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Emotional Neuheisel will resurface somewhere

by: JAIME VALDEZ The Oregon Ducks got to celebrate on their home field Friday night after beating UCLA for the Pac-12 championship in the final game as Bruins coach for Rick Neuheisel, who was fired on Monday.

EUGENE - The Rick Neuheisel era at UCLA ended Friday night at Autzen Stadium about as you might figure.

The Bruins played hard for their lame-duck coach and still got overwhelmed by Oregon.

The final score - Oregon 49, UCLA 31 - wasn't indicative of the dominance of the Ducks' romp to victory in the Pac-12 championship game.

Oregon rolled up 571 yards total offense, including 352 on the ground, in pounding the overmatched Bruins.

Ozzie Guillen has a better chance getting a job as an English teacher than UCLA had beating the Ducks. The Bruins arrived in Eugene as 32-point underdogs, surely an NCAA record for an FBS conference title tiff.

But the visitors from Westwood - who entered the game with a 6-6 record and were coming off a 50-0 loss to Southern Cal - took on the challenge and didn't back down.

'I'm proud of the team,' UCLA linebacker Pat Larimore said. 'We easily could have laid down, given everybody's predictions. But we played with a lot of energy, a lot of effort.'

That's a credit to the UCLA players. And it's a credit to their coach, who was working his final game in the powder blue following his firing Monday after four years on the job.

The Bruins turned the ball over four times, about three more than they could afford against a team like the Ducks.

'It wasn't as clean as it needed to be playing the caliber of (opponent) as Oregon, but it was a lot of heart, a lot of work,' Neuheisel said. 'And we made it a game, at least for a time.

'I was thrilled to get that kind of effort, given the events of the last week. I'll be forever appreciative (of the Bruin players) for letting me have a dream job for the last four years.'

Neuheisel brought his family to Eugene for the game and had his three sons on the field for pregame. As he played catch with the two youngest - Jack, 17, and Joe, 14 - he drank in the atmosphere and allowed himself to enjoy the scene despite the way the Bruins backed into Friday night's game.

'I kind of looked up at the surroundings,' Neuheisel said. 'Say what you will about how we got here, but looking up at those banners and seeing Oregon and UCLA (represented) was a treat for me. It's something I'll have for a long time.

'We didn't get to where we needed to be, but nobody can take this away from us. Those were the rules from the start of the season, and here's where we were.'

Neuheisel and his coaches pulled out all the stops against Oregon, with trick plays and more vertical throws than you would expect from a pistol offense.

The Bruins scored on an interception return early and then on a flea-flicker that resulted in a 37-yard touchdown pass from Kevin Prince to Nelson Rosario, drawing them to within 21-14 in the second quarter.

Moments later, though, they flubbed a handoff on a double reverse, giving the Ducks the ball at the UCLA 32.

First Commandment against Oregon: Thou Shalt Not Give the Ducks a Short Field.

In the first half, the Ducks started drives at the UCLA 39, Oregon 42, Oregon 48 and UCLA 32. The result: 28 points and a 35-17 halftime lead.

UCLA played a lot of good defense on first and second down in the first half, putting Oregon into third-and-6 or longer situations nine times. Didn't matter. The Ducks converted on third of fourth down seven of those times.

'They're tough to keep up with,' Neuheisel said. 'We found that out first-hand tonight.'

Oregon coach Chip Kelly spent much of the night toying with the Bruins. The Ducks, ahead 35-14 in the closing seconds of the first half, even went for it on fourth-and-10 from the UCLA 44 - not too high on the respect quotient there. The Ducks failed, and the Bruins wound up with a field goal. In the end, it didn't matter.

Oregon's started a pair of third-quarter drives at the UCLA 46 and UO 46. Two more touchdowns, a 49-24 lead, and for the Ducks, it was here we come, Pasadena.

For Neuheisel, it was exit, stage left.

'You don't really want it to end,' he said wistfully, 'but end it did, and we'll move on.'

The Bruins will move on to some minor bowl despite their 6-7 record, but Neuheisel won't be going with them. Athletic director Dan Guerrero decided to allow Neuheisel to coach Friday night, but offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will run the show in the bowl game.

Neuheisel accepted that decision gracefully and has handled the situation with class. He had his players as ready to play as could be expected against the Ducks.

In the end, Neuheisel got fired because he didn't win enough. UCLA was 21-29 under his watch. Ironically, the former quarterback who was MVP in leading the Bruins to a 1984 Rose Bowl victory over Illinois paid dearly for never having recruited a top-quality QB.

I don't know Neuheisel personally, but I've admired him from afar. He is good with the media, a bright mind - with a law degree from USC, he passed the Arizona State bar in 1991 and the Washington, D.C., bar in 1993 - and a players' coach.

Both of the Bruins brought to the post-game podium to address the media, Larimore and QB Kevin Prince, made special effort to thank the coach.

'Playing for him has truly been a blessing for me, and I know it has for the rest of the team,' Larimore said.

'We'll miss him,' Prince added.

Neuheisel, 50, got teary-eyed as he walked off the field after the game, hugging a number of well-wishers.

'You're just not sure if you're going to get to do this again,' he said. 'Our business is one that's hard to predict that stuff.

'The relationships you forge with young people who first say yes to you when you recruit them ... then you try to correct them when they do wrong ... you try to keep channeling their efforts so they can improve as players ... these relationships are what makes the glue for coaches and why no one leaves this field voluntarily.

'The hours are long, but nobody ever looks at the clock. You're doing what you love. So walking off the field not knowing if I'm doing this again was an emotional thing. I tried to harness it, but not always successful.'

Neuheisel is a reviled figure among Oregon fans, derisively known as 'Slick Rick' and 'New Weasel.' There's history there, from both his years at Washington and at Colorado. He has not always behaved admirably or said things diplomatically, and I'm sure he'd like to have back his participation in a betting pool that cost him his job with the Huskies.

He has been a winner in most places, though. I'm pretty sure he'll soon resurface somewhere - probably as an offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach in the NFL, which he did from 2005-07 with the Baltimore Ravens.

Friday's game was good-bye, but not farewell.