Tricky Rick Neuheisel's observance of the March Madness holiday cost him his job. Mike Price's own personal episode of "Wild on Pensacola" cost him his brand new gig at Alabama. There's no question that those men made foolish mistakes that have, at best, put their careers on hold or, at worst, ended their careers completely.
But while these stories unfolded, the biggest question to me became: Since when do we expect our coaches to become saints? Why, all of a sudden, are coaches being held to a higher behavioral standard than your friendly neighborhood politician?
It probably started the day that ball coaches started getting paid more than your friendly neighborhood politician. It floored me when I found out that the highest-paid employee on the state of Iowa's payroll isn't the governor, it's Cyclone hoops head coach Larry Eustachy.
It's not unfair to have high expectations of an employee's behavior, especially when so much money is invested in that employee. But do the big paydays give athletic directors and university presidents the green light to legislate that behavior by any means necessary?
Mike Price's case is especially galling, both for his complete indiscretion on the night in question, and for the witch hunt that followed. We all know the sordid details, at least those according to Sports Illustrated, and the anti-Price boosters (of which there appeared to be many) and the media would have made his transgressions a big distraction for him off the field. But would his date with Destiny have taken away from his actual job of overseeing the day-to-day operations of the program? Unless Price was accepting lap dances during coaches' meetings, somehow I seriously doubt it.
Also, the Price incident didn't directly affect or involve the students themselves. Can't say the same about Larry Eustachy, yet Eustachy kept his job.
Someone else who kept his job was John Mackovic. His actions not only forced his own players to revolt against him, they've also damaged the Arizona football program for the foreseeable future. To me, his actions were far worse and far more damaging to his program than Neuheisel's or Price's actions were to theirs. After hearing about all the way he treated his players, would you want your son to play for Mackovic?
I'm not an athletic director, but I'll play one in this paragraph. I wouldn't have fired Mike Price. The only reason I would have fired Rick Neuheisel is because I would have had to, given the rules against gambling in the NCAA. I wouldn't have fired him for lying about whether or not he interviewed with the 49ers, and quite honestly, I wouldn't have cared. I would have fired John Mackovic on the spot. Period.
As an AD, I know that brackets and strip clubs are bad PR. But I also know that the best PR is winning. The best way to keep everyone happy, from the boosters and the media to the players and coaches, is to win. It really is that simple.
Maybe my morals have been warped by the good old American competitive spirit. Maybe the three weeks I spent with the Raiders during training camp has warped my brain. But if I'm an AD at a typical football school, as long as my coach brings me at least three major bowls every five years, and at least one of those bowls is a BCS bowl, I'm cool.
As sneaky as his methods were, Neuheisel put winning teams on the field. Mike Price coached in two Rose Bowls with Washington State, of all schools. If that's not winning, I don't know what is.
Yes, Tricky Rick coached for the hated Dawgs. Yes, both of my parents went to Colorado. Yes, his administrative and recruiting methods were, shall we say, a bit on the creative side. And yes, he's so slippery that he can sell ice to an Eskimo. Twice. But I gotta admit it. I'm rooting for him. I'm also rooting for Mike Price, too. But this fall, both men will be paying the price by watching the college football season roll on without them.
RANDOM PAC-10 THOUGHTS
First, to the Stanford fans who think UC Davis's "win" in last week's scrimmage means the end of the world for the Cardinal, I quote the great poet, philosopher, and bard Allen Iverson: "We talkin' about practice. We ain't talkin' about a game…we talkin' about practice!"
A look at Stanford's depth chart this week features a notable omission, one I just recently noticed…no fullback. Instead, two separate tight-end positions are listed, with Brett Pierce manning one spot and Alex Smith at the other. Not hard to figure out why. When you've got the two best tight ends in the Pac-10, fullback is a question mark, and the offensive line needs all the help it can get, it makes perfect sense to go with two tight ends as a base offense…
Conference teams went 6-1 last weekend. That's impressive, but the Pac-10's Day of Reckoning will be September 20. Check out that day's slate: Michigan comes to Oregon, New Mexico goes to Wazzu, Stanford heads to Provo, UCLA gets on a plane to Norman, the Beavers host Boise State, Arizona State goes to Iowa, Arizona travels to Purdue, and cal faces Illinois in Champaign…if the Pac-10 only loses one game that day, I'll take back everything I said about the Pac-10 in my conference preview…
That's cool…it wouldn't be the first thing I've had to retract from that column anyway!
I've only seen the 1975 Steelers defense on film, but I'd imagine if you took those players while they were in college and put them all on the same team, they'd look like U$C did against Auburn…
Think about it…when was the last time you saw a college defense hit like that? It's been a while, hasn't it?
How much goal-line work do you think Jeff Tedford is putting his boys through again this week?
And by the way, when it's fourth-and-goal inside the one, you go for it every time. You also go straight up the middle, which is what Tedford should have done against K-State…
Have you seen the Washington Husky fan boards this week? They think the sky is falling! Never mind the fact that they faced the defending national champs in front of 105,000-plus in Columbus and an audience of millions nationwide. Never mind that the front four, already one of the nation's best, lived up to the hype and more. Never mind that the defense actually played reasonably well after allowing the initial score. Never mind that Cody Pickett showed the nation his toughness. Never mind the fact that Washington's next two opponents, and offense played okay considering the circumstances. Is it a tough loss? No doubt. But is it the end of the world for the Huskies? No way…
That said, the Huskies still need a running game. When they had third-and-one with midway through the second quarter, you just knew they weren't going to convert it if they ran the ball. I knew it, the Ohio State defense knew it, Buckeye Nation knew it, and I suspect the Huskies players knew it, too…
Troy Clardy is a reporter for the Stanford Cardinal Farm Report, which airs Saturday mornings at 8:30 on Fox Sports Bay Area.
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