Senior Writer

Former, current prodigies lock up in fight for Southern California


LOS ANGELES -- Given the opening, Rick Neuheisel didn't hesitate to stick the dagger strategically under the rib cage.

What was it like, UCLA's 49-year-old coach was asked, to once be so young, so hot, so wanted and yet so unsure and so unaccomplished?

Neuheisel feels that UCLA has all the pieces to go from a 'major school to an elite school.' (US Presswire)  
Neuheisel feels that UCLA has all the pieces to go from a 'major school to an elite school.' (US Presswire)  
"There's a part of you that wants to let everybody know you're unafraid, that you are not intimidated," said Neuheisel, recalling first season as a head coach. "Sometimes you overdo that to the point that you show that you are. I lived that. I wanted to do everything and be everything."

The blade hidden in those words was meant to reach into the flesh, down the 405 and all the way to Heritage Hall. Neuheisel knows he's describing his new rival, Southern California's Lane Kiffin, as well as himself.

They are separated by 15 miles and 14 years. But in some ways, they are almost the same coach, one looking back in time at another. In the course of one afternoon in back-to-back interviews, current and former golden-boy, golden-haired, wonder coaches were asked to consider the consequences of their actions then and now.

"That's an interesting question," Neuheisel. "We were kind of the same age."

They were the same age, actually, 34, when they became college head coaches -- Kiffin last year at Tennessee, Neuheisel in 1995 at Colorado. Then and now, there were lingering criticisms of each coach's professional reward outstripping their actual accomplishments. One had the right last name (Lane, son of Monte); one was succeeding a legend (Neuheisel taking over for Bill McCartney). Translation: There were dues to be paid that clearly others thought they hadn't.

"I can play with the big boys," Neuheisel remembers thinking a decade and a half ago. "I'm not afraid of Tom Osborne.' So you act out, 'We're unafraid, we're going right through you and let's go. Let's get it on.'"

Until, Neuheisel admits, he shook the Nebraska coaching legend's hand at midfield after one game and wanted to make sure there was a photographer around to capture the moment.

It seemed a good time to address the issues between UCLA's spring game last week and USC's on Saturday: insecurity mixed with bravado meshed with fear and cockiness. Add disdain and shake well.

"It's normal and he'll [Kiffin] get all sorts of lessons from it," Neuheisel said. "What he chooses to do with the lessons is up to him."

The comparison of this city's major college coaches is an obvious one now that Pete Carroll has moved on, setting the stage for a new Battle of Los Angeles. Trojans everywhere might sniff at the "battle" reference. Their team won eight of the nine meetings in the Carroll era (10 of 11 overall). But that's the point -- that era, if not the winning, is over.

"I don't think there is a program in the country that can go from a major school to an elite school faster than UCLA because of all the things we have," Neuheisel said.

USC's response: What issues, home boy? Even with the loss of a combined 27 draft choices, the head coach, defensive coordinator (Nick Holt) and offensive coordinator (Steve Sarkisian, both at Washington) over the past three years, you Bruins are still a distant second.

Now we can't wait to see where things head from here. The Pac-10 is seemingly up for grabs. Certainly USC doesn't have the stranglehold it once did. There are actually quarterback issues at both schools. Kiffin worries about his depth; Neuheisel wonders if sophomore Kevin Prince will finally break out in the new "Revolver" offense.

More to the point, which coach will break out in Southern California? In 10 years as a head coach, Neuheisel has won 77 games, including a Rose Bowl. Slick Rick became Slick Rick when he tarnished part of his career during a messy NCAA investigation that led to his firing at Washington. In two seasons following a triumphant return to his alma mater, he has won all of six conference games with the Bruins.

While in his 20s, Kiffin was calling the plays for two Heisman Trophy winners as offensive coordinator when USC won two national championships. A short stay with the Oakland Raiders was a disaster. An even shorter stay at Tennessee was a PR disaster more than anything else.

In early January, he left the Volunteers after 13 games for what he called "home." It didn't come without an odd and uncomfortable goodbye press conference, death threats and three police cars parked in front of his house for protection that night.

"I'm surprised," Kiffin said, "they didn't burn down our house."

What he chooses to do with the lessons is up to him.

Kiffin will have sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley to lean on. (US Presswire)  
Kiffin will have sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley to lean on. (US Presswire)  
That eyebrow- and blood-pressure raising act (at least for Urban Meyer) from a year ago is gone, or at least toned down. Hired in the second week of January, Kiffin responded by landing the nation's No. 1 recruiting class that featured the nation's No. 1 recruit (Seantrel Henderson).

He did much the same in recruiting last year at Tennessee. It was a good start. But we still don't know if the kid can coach. The Vols improved by two wins from the previous year and got blown out in the bowl game. Arguably, his biggest coaching accomplishment was improving quarterback Jonathan Crompton to the point that he got drafted in the fifth round by San Diego Chargers.

Crompton's father was so grateful that he called Kiffin and promised his family would be Trojans forever.

Neuheisel quickly got in line, accusing his rival of recruiting shenanigans. He is not the first, considering Kiffin piled up a half-dozen secondary violations at Tennessee.

"I know there were a number of kids that had opportunities because there were limousines sent to their homes by SC to come visit," Neuheisel said. "A number of kids that we ended up signing were on the phone saying, 'I don't want to get in this car. Tell the driver to leave.'"

That would be another juicy, controversial addition to Kiffin's NCAA resume if they, in fact, were limos. Neuheisel quickly corrected himself saying the vehicles were "town cars," which are allowed by the NCAA.

Kiffin's on-the-record response? "Tradition in the distant past does not help your recruiting. Because of what's happened in the last nine years at USC, it's refreshing to concentrate on coaching and recruiting and not have to gather outside attention."

There's a twist. It seems that both Kiffin and USC have lost their swagger. Kiffin on purpose because last year's clown act was a means to an end. He had three weeks to recruit after being hired. To get poor, old anonymous Tennessee out in the public he had to act the fool. Now Kiffin is trying to quietly duplicate his old boss's success while subtly suggesting Carroll's program had gone a bit soft.

"Guys figured they were going to put on the USC helmet and so we're just going to win," Kiffin said. "No. Reggie [Bush] and those guys won those games with those 6 a.m. workouts and outworked everyone else in the country. There was a swagger here but it was earned."

Now? A lot of false swagger. Kiffin has seen how bad it can get when a power like Tennessee hits the skids -- 9-4 is not acceptable at USC. Too much of the "e-word" -- entitlement. To the point that quarterback Matt Barkley said this team is "more disciplined" than last year.

Kiffin more disciplined? You almost hear Neuheisel chuckling over in Westwood. But Barkley has been made to lose 10 pounds so he can be more mobile in the new coach's offense. Agents and their runners have been weeded out of the once come-one, come-all atmosphere of USC practices.

"It's making sure they understand how this was before," Kiffin said. "How we won 34 straight games, how we played for three straight national championships, how you go five years without losing at home."

USC vulnerable? UCLA competitive in the rivalry again? We'll see, but here is a larger issue here in Southern California.

"Until you do it on the field," Neuheisel said, "it's just talk."

He might as well be speaking for both coaches.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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