The coach fumbles

UW's Neuheisel commits 18 NCAA violations.

"We've all heard the story about how the grass is always greener . . . there's nothing 'unglorious' about staying in one place and building something."

Colorado football coach Rick Neuheisel December 1998

COME LATE FALL, if the Huskies are 10-2, fans may forget the bumbled kickoff of the Rick Neuheisel era. But so far the University of Washington's new $7 million football coach has succeeded mainly in inspiring uncertainty in supporters and hope in detractors. Athletic director Barbara Hedges, putting her own future on the line, pirated Neuheisel from Colorado January 9 and deemed him just about everything his predecessor Jim Lambright wasn't: young, innovative, charismatic, and "extremely bright." Hardly a month later, Lambright is looking like a gridiron Einstein. In just his first three weeks, Neuheisel:

Admitted to eight (originally admitting only five) incidents of apparent NCAA rule violations by dispatching UW assistant coaches to the homes of recruits on a day such contact is prohibited; five recruits have temporarily been declared ineligible, and the UW faces penalties that include possible loss of scholarships.

Admitted to as many as 10 more incidents of illegally contacting players from another school without first getting permission (all of them his former players at Colorado University; Neuheisel says he called only to chat and say goodbye—a rule violation nonetheless).

Is accused of several apparent NCAA tampering violations for allegedly asking some of those Colorado players to join him in Washington (a charge he categorically denies; Colorado officials insist there was "at least one" offer).

May also have violated NCAA rules with a casual game of H-O-R-S-E with aCalifornia recruit, which could be construed as an illegal "tryout" although he and the recruit say the game was just for fun.

Fueled criticism with his curt goodbye in Boulder to a school that provided his first head coaching job, a free home, and $650,000 a year; by agreeing to a $1 million annual contract that includes a car and mortgage payments while insisting, "I'm not about money"; and by revoking a scholarship offer to a high school player only days after Hedges had promised such offers would be honored.

The 18 admitted NCAA rule infractions are not considered as serious as the UW's infamous Billy Joe Hobert loan/recruiting scandal that left the Huskies with 15 (out of a normal 25) football scholarships in 1994 -95. But the violations, drawing only a mild rebuke from the local sporting press, aren't the first for Neuheisel, the blond, 38-year-old guitar-playing ex-UCLA quarterback and onetime surfer dude picked by Hedges after an 11-day scorched-earth search. Just last March, Neuheisel's Colorado team had to forfeit all its 1997 victories for fielding an ineligible player. Neuheisel said it was a "bookkeeping error" that allowed sixth-year senior Darren Fisk to be listed on enrollment forms as a fifth-year player. The NCAA forfeiture wasn't all that painful, however—Coach Neu's team won just five out of 11 games that year.

Though Neuheisel's new NCAA rule breaking at Washington may have been unintentional or secondary "technical" violations, according to the UW's spin, his explanations created more heat than light. Neuheisel contends he was unaware of the no-contact rule when he sent his assistants to enlist players in California and Florida on a recent Sunday—violating the "quiet period" before highly prized recruits officially announce their intent to accept scholarship at the college of their choice (in part, the rule aims to keep recruiters at bay while beleaguered candidates consider their final decisions in a family setting).

Yet Neuheisel knows such rules by heart. "In six years of taking those [NCAA] recruiting tests I've never missed a question," he says. (The Sunday baby-sitting prohibition was approved in 1995, the same year Neuheisel became Colorado's head coach.) Presumably at least some of his assistant coaches were aware of the prohibition as well, and UW associate athletic director Ralph Bayard says flatly, "We knew the rule." Hedges says, "There was nothing intentional done" and [the coaches] "just didn't remember the rules." That still doesn't logically explain how altogether six UW coaches en masse could overlook the law of the land. "No other school in the United States," says rival Washington State University coach Mike Price, "had their coaches out but the Huskies" (although two Ohio State assistants have since admitted they did the same thing).

Neuheisel says he's embarrassed about the screw-up "and I hope to tell you that it will never happen again." Neuheisel points out he notified officials after the violation was brought to his attention by a high school coach—who apparently did know the rules. But that could have been damage control for a calculated, low-risk violation. "It's definitely a huge recruiting advantage to be able to do that [visit on Sunday]," says the usually uncritical Price.

Four days before those January 31 violations, Colorado assistant athletic director Karen Morrison had already distributed a letter claiming a separate set of rule-breaking incidents: Neuheisel's calls to his former players. "The indication to us was it was something more than [Neuheisel] just wanting to say goodbye," Morrison says. That could just be Colorado sour grapes over losing Neuheisel to the UW, and Neuheisel says he was only trying to rectify his quick exit with the goodbye calls. The Pac-10 and NCAA will decide who's right, although historically such violations result in harmless reprimands. (Pac 10 assistant commissioner Jim Muldoon describes the quiet-time violation as rare but "not unprecedented.") The UW is taking no further action, believing that Neuheisel, with so much on the line, wouldn't intentionally break rules.

Of course, because so much is on the line, margins are sometimes pushed. It's only a game, but Husky football supplies the bulk of the athletic department's league-leading $30 million budget, independent of the UW's public funding. Sustained losses on the field translate into setbacks in revenues and funding; eventually, something has to give. Pressure? Well, would you want to be known as the failed millionaire football coach who killed off women's crew?

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