Football Writers Association of America 2008 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE

FIRST PLACE: COLUMN
High-voltage Neuheisel might jolt even UCLA to life
Bud Withers, Seattle Times

Early in this decade, before Rick Neuheisel's regime at Washington came crashing down like the Kingdome when somebody yelled, "Zero!" he spent a few pensive, post-practice minutes one day talking about his alma mater.

UCLA, he said, was a strange place right then, a sort of inert athletic program content to watch the world go by. It was without energy, without real leadership, seemingly without any urgency or reason to try to be the best it could be.

As he said it, the Bruins were on their way to becoming the first college program to win 100 national championships. But those were happening in sports nobody pays attention to, like water polo and tennis. Certainly UCLA wasn't making any noise in marquee sports like football.

Bud Withers
Seattle Times, Seattle, Wash.
Age: 60
College: Washington State
Background: Withers is married, with two sons one a recent Washington State graduate, one a junior at Gonzaga, ensuring that the boys pretty much don't speak to each other during basketball season. Withers has written three books and contributed to ESPN's 2005 encyclopedia of college football. Away from the laptop, he runs (frequently) and golfs (badly). A former president of U.S. Basketball Writers Association, he has previously received awards from several organizations, including the FWAA.

Well, as they say, everything runs in cycles.

Batten down the hatches. Rick Neuheisel is back in college football. Like operators on those telethons, UCLA compliance officers are standing by.

UCLA football just knocked back a venti triple espresso.

Have to admit, I never really bought the notion of Neuheisel as fallback candidate at UCLA. Given his checkered past at Colorado and Washington, he was either going to sweep the UCLA administration off its feet he's very good at that or they were going to treat him like he had bird flu. There would be no in between.

So the guess here is that the Bruins' plodding search was either a charade to suggest they were thoroughly vetting Neuheisel, or they were getting everybody from the NCAA to the Department of Homeland Security to sign off on him.

Does he deserve to be back as a college head coach of a big-time program? Why not? His two-year participation in a high-stakes NCAA basketball-tournament pool, while monumentally stupid, shouldn't have been a career -killer. Nor should the fact he sued Washington and the NCAA over his dismissal.

Now he parachutes into Los Angeles to match personalities with USC's Pete Carroll. In one of the nation's recruiting mother lodes, Neuheisel could be absolute dynamite.

Or he could blow UCLA up.

You'd like to think he's learned something along the way. Like, in the first three weeks on the job, you don't improperly send five assistant coaches out in the middle of a recruiting "quiet" period, and then claim it's because your NCAA manual was still packed away in boxes.

You don't incessantly commit improper "bumps" with recruits, which formed the bulk of the 51 NCAA violations committed at Colorado and adjudicated after he was at Washington. The funny thing about Neuheisel is, he's good enough, dynamic enough, not to need to pull the junior-high antics, but he could never help himself.

As one of the jurors in Neuheisel's 2005 trial put it, referencing him and Washington, "They had this culture of looking for the gray areas."

You don't need to pour endless hours into romancing splashy talents like Reggie Bush and Lorenzo Booker. Go find some 6-5, 290-pound guys with bad teeth and a foul disposition, people who like to knock somebody down.

And oh yeah, try something different and be straight with people, especially your employer. Act like it's a privilege to be making $1.25 million a year coaching the school that gave you a college education, because it is.

Wanderlust shouldn't be a problem anymore, but if it is, at least just couch the ambiguity in coachspeak. Denying a dalliance with the 49ers by faxing out a lie on university letterhead is not exactly the stuff of role models.

While the NCAA enforcement staff must today be considering setting up a satellite location near Neuheisel's new office, this could be a win-win for a lot of people Neuheisel, desperate to resurrect a career; UCLA, in need of somebody with a pulse after firing Karl Dorrell; media folks who love the good story.

A movie buff, Neuheisel always said he liked happy endings. This could be one of those.

His call.

Comment of the judge, Mickey Spagnola: This is the winner because the writer was opinionated without hammering
the reader over the head and also had some depth to the column, expounding on several different players. But most of all, the writer carried a singular thought throughout the column, and there was not one graph that could have been edited out. To me, easy call.

Second place: Brent Zwerneman, San Antonio Express-News
Third place: David Teel, Daily Press
Honorable mention: Dennis Dodd, CBSSports.com; Olin Buchanan, Rivals.com; Ted Lewis, New Orleans Times-Picayune