WESTWOOD (AP) — When the raw emotion from UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel’s firing began to settle in Westwood, the Bruins realized they’ve still got one or two games to play this season.
With disappointment and determination, UCLA went back to work just a few hours after Neuheisel was canned by athletic director Dan Guerrero on Monday. Neuheisel joined the Bruins again on the practice field late that night, preparing to coach UCLA (6-6, 5-4 Pac-12) in Friday’s conference title game at Oregon.
UCLA is a 30-point underdog to the powerful Ducks, and the timing of Neuheisel’s firing suggested to several players that the Bruins’ athletic department doesn’t have much more faith in them than the oddsmakers.
“We don’t care if they don’t believe in us,” tight end Joseph Fauria said. “They wouldn’t be the first. We’re all focused on going up there Friday and getting that win.”
Several Bruins acknowledged being in a fog after Neuheisel’s dismissal, but the coach insists his team will be ready to play at Autzen Stadium. After an up-tempo workout, Neuheisel gathered his team around him on Spaulding Field for an emotional pep talk.
“This isn’t about me, and I’m not to be a distraction,” Neuheisel said. “They’ll all go on. Some will look at it as a fresh start, but they’ll all be fine.”
Guerrero fired Neuheisel after the Bruins went 21-28 over the past four years, not even waiting until the weekend to start his coaching search. Only about half of UCLA’s players could make it to a meeting called by Guerrero immediately after giving the news to Neuheisel, which meant many heard about the change on television or Twitter.
“It’s tough, because he was the reason I came here, and he was the reason I came back this year,” senior tailback Derrick Coleman said. “I had class, and then I was sleeping, so I didn’t even hear about it until a few hours after it happened.”
Yet when Guerrero addressed the players, he said they understood his decision when he asked one question: “How many of you came here to go 6-6?”
Neuheisel isn’t universally popular with his players, but most grew to admire his straightforward, throwback style of discipline and discourse. Yet while the formerly scandal-plagued coach had relatively few disciplinary problems and no NCAA trouble at his alma mater, the Bruins went 8-19 in Pac-10 play in his first three seasons.
“He’s still going to give it his all for these last few days,” said Kevin Prince, whose sometimes rocky relationship with Neuheisel improved noticeably this year with Prince’s midseason breakthrough as a running quarterback. “You could tell he’s a bit emotional about it. This is his dream job. We wanted him to be successful more than anything.”
UCLA’s administration realizes players loyal to Neuheisel could transfer, and recruits who liked the Bruins’ current staff will re-evaluate their decisions. Yet the Bruins don’t have to worry about Brett Hundley, the freshman quarterback from the Phoenix area who was the prize of Neuheisel’s last recruiting class.
“I’m definitely not leaving,” said Hundley, who’s redshirting this season. “This is the school I picked. I didn’t just pick it for the coaching staff. I love going to school here, and we’re going to make this team better.”
Neuheisel said he would have asked Guerrero for the chance to coach in the Pac-12 title game even if it hadn’t been offered, saying he didn’t want to leave when “we’re within a game of achieving what we set out to do.”
“It would be like not planting a flag on the top of a mountain after all the effort to get there,” he added.
But Neuheisel will be gone this weekend no matter what happens in Eugene. Guerrero said offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will coach the Bruins if they lose to Oregon and receive a waiver to qualify for a bowl at 6-7 — or even if UCLA pulls an enormous upset Friday and reaches its first Rose Bowl of this century.
“That’s something we’ll deal with when it comes,” said Johnson, a veteran NFL assistant who joined UCLA this season after spending most of last year as the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive coordinator. “We understand the business, and I’ve been down this road before. We both have. My job is to do what’s asked of me with the job I have.”
Nearly every UCLA player is eager to play in any postseason game, particularly if it’s on the West Coast. The Bruins have made just one bowl in the past three seasons, winning the EagleBank Bowl in Washington, D.C., two years ago.
“I’d still like to play in one, because you only get a certain amount of time in college football, and that’s the biggest reward out there,” Prince said. “It would be great if our families could go someplace and have a few fun days. I feel like we won enough games to deserve it.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.