PASADENA, Calif. - What Lane Kiffin needs, in addition to a dozen more USC reserves and some NCAA mercy, is empathy.
Too bad the polarizing first-year Trojans coach won't be Facebook friends with UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel. Regardless of his ties to the archrival, Neuheisel might be the one colleague who'd understand Kiffin's situation with the most compassion.
Neuheisel, remember, was once a golden boy gone bad. He went from promising coach to pariah. Now that he has rehabbed his college coaching career — but not yet the Bruins, who have gone 11-14 since he took over in 2008 — Neuheisel could maybe offer the embattled Kiffin some insight, a fist bump or a hug.
"I'm not sure I'm on Lane's speed dial," said Neuheisel, the third-year Bruins coach at Pac-10 Media Day last Thursday at the Rose Bowl.
Both were former college quarterbacks — Neuheisel at UCLA, where the one-time walk-on famously fought through food poisoning and garbage-can grabbing to lead the Bruins to victory in the 1984 Rose Bowl; Kiffin at Fresno State.
Both were showcased assistants on offense: Neuheisel at UCLA (1988-1993) and Colorado (1994); Kiffin at USC (2001-06) for two national championships and five Pac-10 titles.
Both made eager jumps to head coaching positions in their early 30s: Neuheisel, at age 34, with Colorado (1995-98) before landing at Washington (1999-2002); Kiffin, at age 31, with the Oakland Raiders for 2007 and part of the 2008 season (5-15) before getting fired and then rehired by the University of Tennessee for the 2009 season (7-6).
Neuheisel and Kiffin were both hired as somebody's shiny new toys, models of the modern-day football coach: young, handsome, bright, energetic, personable, marketable, telegenic and ambitious.
To win, both took chances, took heat, broke NCAA rules, broke promises, got busted, got sued, brought in more controversy than conference titles and made more enemies than friends.
Appearing reckless with regard to rules and becoming wrecking balls within the coaching establishment, both got the dirty reputation of being willing to do anything to get ahead. They both got tagged as opportunistic liars, vigorous cheats and smooth-talking salesmen who never met a recruit who was off limits or an NCAA rule they couldn't skirt.
Neuheisel, who became known as Slick Rick and got drop-kicked out of college football in 2002 for NCAA violations, had six years to think about what he did wrong before getting a second chance that only a mother — his alma mater UCLA — would give a son.
"Rick was always on the radar screen, and I had to be convinced in my mind first and foremost that those things that happened in his past were things in his past," UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said. "He has been fantastic in every way, shape and form. He's been great with the media, with the public, done a terrific job recruiting, been an excellent representative of this institution, and we're building this program."
Even Guerrero acknowledges that you'd like to be able to push the button and go straight to the penthouse, but it doesn't happen that way, especially in football.
When he began his head coaching career at Colorado, Neuheisel didn't have that necessary patience. He was only 34 and walking his first sideline in khakis. He felt pressure, desperation and paranoia.
"There's a little bit of a bull's-eye on your back when you're young because people want to know, 'Why are you getting that opportunity when others didn't ?'" Neuheisel recalled. "At that portion of my life, I wanted to make sure everyone knew I wasn't afraid to have that bull's-eye. I wanted to show that I was capable of the job and I wasn't going to be intimidated just because somebody had experience."
Only experience has given Neuheisel this wisdom, which he wouldn't mind sharing with any young coach, say, one who, in 1995, was still playing college football and earning his Fresno State bachelor's degree in leisure service management.
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