Rick Neuheisel pointed to chemistry issues and a lack of success as the catalysts in the decision to replace Norm Chow as offensive coordinator at UCLA.
Then he pointed to the man sitting to his left, Chow’s replacement Mike Johnson, lightly tapped him on the arm, and assured reporters that the new man in charge of the offense would ignite a unit that has fallen to tremendous depths.
Neuheisel formally announced the hire of Johnson as UCLA’s new offensive coordinator on Saturday morning; by Saturday night, Utah formally announced the hire of Chow as its new offensive coordinator, bringing to a close a three-year stint that started with ample promise and ended in disarray.
“I think dysfunction may be too strong of a word, but when it’s not functioning at the highest level it leaks down into the program,” Neuheisel said to reporters during halftime of the Bruins’ men’s basketball game against Stanford. “It isn’t anybody’s fault, but it is correctable and it has to be corrected and that responsibility falls on me.”
And so, it seems, will a large portion of the UCLA offense in 2011.
Neuheisel said that he will play a substantial role in the play-calling going forward – though he said that it would be a collaborative effort – and would coach the Bruin quarterbacks, while Johnson would serve as offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. Johnson was promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers last season and previously coached with the San Diego Chargers and Atlanta Falcons, where he helped groom Michael Vick early in his career.
Johnson was officially hired on Thursday and has been acting in the capacity of a coach since then, including on the recruiting trail, where the Bruins have been struggling in recent weeks. Neuheisel said Johnson’s recruiting abilities as an assistant coach at Oregon State piqued his interest when he was head coach at Washington in the early 2000s, and that he tried to acquire Johnson’s services then.
“Down the road at Washington, I became very aware that there was somebody kicking our tail in LA in the recruiting department, and it was Mike at Oregon State,” Neuheisel said. “In that game where Oregon State played Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, I think 16 of 22 starters for the Beavers that day were Mike Johnson recruits. I tried to steal him away from Oregon State at that time.”
Johnson said he was excited to embark on the recruiting trail before reuniting with the offensive staff to determine how to resolve an offense that has been inconsistent at best, sometimes downright awful, during Chow’s tenure. Neuheisel and Johnson both said they needed to discuss the viability of the Pistol offense, which debuted to disastrous results in 2010 as the Bruins finished 104th nationally in scoring offense, after finishing 109th and 94th in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
“Now that I’m here, I’m excited; next week and a half I’m going to go out and beat the streets of Los Angeles and see if we can get a couple guys in our boat,” Johnson said. “Once that process is over, we’re going to sit down and get started on the offense, and develop an offense that can be effective, be diverse, be multiple, both running and passing, and make sure we can marry the two in detail.”
As late as Saturday morning, Neuheisel and UCLA officials were mum on Chow’s destination, even after a report in the Salt Lake Tribune during the week that said Chow had reached an agreement to return to his alma mater.
Chow agreed to a buyout of a roughly $1 million two-year contract extension that was agreed upon during the summer but delayed until December, though details were not made available.
“We reached a mutual agreement on terms of separation,” a UCLA spokesman said. “The agreement allowed for a smooth transition, was satisfactory for both parties and was amicable.”
The agreement ended a long standoff that drew the ire of UCLA fans and the national media, a process that began with speculation of Chow’s departure as early as November, when Neuheisel would not commit to his return.
Now Neuheisel turns his attention to the Bruins’ two remaining coaching vacancies, the defensive coordinator spot left open when Neuheisel fired Chuck Bullough – along with wide receivers coach Reggie Moore – on Dec. 18, and the newly opened additional offensive spot, created by the loss of Chow.
Sources close to the program said that Neuheisel is scheduled to interview former Miami head coach Randy Shannon for the position today.
“It’s a process, and there are some things that have to be dealt with as you try to put pieces in place,” Neuheisel said. “It takes a great deal of thought and careful deliberation before you come up with the perfect formula. I didn’t anticipate it taking this long, but to get it right, it’s worth waiting.”