Rick Neuheisel has run a clean and ethical program in Westwood. Respect for this, and wins, have not followed. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Which is more important? Doing the right thing? Or winning? And how much of each are you willing to sacrifice for the other?
There is a spectrum of right and wrong with an awful lot of gray between the absolutes on the ends. I really really want to start winning football games again. But I also really really like looking in U.C.L.A.'s mirror and being proud of the reflection. And it's hard to know how to apportion these two.
I was thinking about these things after reading a recent article in the Denver Post sports section on CU wide receiver Paul Richardson, which got me to thinking about Coach Neuheisel's past and present, laptops, the internet, hypocritical fan bases, Jerime Andersen, winning versus ethics, and how it all affects the struggles that are U.C.L.A. football now. Yes, it was a bit of a schizophrenic morning
The article reviewed Richardson's surprise freshman year when he improved dramatically and put up great numbers as the season ended. He is the Buffs' big play threat and may become one of the top receivers in the country.
Buried in the last half of the article on an inside page is the part of the story that may ring a bell for many of us. Richardson used to be a Bruin. That was until he and fellow new recruits Josh Shirley and Shaquille Richardson were arrested for stealing a backpack during summer school, just before the start of fall football camp.
Rick Neuheisel faced a dilemma. These were three prized recruits who looked to be valuable pieces of his football program going forward. But facing a felony, some sort of punishment was necessary. These cases are rarely black and white, and we wondered where in the gray area Neu would draw the line. After all, these were newcomers making a big mistake. Shouldn't they get a shot at a second chance?
Neuheisel's punishent was fair. All 3 players were barred from school for the fall, which meant no football for them. But, all 3 were given a clear avenue to return to U.C.L.A. and the football program. Punishment with second chance.
Disappointingly, all three took the easy road and left U.C.L.A. for good, then quickly found other schools who welcomed them with open arms. Ironically, Neuheisel's two previous schools, CU and UW were 2 of the 3 (UofA being the third) willing to bend ethics and sweep up these players who couldn't behave well enough to be in Neuheisel's program. And all 3 players are currently doing well and are praised by their fanbases. Paul Richardson was discussed above. Shirley will be a promising speed rusher in his first playing time UW this season. Shaquillle Richardson played in all 13 games last year, forced a fumble against us, and may be their starting CB this year.
Neuheisel did the right thing. His integrity, and by extension ours, was intact. And it's easy to project that his ethical stand hurt our team and helped our opponents going forward. I hope those extra losses look okay to us when we study our face in the mirror. And I wonder how CU and UW see themselves in the mirror. Hell, I wonder how Oregon and *$c and tOSU and Miami look in the mirror without breaking it these days.
I do think those 3 kids deserve a second chance, and I hope they continue to make the most of their opportunity. I also wish they had shown some real courage and taken the harder road back to U.C.L.A, not for football's sake, but for character's sake. But what really got to me was reading the praises for these kids, and then reading insults and profanities for our coach from the same fanbases. This example shows how myopic and hypocritical fans are. It's crap when CU fans and UW fans rip Neuheisel while praising Richardson and Shirley. If you praise the kids for overcoming adversity you should do the same for Neu. If you still crucify Neu, then you can't let the kids off the hook either.
This isn't a "Poor Rick" essay. Neu bears much of the blame for this. He had numerous secondary recruiting violations at Colorado, and looked the other way when numerous players ran afoul of the law at UW. He has have to live with that. When his programs were winning, the fan bases overlooked his behavior. When his programs stopped winning as much, he was suddenly a cheater and unethical. In 2002, Neu disappeared from the college scene for 6 years.
His chance at redemption came in 2008 when he returned to his alma mater. Bearing the scars of his stints at Boulder and Seattle and with the lessons of his past well learned, Neu came to Westwood intent on doing things the right way. And he has. Despite continued snarks from his detractors, Neu has run a squeaky clean program at U.C.L.A., with the Richardson/Shirley/Richardson theft as a clear example. Now I'm not saying that U.C.L.A. is doing every single thing by the book. We are still a BCS division program. But we certainly aren't destroying the rulebook the way Southern Cal, Ohio State, Oregon, and Miami have (allegedly), just to name a few. You aren't seeing any suspended-against-Toledo moments, or suspended-for-the-first-drive moments, or suspended-but-still-practicing moments. Neu's treatment of players violating team rules supports that. The absence of NCAA investigators in the Morgan Center, while Heritage Hall is swarming with them, supports that.
But you can still see and hear derision for Neuheisel from many college football fans around the country, and from most Buff and Huskie fans. Simply type the name Neuheisel in a comment at RalphieReport, or UWDawgPound, both great blogs with great mods, and the fan sentiment is clear (actually, this was just an example - please don't go troll, and the CU fans I chatted with yesterday were much classier than most I have crossed in the past). Yet you can read praise for those players who comitted a crime by those same fans. And it shows the hypocrisy of fans. If the players deserve not just a second chance, but praise for overcoming their errors, and I would argue that they do, then so does Neuheisel.
And it's not just CU and UW. Ole Miss bent over backwards for felon Jeramiah Masoli. Oregon is challenging *$c in more fields than the scoreboard. tOSU wants to honor Jim Tressel. Miami went nuclear with cheating for nearly a decade. Is anyone still sorry we didn't bring in Randy Shannon now? Or are we now breathing a huge sigh of relief?
And in another crazy twist of fate, we currently have ourselves a basketball player facing legal issues over the theft of a laptop. Haven't we been here before? Well, at least our wayward student-athletes are both rare and consistent. And now the Bruin fanbase must find a place in the gray area for Jerime Andersen. So far, I am proud of the response on BN, which has clearly put ethics ahead of depth at the 1. But I wonder if our position, mine included, will drift one way if the scores start going the other way.
We can always pick our spot on that spectrum of right and wrong, but we have to realize that those ends really do pull in opposite ways where the scoreboard is concerned. It's naive to say that we can have the best of both worlds, that we can be completely clean and ethical and still be a football and basketball powerhouse every year. I'll bet Harvard plays it pretty clean. I'll bet Harvard will not dominate any SEC opponents this season.
So who would you rather be? Tressel, Caroll, Calipari, Harrick, UNC, BSU, Cam Newton, John Wall, everyone at Miami? Or the 2011 version of Rick Neuheisel? Would you rather that the two Richardsons and Shirley were practicing on Spaulding today? Or would you trade wins for a better reflection in the mirror?
Where should we draw the line?