Well, I haven't been around much lately.
But I'm pleased to say that my return is, well, a doozy.
Yesterday morning, ryebreadraz and I had the pleasure of a sit down interview with UCLA head football coach Rick Neuheisel.
The interview was the product of the hard work of SB Nation CEO Jim Bankoff who kindly worked with Nestor and the other editors here, as well as the extraordinary cooperation and graciousness of Coach Neuheisel and the UCLA Athletic Department.
To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time a college football coach from a Division I program has sat down with a SB Nation blog for an interview, and rye and I were pleased to be your BN local correspondents.
Rye and I met on the most beautiful campus in the nation, on a beautiful sunny April morning, got our notes together, and were soon led up to the 2nd floor of the Morgan Center by a friendly member of the sports information office staff.
After a few moments in the waiting area, Coach Neuheisel called us back to his office for an interview that lasted just over a half hour. He was incredibly generous with his time, and were we able to ask every question we brought with us.
So, without further ado, Coach Neuheisel:
BN: Good morning Coach.
CRN: How are you?BN: Doing great, doing great. I wanted to take a moment to thank you on behalf of Bruinsnation.com and SB Nation for taking some time to talk to us this morning. CRN: My pleasure. BN: We have a few questions for you, and I wanted to start off with one thing I’ve seen increasingly this year. We’ve seen that you’ve made a concerted effort to bring former UCLA players back into the program and keep them involved. What's the biggest benefit of having players involved in the program and which former Bruins are most active in the program now? CRN: Well, the biggest benefit is that it’s the right thing to do. Too often, as a former Bruin myself, I would be out amongst former Bruins, former Trojans, and hear that familiar refrain: Trojans for life, Bruins for four years. And I just remember thinking, every time I heard it, that’s just a bunch of garbage because I knew how I felt towards the school, how I felt towards the guys I played with and so forth. But, there wasn’t any way to really solidify the way I felt until I realized, having returned here, that we could put own money where our mouth was in some way, shape or form. And that’s where the Then, Now and Forever concept came from. I just wanted some way, a clubhouse if you will, for former players and former Bruins to reunite, talk about all the old times and the great times, and continue to support the current Bruins and the future of the Bruins.... Dick Vermeil is going to be at the Spring game, along with Terry Donahue. We’re going start to really celebrate all that has happened in UCLA football in the past, as well as get excited about what we think is going to be a very exciting future. With respect to the question about who are the guys who are most involved from the past, you know James Washington is a great former Bruin that can’t do enough; Matt Stevens and Wayne Cook obviously are in the broadcast booth, so it’s great to see them as often as is possible. And there’s a lot of people who are willing to work hard to make sure guys want to come back and be involved. So, it will just get better. I think guys are realizing it’s real now, it’s not just talk, and hopefully you are going to see a great movement in that direction.
The more of the past we can have, the more the young players on our team right now will realize that it’s not just a facade, it really is going to be a special place, and their work is going to be rewarded.
BN: You spent some time out of the college game. Now you’ve come back and a lot has changed, whether it be on the field, in recruiting, or how you deal with the alumni and fans. What has changed the most, and how have you either had to adjust to it or make work for you and accentuate the pros of the program?
CRN: The biggest change since my departure was in recruiting, with respect to the 365 day nature of it. I mean, that was really always the case, but you really have to be a class ahead now. The month of January, instead of closing recruiting, it’s really starting the next year. It’s the time when head coaches can be out. You’ve hopefully had your commitments and had your deals done – certainly not all of them done – but you’ve got a lot of it done prior to December, so the month of January is really out working towards the next year, which is different. And I’m not sure the rules have kept current with it. So, it will be one of the topics that I’m going to bring up at the head coaches’ meeting when I get there in May, as to how we want to deal with this expedited calendar, which is, whether we want it or not, a reality based upon all the information that’s out there available on the Internet.
BN: So would that be more towards establishing an early signing date, or would it be maybe towards limiting the days of recruiting?
CRN: I don’t know if it’s an early signing date. I mean, I think that an early signing date would be probably a good move, but it would have to be an August type signing date. The negative of that is that will make the month of July more of a work month. And that’s the point of the calendar where you actually get to reacquaint yourself with your family. And it’s not just for us, I mean it’s coaches across the country, so that will meet with a lot of disfavor. But, the fact that people are committing early is a reality, whether we want to do anything or not about it in terms of all these people changing their commitments and so forth remains to be seen. It’s an interesting phenomenon how things are moving so quickly.
