A fitting salute

Forget the record.

Forget even, football, if just for a moment.

The scene we just witnessed at Spaulding Field was one of the most memorable moments I’ll ever have as a beat writer: Watching Rick Neuheisel get carried off the field by his players, singing the UCLA fight song.

Neuheisel’s last practice at Spaulding field as head coach of the Bruins culminated in a celebration, not for a coach, it seemed, but for a UCLA legend.

It was more than an emotional scene – Neuheisel and some assorted family in tears, players solemnly trudging off the field – but it was one I’ll remember.

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UCLA going bowling win or lose on Friday

UCLA could be one of the rare teams to advance to a bowl game with a sub-.500 record, the NCAA decided today.

College football’s governing body approved UCLA petition for a bowl waiver if the Bruins lose on Friday to Oregon in the Pac-12 Conference Championship, a loss that would drop the team’s record to 6-7.

“As a program, we appreciate the NCAA approving our petition for a bowl waiver,” UCLA Director of Athletics Dan Guerrero said in a release. “We will be able to give our 18 seniors one more chance to represent their university and end their collegiate careers on a high note, regardless of the outcome of this Friday’s Pac-12 Championship Game. We’d like to thank the NCAA for considering the unique situation in which we find ourselves this year and rewarding us with this opportunity.”

Bowl pairings will be announced on Sunday, with seven Pac-12 teams advancing to the postseason. Current projections have UCLA going to either the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl or the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco.

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Quick chat with Brandon Huffman

Spoke with Scout.com’s Brandon Huffman yesterday about the Building a Class story, here are some leftovers:

What do the other UCLA coaches do with their futures in doubt?
“You can’t just be polishing up your resume. You have to prove you want to still be on this staff. The reality is that some of these guys might end up at a Pac-12 school, and they want good reputations.”

Is a new coach on defense or offense? That is, is he more protecting the commits they already have, or going for new ones?
“It’s going to be both. What happened with Neuheisel, when he walked in, they already had 18-20 guys committed. Rahim, Datone, Tony Dye, Patrick Larimore Nick Crissman – those were guys who had committed by June or earlier. Nobody wanted to be that guy who left.”

Can this get UCLA in the living rooms of any elite prospects?
“It all depends on who they hire. A lot of it is dependent on if it’s an offensive guy – maybe some guys didn’t think they can do the Pistol, maybe the new guy runs the spread or the pro-style. Maybe it’s a defensive guy, and maybe there can be an outside linebacker who doesn’t want to play in a 4-3, but the new guy runs a 3-4 and now he looks at UCLA.”

Give me one surprise with this news:
“They’re not going to lose any of their elite prospects. I don’t think they lose those guys like Hiva Lutui and Aaron Porter. Even though Porter said at halftime of the Arizona game, he had three Pac-12 coaches call him.”

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Building a class

As if UCLA’s recruiting prospects did not seem dim enough after the Bruins’ 50-0 loss at USC on Saturday at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Rick Neuheisel’s firing on Monday morning has thrown a wrench in even the best-laid plans.

Verbal commits now will have to reconsider their decisions, those undecided who might have built a good rapport with UCLA coaches now might look elsewhere, relationships will have to be reestablished, or in some cases, reestablished.

The Bruins currently have 16 verbal commitments, including those from No. 3-rated center Hiva Lutui (Euless, Texas), No. 9 middle linebacker Aaron Porter of La Habra and no. 14-rated guard Lacy Westbrook of Compton Dominguez.

“This is the time when guys become fair game,” Scout.com recruiting analyst Brandon Huffman said. “Especially guys like Lutui, Porter, guys who are committed and upper-echelon guys; this is when people can put doubts in their mind.”

The volume of those doubts will be turned to 11 after the Bruins big loss to the Trojans, the big, bad crosstown rival who collects five-star talent like they’re postage stamps.
After a loss like that, Huffman and Rivals.com’s Rick Kimbrel agree, recruiting top talent can be almost impossible.

“It’s gonna be tough,” Kimbrel said. “It’s difficult – this is one of those game where everything that could go wrong did – and you have to revert back to the Arizona State game, Colorado – the positives., Colorado the positives.

Added Huffman: “Actually, if Neuheisel had been retained, I think the USC loss would’ve slammed the door shut for most guys. Like, ‘This is what I’m getting myself into?’ Instead, there’s always excitement when a new coach is hired.”
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Bruins move on in face of adversity

For all but 12 UCLA football players, Rick Neuheisel is the only collegiate head football coach they’ve ever known.

But the reality started sinking in for the Bruins around midday on Monday, less than an hour after the announcement that Neuheisel would be relieved of his duties following the team’s Pac-12 championship game showdown at Oregon’s Autzen Stadium on Friday night, that soon enough, that won’t be the case.

Some found out via a special team meeting with Dan Guerrero, one in which the athletic director asked players to raise their hand if they came to UCLA to go 6-6, and “not one of them raised their hand.”

Some were not so lucky.

“The feelings that happened when I found out on ESPN, I can’t really explain,” said tight end Joseph Fauria, who was in class and could not attend the meeting. “It wasn’t necessarily shock, it was hurt that I found out that way. It just hurt. You’d be dumb to say it hasn’t been floating out there for some time, but he’s our coach, he’s our leader, a guy who I personally like on and off the field, and it’s tough to grasp.”

Though Neuheisel started the season firmly planted in a scorching hot seat that only grew more and more scolding with blowout losses to Texas and Stanford, the melting point came with a 48-12 loss at Arizona on Oct. 20.

Facing a Wildcats squad that was playing under recently named interim head coach Tim Kish, fresh off the firing of Mike Stoops, UCLA was thoroughly embarrassed, left particularly red-faced by a midfield brawl that resulted in 10 total suspensions.

Soon after the game, rumors started swirling about Neuheisel’s precarious future, and players tried to ignore it, all the way up until Saturday night, when a 50-0 loss at USC seemingly slammed the door shut on Neuheisel’s tenure.

“I didn’t think about it too much,” junior quarterback Kevin Prince said. “Obviously after the Arizona game, you heard rumors, heard talk, but we came back and played a great game against Cal, played a great game against Arizona State, and you kind of forget about that stuff. You’re thinking bigger and better things after that. Even after losing to Utah, you don’t think about it.”

Monday, though, they faced the harsh truth.

They would be playing one last game for Neuheisel.

Monday’s practice was louder and sharper than it had been in a long time, players having a little extra zip because of the heightened senses – and heightened emotions – involving the decision.

Nothing refocuses the mind like hard work, they figured.

“It would be easy to say there’s an awkwardness about it, but at the same time you can’t let it spread, you can’t let it be like a cancer,” Fauria said. “You have to treat it like any other week. It’s not easy. You have to be mature, understand what’s at stake, understand what’s ahead of us.”
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