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.”
What lies ahead is an imposing Oregon team ranked No. 8 in the nation and a hostile home environment that will border on mass hysteria.
Prince enters the game with much riding on his shoulders, as the Bruins know that the key to a potential upset will be keeping up with the Ducks’ high-scoring, almost frantic offense, which ranks sixth nationally in total offense and third in scoring.
What’s another massive hurdle for these Bruins, though, who’ve been kicked in the face enough times this season that they feel like they know how to respond by now.
“It’s been nuts,” Prince said of the season. “Especially personally, just the highs and lows I’ve had. Getting benched after Texas, coming back after that. Win, loss, win, loss, win, loss. It’s tough, man. Throw school in on top of that, it’s a lot of stuff. But I think we’re tough guys. We’re a good team and we stick together through it all.”