BN: What are you seeing in terms of those changes in the way that technology is being implemented and used in the recruiting process? And -- you mentioned that there are some rules that may need to be changed to accommodate things -- what would you see as being the appropriate changes to keep the rules abreast of the technological changes that are effecting recruiting?
CRN: Well, the information is just so readily available, and the positions on the football team like a quarterback, or a kicker, where there’s a musical chairs type of effect where if the one guy takes that spot, another might think “I better look for another spot.” Those positions are hugely impacted by all the information, and all the camps, and all the different places that cater to that specialized position. The rule change that I think probably needs to be considered is the ability for coaches to contact players in the month of May, which is currently an evaluation period. You know, there’s a term called “bumping,” which is when you get onto a campus, a coach will introduce you, and you're not allowed to talk, but there’s a contact. Those technically are illegal, even though they are commonplace. Head coaches, thankfully, for myself, aren’t allowed on the road in May because, otherwise, it’s impossible to pull yourself out of that situation. I tell my coaches all the time, we’ve got to do everything we can to stay out of that situation where you’re contacting kids, but it’s the reality out there. And I think we ought to just legitimize it, and create an opportunity for coaches to talk to kids about their schools and their opportunities because kids are certainly interested. The other thing, I think, that would probably to help deal with it is some May recruiting visits in their junior year. Kids having an opportunity, still having only five [visits], but maybe using one or two in that spring time to go and take a look if they’re ready to make those kinds of decisions.
BN: You mentioned a moment ago the increased speed at which the recruiting period works. There’s been a lot of change in the recruiting world, and it’s also changed in the world of media, as newspapers are going out of business, the world of "New Media" is becoming more and more prominent via blogs, message boards, Facebook, Twitter and other online social networking communities. We'd like to get your take on "New Media," and I’d like to know whether you have thought about strategies to engage it as this world expands and becomes a place where thousands of alumni and students are getting their information.
CRN: Well, there are a lot of us in my generation, maybe even a little older than I, that would like to imagine that its all not really there. [laughs] We don’t want to have to learn all these new technologies and new applications and so forth. But, the facts of the matter are they are there. And, so our on-campus recruiting coordinator, Angus McClure, is – as he likes to call himself – a power user, which means that he’s adept at all this new technology. And, so we are constantly trying to figure out ways to incorporate it into our recruiting operation and to make sure that we can always be on the cutting edge. I am not a power user [laughs], but I recognize its an absolute necessity because, as my sons are becoming adolescents, that’s how they communicate. And, so, we need to know how we do that, and how to best get our message across to the young people in the country that are going to help our program grow.
BN: How do you feel about players reading blogs and message boards? Some coaches might suggest that they prefer that players and recruits not visit these sorts of places. Do you feel the same way or have a different feeling?
CRN: Well it’s one thing what we like and what we don’t like, but then we have to deal with reality. The reality is that they are going to look. I mean, my mom and dad read the blogs and the message boards and I tell them constantly, you know, you can’t believe what you read, how many times to I have to tell you that? But, because it’s involving their son, they are going to be involved in it. So, for our players, all you can do is educate them to remember that these are opinions, these are ideas, these are just random thoughts – valid as they may be – that you have to make sure you are not putting any stock into.
BN: So, moving over onto the field now, you and Norm Chow are both offensive coaches. How do you divide your time in terms of working with quarterbacks, working with the offense? Also, because you have someone who is so adept at working with those quarterbacks, do you feel that now you don’t have to worry about the big picture as much in that sense, and can work more hands on with these quarterbacks when you want to? Or do you just kind of step back more and let Norm handle those types of things?
CRN: You know, it’s an interesting question. That was one of Norm’s big concerns when he took the job, because he’s always been told by an old buddy of his that “don’t work for an offensive minded head coach,” because they are going to get in your kitchen. The good news is we’re both at points in our career where we kind of checked our egos at the door. It isn’t about which one of us has got the right idea. It’s about getting it done right. And so there’s been a real nice yin and yang to it. Sometimes I’ll help in the position portion of it. Sometimes I’ll help with the idea portion of it. To say that we have defined roles I think is probably wrong; his defined role is that he’s the offensive coordinator and he’s got the total veto power. I’ve given him that. But, he also realizes and values my judgment with respect to having been an offensive coach for many years and, so, we play each others ideas and we come to the conclusion, and it’s been an unbelievably smooth working relationship, and one that I’m very thankful for. I think he’s terrific, I think our players are lucky to have him, and I think we’re going to be a better football team as we develop and as our players learn the system.
