Football Writers Association of America 2006 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE

FIRST PLACE: COLUMN
Bud Withers, Seattle Times

So he skates. Again. Rick Neuheisel always was good at that.

He takes away $4.5 million in a settlement with the University of Washington and the NCAA in the most stunning convergence of triangular ineptitude since Larry, Curly and Moe got together.

He was vindicated his word, eight times of course. No matter that the settlement came primarily through an epic blunder by the NCAA, and that post-trial juror comments indicated he was likely to have a hard time collecting much more than forgiveness of a $1.5 million loan.

He was vindicated. Just as he was offered the San Francisco 49ers head-coaching job for $3 million a year (he was dumped off at the airport there to fly home commercial). Just as he wasn't penalized by the NCAA for gambling (he was judged guilty of a violation). If we try hard enough, we may convince ourselves that his Huskies were 2000 national champions because they won the Rose Bowl, and it's the granddaddy of them all.

Bud Withers
Seattle Times, Seattle, Wash.
Age: 57
College: Washington State, 1970
Background: Withers covers Pac-10 and national football for the Seattle Times. He has won writing awards from several organizations and has written three books, including a newly released history of football at his alma mater and Bravehearts, the story of the rise of Gonzaga basketball. Withers also contributed to ESPN's 2005 college football encyclopedia. He is married and has two sons attending WSU and Gonzaga.

Rick Neuheisel was blessed with good looks, a winning personality and not the vaguest whit of common sense.

You've probably long forgotten that deep under his dossier of NCAA violations here and at Colorado, beneath the stack of letters of reprimand, censure, admonishment and caution, the New York Daily News reported in 1999 that he had attended a party hosted by convicted racketeer Dominick "Donny Shacks" Montemarano. And not long after he came here, Neuheisel made a doubleentendre reference to the female anatomy while speaking in a UW classroom.

Innocent stuff, surely, but the kinds of things that make you wonder whether the man was gifted with a scintilla of sound judgment.

I agree with the notion that Neuheisel never would have knowingly risked his job by attending those NCAA tournament auctions and betting thousands. On the other hand, there is scant evidence to suggest he actually was guided by the infamous Dana Richardson memo.

So what in the name of Roxy Roxborough was he doing there?

"He should have known not to be at that event," said one juror.

There was a moment in the Neuheisel trial when his side called an expert witness, civil-trial lawyer Jeff Tilden, to testify about how Neuheisel might have benefited from an attorney in NCAA questioning.

At one point in the cross-examination, UW attorney Lou Peterson asked Tilden, "Truth is a big deal?" "Absolutely," Tilden said. "I think the world needs to take this whole issue more seriously."

Bingo.

But the case was about more than Neuheisel. It had to do with duplicity at the UW, as well as serial bungling by the NCAA from the inability to operate a tape recorder to president Myles Brand's arrogance to the fatal discovery error with NCAA bylaws to gambling czar Bill Saum, who tried to make like some glorified, latter-day Sipowicz, crashing around in pursuit of Neuheisel.

It had to do with the staggering collapse of Barbara Hedges' regime as athletic director. Let's see: In the last two years of her reign, there was the Neuheisel fiasco, the William Scheyer drug blight and the embarrassing episode in which African-American leaders came forth to protest the unveiling of a Jim Owens statue on Montlake. Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln, uh, Hedges?

The Neuheisel case was about deceit and lack of oversight. Neuheisel was Hedges' golden boy and she was golden girl to the UW. Neither could do any wrong. As one juror put it, regarding Washington, "They had this culture of looking for the gray areas."

The trial was five weeks spent reinforcing the horrors from a time with a vacuum of leadership, both in the athletic director's chair and presidency.

Richardson came across as sympathetic, a waif issuing legal opinions with nobody listening. Still, she failed the common-sense test herself. It's common among compliance officers to check with the NCAA if there's a question. Her choice was to make a pivotal, personal call on the NCAA's hottest hot-button issue, with one of the loosest cannons in college sports seated one building away.

It seemed like a case made for settlement, yet settlement came after the trial. By the end of 2004, UW had paid $898,000 in attorney's fees, a number expected to rise to about $1.5 million.

The school calculates that had it opted to fire Neuheisel with cause in 2003 just said, "We've had it with your incessant hijinks" it would have had to pay him $2.964 million. His loan would have been forgiven, as it was in the settlement. So if attorney's fees are $1.5 million and it's paying another $500,000 in settlement, in essence the UW saved $964,000 by hanging out its dirty laundry.

This was what we were left with last week: Neuheisel's father, Dick, taunting radio personality Hugh Millen and Neuheisel's sister flipping Millen off, the family oozing class to the finish.

So go, Rick Neuheisel, Barbara Hedges, Bill Saum. Go clutter someone else's landscape. You deserve each other.

Comment of the judge, Mickey Spagnola: This was not a glorified feature story. This was a column, full of opinion, but also some research into why the writer had the stated opinion. The column also had passion. There is nothing better than to realize the columnist is not writing just to take a side and get a rise out of readers, one way or another, but that he truly felt there was an injustice at the University of Washington. And best of all, he left me with a good punch in the end. Really nice job.

Second place: Gene Wojciechowski, ESPN.com
Third place: John Adams, Knoxville News-Sentinel
Honorable mention: George Schroeder, The Daily Oklahoman