LOS ANGELES >> Rick Neuheisel returned to UCLA determined to do everything correctly after a coaching career filled with big successes and equally big trouble.
Even athletic director Dan Guerrero, who fired Neuheisel on Monday after four disappointing seasons, agreed the formerly scandal-plagued coach did most everything the right way at his alma mater.
All except the winning part.
UCLA is 21-28 under Neuheisel, who will be allowed to coach in Friday’s Pac-12 title game at Oregon. Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will be the interim coach if the Bruins (6-6, 5-4 Pac-12) receive a bowl berth.
"Rick was a great representative for our school, and I’ll always be grateful for that," Guerrero said. "I believe the sign of a good program is consistency. We just weren’t there. We certainly had some losses that were of epic proportions … in the second half of the season, and that simply wasn’t good enough."
Neuheisel never built the momentum necessary to challenge mighty Southern California for city supremacy, and Guerrero fired Neuheisel two days after UCLA’s 50-0 loss to No. 9 USC, the Bruins’ largest loss since 1930 in their crosstown rivalry game. UCLA also lost 48-12 to lowly Arizona after a bye week, along with a 26-point loss at Stanford, a 29-point home blowout by Texas and a 25-point loss at Utah two weeks ago.
"I thanked Dan for the opportunity," Neuheisel said on the Pac-12’s promotional teleconference for the title game, less than an hour after his firing was announced. "I don’t need reasons and all that kind of stuff. Certainly when you’re the UCLA coach, you’d like to play better against USC. I know that. We had our chances, but when you lose in the fashion we did, that’s a difficult pill to swallow."
The Bruins will represent the Pac-12 South in the inaugural league title game on Friday despite finishing two games behind postseason-banned USC in the division standings. UCLA is a 30-point underdog against the Ducks with a Rose Bowl berth on the line for the winner.
Neuheisel said he didn’t consider stepping down before the title game. He planned to run the Bruins’ practice at Spaulding Field late Monday night.
"I hope I’m not a distraction," Neuheisel said. "I hope I’m some sort of help, in respect to the planning and how we go about it. We’ve been knocked down before this year, and somehow, some way, we’ve always responded. I hope we’ll respond the same way."
If UCLA loses to Oregon, the Pac-12 would have to petition the NCAA for bowl eligibility for a 6-7 team. Guerrero said the Bruins already have filed for a waiver, and they will accept a bowl invitation if they’re eligible.
UCLA made it to just one bowl game in Neuheisel’s first three seasons, winning the EagleBank Bowl in Washington, D.C., in 2009.
Guerrero said he fired Neuheisel immediately after reaching his decision, not wanting to be disingenuous about the coach’s future. Yet the decision allows UCLA to begin courting candidates, and Guerrero said he has "more financial ammunition" to hire an elite coach with the Pac-12’s new television contracts and an influx of cash commitments from alumni and donors who want a big name in Westwood.
Guerrero also said he would prefer a coach with prior head coaching experience, even somebody "sitting in that chair" right now in charge of a successful program. Boise State’s Chris Petersen is widely rumored to be atop UCLA’s wish list, as he is at most West Coast schools with vacancies.
Neuheisel’s firing before the title game is an ugly end to the 50-year-old coach’s self-described dream job. He was a quarterback at UCLA, leading the Bruins to an unlikely victory in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2, 1984.
"I’m just thankful for the opportunity," Neuheisel said. "This has always been a place that I wanted to have the chance to help bring it to a place that everybody would be proud. Obviously we’ve fallen short of that."
Neuheisel had more success during his first two head coaching stops at Colorado and Washington, leading the Buffaloes to 33 wins and three bowl victories over four seasons before taking the Huskies to four straight winning seasons and a Rose Bowl victory after the 2000 campaign.
Neuheisel eventually was dismissed by Washington after a series of problems in Seattle ranging from player discipline to a rift with school leadership to his infamous involvement in an NCAA basketball tournament pool. After two years out of coaching and a stint on the Baltimore Ravens’ staff, Neuheisel took over at UCLA.
But the Bruins went 4-8 in his first and third seasons, with a 7-6 finish in 2009. He had high expectations for his current team, but the Bruins have won consecutive games just once all season.
When Neuheisel returned to UCLA, he appeared in newspaper ads created by the school’s marketing department and highlighted by a quote: "The football monopoly in Los Angeles is officially over." Although Neuheisel didn’t order the ads, the words hung over him with each loss by his Bruins.
Neuheisel ended up with much less success than former teammate Karl Dorrell, who was fired in 2007 after going 35-27 in five seasons that included four bowl berths, a 10-2 campaign in 2005 and a Sun Bowl victory.
Johnson joined Neuheisel’s staff this season, replacing Norm Chow after Neuheisel’s messy public breakup with the longtime offensive mastermind. Johnson, a Los Angeles native and veteran NFL assistant, was the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive coordinator for most of last season, and he has helped Neuheisel to lead a resurgence of UCLA’s offense this year.
Neuheisel said he hadn’t thought about his future.
"This has kind of hit me between the eyes here a little bit," Neuheisel said. "I’ve been on one track, which is just to do the best I can with this particular team. That will be the case at least through Friday, and then we’ll make any decisions on which course I take."