BN: So, if you had to take maybe the top one or two things you’ve learned from him, what would that be in the past year?
CRN: I think that from a personality standpoint, I’m very appreciative that he’s so giving. Many “geniuses” in the world have one way to do it and one way only. Norm is very open-minded, and, I think, because of that, we’re able to adapt to the skills of our players. From a technical standpoint, there are some concepts in his passing game that I’ve grown to really like and admire in terms of how he teaches it and the whole thing. It would probably be too complicated to go into here, but just trust that he’s got some schemes that, for all of those years, [made me think] “how did he get that done?” Now, I know. [laughs] And it’s been fun to learn how he gets it done.
BN: Coach, the spread offense has taken the nation by storm and the majority of the country's top offenses are running some form of the spread offense, yet when you took over, you came in with Norm Chow and a pro-style offense. Why did you decide to go in that direction and why do you think the offense you're currently running is the best for the Bruins?
CRN: It’s a great question, and there are times when I look at spread offenses and I see value. The key to the spread offense, and the reason why its successful, is that it adds an extra player. It diminishes the need for great offensive linemen, because you’ve got a little longer because you are always in the gun, and the quarterback’s a runner. So, in essence, he becomes a blocker, and can account for an extra defender. All great thoughts, all great thoughts. The problem at UCLA is that you have to beat the Trojans. And it’s also the benefit at UCLA, because when you beat them, you’re going to be among the nation’s elite. So you have to be a physical offense. I know that two years ago SC got beat by Oregon up in Eugene, but his last year, SC with their physical defense was able to beat the heck out of a very, very good spread offense Oregon team.
You’ve also seen when you lose a quarterback in the spread offense, things can go awry, as happened with
two years ago. They lost Dennis Dixon and then I think they lost their last three games to Oregon Arizona, to UCLA and then to . It’s a difficult offense to have a lot players at the quarterback position because it’s so [much] decision making, which requires all the repetitions and, yet, you’re exposing them. Oregon State
I was the benefactor of a type of spread offense, even though it was an option offense, it’s the same math in terms of the quarterback’s [being] a runner in Marcus Tuiasosopo at
which we took to the Rose Bowl. So, I understand the benefits and the virtues of having the extra guy. I just think you have to be careful about how often you expose that quarterback. [Jeremiah] Masoli at Washington was maybe the player of the year had he burst onto the scene maybe a couple weeks earlier last year. But, if he’s gone, what happens to the offense? Oregon
That being said, the other thing that kids are interested in today is the chance to go to play on Sundays. You are not seeing spread offenses played on Sundays. Vince Young would have been the perfect guy to go and do it, but even Vince Young didn’t want to do it. And I have it on authority, because Norm was there, because he doesn’t want to get hit anymore. He doesn’t want to get beat up on an every-Sunday basis and shorten his career length. So, quarterbacks that are interested in going to the NFL would like to be in pro-style offenses. So, you can go and attract guys. [Likewise,] offensive linemen, frankly, would like to be in offenses that are going to be like the NFL because they’d like to have a chance to play in more of that scheme. It goes on down the line; the more you play like an NFL offense, the more the NFL can look and see your skill level and adapt it to that. That argument gets more watered down the further out you go because obviously receivers can still play receiver, and running backs can still play running back.But it’s an interesting question, and I think you can never, ever stop investigating it, and researching it, and having some components of it. There were some components of the spread offense in what we did last year. We got into the old wildcat stuff, and it isn’t as though we’ve got our heads in the sand. I just think, to start with, we’ve got to be a physical running team that can handle the line of scrimmage with the likes of a very talented defensive team like USC.
Just tremendous stuff from Coach Neuheisel.
And, it doesn't stop there. Stay tuned for Rye's second installment. Ever wonder about CRN's views on academic standards for admissions in recruiting, the new Pac-10 commissioner, TV contracts, bowl tie-ins, and whether there should be a playoff to determine the national championship? That, and more, coming soon.
For now, let us know what you think about Part 1.
It's your turn now. Fire away.