A teary-eyed yet optimistic Rick Neuheisel finished his first practice as UCLA’s ex-coach Monday and commented, “I’m a Bruin and I’m a Bruin for life.”
It was the end of a long day, with a few more to go.
Neuheisel was fired as coach Monday morning, but will coach the Bruins in the Pac-12 Conference championship game against Oregon on Friday. The winner goes to the Rose Bowl.
That made for an eerie evening under the lights at UCLA’s Spaulding Field on Monday.
“He decided to coach us this last game and the players are excited about that,” said wide receiver Taylor Embree, who has known Neuheisel since he was a kid. “We want to finish his UCLA career with him.”
Practice was routine, though a little more vocal. The post-practice was more emotional.
Quarterback Kevin Prince thought a change might come after the Bruins were routed, 50-0, by USC on Saturday.
“I wasn’t jumping to any conclusion, but the way we lost Saturday, I felt something might happen,” Prince said. “You never want to see a guy go out like that. We like Coach Neuheisel. We wanted him to stay.”
Neuheisel said he was “numb,” but admitted that “the rational side of me should have seen this coming” after a 21-28 record in four seasons.
He said his focus now was to “make the most of my last few days, not for sentimental reasons, but so our players have the best possible chance in a game where we’re given no chance.”
As to what is next, Neuheisel said he would have to “sit and think it through because I hadn’t done any of this thinking.… I love coaching. It is in my blood.”
If the Bruins were to pull off an upset, Neuheisel had hoped to be allowed to coach in the Rose Bowl, but said, “I was told that would not be in the best interest of UCLA. I understand that point of view.”
The Pac-12 championship game would have to do, he said.
“By hook or by crook, we are one game from achieving what we set out to do,” Neuheisel said. “It would be like not planting a flag on top of a mountain.”
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-- Chris Foster
Photo: UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel talks with quarterback Kevin Prince after the Bruins failed to score on a fourth-down play against USC in the fourth quarter Saturday night at the Coliseum. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times