MAYBE WE SAW last Saturday's 34-24 UCLA loss coming the afternoon of Aug. 30 in Ypsilanti, Mich. From the 10th tee box at a layout next to the resort where the Huskies were staying, one of my sports buddies spied the unmistakable halo-gold locks of Rick Neuheisel. The University of Washington coach and his unpadded minions were taking a light one in back of the hotel, which was about half a touchdown's distance from where we stood. "Look at Neu over there," my buddy said with a beer gulp and grin. "He looks like he'd rather be over here with us."
My buddy had encountered the coach earlier this year at the 19th hole of Bandon Dunes, the golf mecca of the Northwest. It was well before the season would commence with the missed opportunities that resulted in a 60th-minute win by Michigan, and eons prior to this week's predicament: a 4-5 record that could be 4-8 when the season ends in Pullman Nov. 23. At Bandon, Neu had just shot a 79, stripping his golf partners of wallets and pride. The guy could probably play the senior tour a decade from now. He seems to be a natural at everything. My buddy pumped him about the upcoming season. Coach was pretty by-god pleased with his guys. They'd be better in '03, when Cody Pickett, the quarterback whose output is best measured in miles rather than yards, is one of a number of seniors. But they'd compete for the conference championship this year. It all looked borderline terrific.
Now the alibis are coming in like absentee ballots:
The Michigan loss was an emotional bummer that not even Doctor Phil could ameliorate.
Some of the coaches couldn't teach a squirrel to open a peanut.
The Pac 10 now has at least 12 teams that could win the Super Bowl.
The running game has just two "speeds": neutral and reverse.
Just as many are the helpful hints for getting the team to, say, 5-7. They include bringing in some defensive-back ringers from Cleveland High.
OR MAYBE LET'S just wait until '03. The hope would be that Neuheisel is better engaged by then. In Rick, we've got a guy who starts stuff great but finishes like he's late for an appointment. If you hired him to paint your house (it would cost you $1.3 million), he'd prime it like Rembrandt, but he'd never come back to do the finish coats. The players pick up on that. They couldn't finish a Michigan game that the Wolverines were begging them to take. Dumb stuff happened all through September, as they dawged it through a three-game stretch against San Jose State, Wyoming, and Idaho. Cal, with a well-engaged new coach, defined Pac-10 parity for us. Arizona, maybe the worst team in this or any conference, just about left us 0-2 in league. After the disasters at USC and Arizona State (and another lesson in league parity and the folly of preseason predictions), half the diehards at the Duchess Tavern looked as though they wanted to go in for lobotomies. In Tempe, after two screwup time-outs, Pickett was sacked. Good thing they didn't call a third timer, or he might've been killed.
The Huskies were never going to beat the Bruins and their kid QB, the illustrious Drew Somebody. During the prep week, UW players were blubbering about how nobody cares anymore. So it's homecoming last Saturday, and at 4 o'clock half the crowd (amid many empty seats) is drunk on fond memories and the stronger stuff. The club comes out like something's going to go right. Partisans have been begging Neu to try soph Chris Singleton in the backfield, and the gambit pays off for 92 yards—about 102 more than usual. But Pickett throws four times to guys in white, and it's 4-8, here we come.
Nobody cares? Rick Neuheisel better start caring. He's got to get his mind off golf and whatever else preoccupies him. This guy really can recruit, and he supposedly can coach. But he can't be staring wistfully at guys about to hook drives in Ypsilanti. He needs to approach football the way he picks apart golf courses.