|Miserable at being fired, Rick Neuheisel is still stoked by a rare opportunity for his 6-6 team. (Getty Images)|
There's a funeral Friday night, in case you hadn't heard, and plenty of people are bringing roses.
The procession started last week when UCLA went across town and got humiliated 50-0 at the hands of USC. It wound its way through Westwood on Sunday after it was announced that head coach Rick Neuheisel would be let go but, surprisingly, would coach this week in a game the Bruins had managed to back themselves into.
Neuheisel, the former walk-on quarterback who led the Bruins to a win in the 1984 Rose Bowl, will not be allowed to lead the team back to Pasadena should UCLA (6-6, 5-4) pull off a miraculous upset against Oregon (10-2, 8-1) in the Pac-12's first conference championship game. After four years on the job and a 21-28 record, it probably was time to go for the idealistic head coach known as 'Slick Rick.' The Bruins never could turn the corner, thanks to myriad issues, and as a result, Neuheisel departs as the head coach with the lowest winning percentage in UCLA history with 20 or more games coached.
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"I'm numb. I guess the rational side of me should have seen this coming but I never think that way, I always think optimistically," Neuheisel said. "This is an unusual circumstance, but I'll get through it. I want to make the most of these last few days, not for sentimental reasons but just so our players can have the best possible chance in a game where we are given none."
Lame duck versus the Ducks is not exactly what Larry Scott, the conference's hotshot commissioner, was thinking when he sold the game to networks, advertisers and schools. He had his championship game three weeks ago, though, when Oregon beat Stanford. He got another when USC beat Oregon.
It's too bad none of those matchups could happen again. Not even Gus Johnson would be able to save this one.
The Pac-12's highest ranked team (and the one with the best record) is sitting at home waiting for a BCS bowl invite. The team that actually won the South is ineligible. It's life in a conference that seemingly has to live by the slogan, 'Wait 'till next year' in 2011.
Instead, UCLA will head up to Autzen Stadium as 31 point underdogs. Considering the Bruins were beaten by 50 the last time out, that might be generous. Oregon won the last time the two teams played by 47, the largest margin of victory in the series' history.
While the conference office certainly hopes things are at least competitive between the two, an Oregon loss would sting the league's reputation nationally. Not only would the Ducks be sent to a lower tier bowl after being ranked in the BCS top 10 for most of the season, but the Pac-12 would be represented in the grandaddy of them all by a team with more losses than any participant in the Rose Bowl's illustrious history and led by an interim coach.
There's a slight chance there could be two losers when the clock runs out.
UCLA brass has already made moves in anticipation of a loss however. The school asked for a waiver to go to a bowl game even if they had a 6-7 record. The NCAA granted it Wednesday due in large part because the conference couldn't fill all seven of its bowl slots.
"We will be able to give our 18 seniors one more chance to represent their university and end their collegiate careers on a high note, regardless of the outcome of this Friday’s Pac-12 Championship Game," athletic director Dan Guerrero said in a statement.
Even without their coach, the Bruins hold out hope of playing in January.
"Let's hope we have that problem," Neuheisel said.
It's not a funeral for Oregon on what should be a chilly Friday night in their home stadium, though. In some ways it's more like a celebration with an obnoxious cousin trying to get up front in the family photo.
Aspirations of making it to New Orleans for another chance to play for the national title ended two weeks ago, but this could be the final time fans will see Heisman finalist LaMichael James in lighting yellow or neon green should he leave for the NFL. A third straight conference title for the senior class, the winningest in school history with 42 victories, and a trip to the Rose Bowl are not a bad consolation prize in any event.
"I think everybody contributes and we don't really single out one person out," Chip Kelly said. "For us to run the ball it takes 11 people. We've got a bunch of receivers that do a great job with perimeter blocking. The offensive line doesn't get enough credit for opening up those holes so Kenjon (Barner) and LaMichael and De'Anthony Thomas can run through them.
"The great thing about this team is it's all about the team. It's all about we and not about me. There's not one person who cares about the individual accolades."
For Kelly, it has been a year of ups and downs. The Ducks began the season playing in the "Will Lyles Bowl" against LSU. The loss in the opener was a setback and his first home loss as Ducks head coach to USC marked one of the few times the team looked mortal in conference play. Ultimately, capping things off with a win in the Rose Bowl would be historic -- the school's only win came in 1917, well before über-booster Phil Knight started making over the program.
The quick-speaking head coach is having nothing of that this week however, trying to get his team focused only on the task at hand.
"We're just excited that we get to represent the North and play in this game," Kelly remarked. "We had lifting at 10:15 the other day and every kid was in the building by 8:30, just to give you an idea about their mindset about playing in this game."
In fairness to UCLA, it wasn't a bad year. They're just not a "good" team per se.
The Bruins have won three of their last five and have six 200-plus-yard games on the ground. They have five wins over BCS conference teams, more than bowl-bound schools Auburn, Florida, Mississippi State, N.C. State and Vanderbilt. There were no blowouts of FCS teams, just a few blowouts at the hands of FBS teams.
"By hook or by crook, we're within a game of achieving what we all set out to do," Neuheisel said. "It'd be like not planting the flag on the top of a mountain if you're that close."
Friday night will be a run to the roses for Oregon. It will be Neuheisel's last stand and the odds are about as good as Custer's were.
"This is a miserable place to be, to be fired from what you have dreamed about your whole life," he said. "I love this team. I like the way these kids keep coming back. I like the way they look at me in the eyes.
"Every time our backs are against it, we've responded. Now my back's against it and I want to respond."
Unfortunately for the Bruins, Neuheisel's back is against a coffin.