Rick Neuheisel is one of the voices of the Pac-12 this season, the lead studio analyst on the conference’s new television network.
He’s glib enough, outspoken enough and he certainly knows the territory well, having been the head coach at 25 percent of the Pac-12 schools — Colorado, Washington and UCLA.
I caught up with Neuheisel on the phone earlier this week, talking about some larger Pac-12 issues (you can read that part of the Q&A at LindysSports.com and also settling in for more Arizona-centric topics.
Here it is:
Q: What’s your most optimistic take on why Rich Rodriguez will work at Arizona in the long term?
Neuheisel: “No. 1, he’s proven he can coach the offensive side of the ball. He’s proven he can handle the head coaching, administrative stuff. I know he had a very rocky road at Michigan with the allegations of working (the players) too many hours and, basically, trying to put a square peg in a round hole. You know, the Michigan faithful have a way of doing things, and if you don’t bleed Maize and Blue it’s hard for them to believe you belong there. And Rich had to endure some of that. That didn’t work for him, plus the fact his defensive personnel wasn’t up to snuff. I think he finds himself much like he was in West Virginia. They have a great crowd base in Tucson. People really get behind the Wildcats, especially when they’re winners.
“I think he can have instant impact with that offense. The way RichRod plays offense will help the defense. That being, he will run 60 percent of the time, whether it’s Matt Scott running the ball or Ka’Deem Carey running the ball. That will help move the clock, it will help keep field position in balance and that will help Jeff Casteel on defense as he tries to acclimate himself to the Pac-12.”
Q: Talking about that defense, what is your take on the 3-3-5 defense?
Neuheisel: “A 3-3-5 is nothing more than a nickel package, and you’re just playing odd. This is just an every-down deal. You’re still going to have every gap accounted for; it’s just that you’re going to have a little bit more variety in how you do that. It can be a little bit confusing for blocking schemes. Most people will approach it with zone schemes, meaning it doesn’t matter who is in what gap because you’re just going to block to your right, block to your left or take what comes to you. But it does give Arizona a little more versatility. It allows smaller, faster guys to play closer to the line of scrimmage without the offense able to use bigger guys to take advantage of their size because they don’t know which gap (the defender) is going to be in.”
Q: So as an offensive coach, where are the typical areas to attack a 3-3-5?
Neuheisel: “Well, I can’t wait for the Stanford-Arizona game. That’s when we’re going to find out how that 3-3-5 works. Stanford, as they try to develop a brand-new quarterback, is going to run the power. And they are going to run the power until your nose bleeds. We’re going to find how that 3-3-5 lines up against a power offense.”
Q: You have either played or coached against the past four Arizona head coaches. Through all that, have you found a common denominator regarding Arizona players?
Neuheisel: “The Arizona player is usually a hard-nosed kid. Dick Tomey had a bunch of hard-nosed kids and really leaned on some Polynesian kids in the program. John Mackovic, to me, was a little bit of a departure. I’m not sure why John was the choice there, because he didn’t have a real tie to the state of Arizona or with the Pac-12 conference. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I don’t know if John recruited the same kind of kids that Dick did, but I know when Mike Stoops got there, he went back to working the junior colleges hard, working Southern California and the Inland Empire and the Fresno valley really hard. And he got some guys who might not have been at the top of everybody’s list, but guys that were going to develop and love football. The one thing that was common between Tomey and Mike is they recruited guys who loved football — and that was certainly true of Larry Smith, as well. No question, Larry was a gritty guy.”
Q: How big of a deal is it that virtually the entire coaching staff has no experience in the Pac-12 and isn’t familiar with the teams and the personnel?
Neuheisel: “I think it’s a bigger deal than they do. I think this conference is unique from the standpoint that if you look at the resumes of most of the coaches in this league, they have been in this conference for a long time — certainly not always with the same team, but on this side of the country. I think there will be some growing pains in that regard.”
Q: Matt Scott’s last extended game action was against your UCLA team in 2010. What do you remember from him?
Neuheisel: “I think he’s an excellent fit for Rich’s in his first year. I tell you, in the game he played against us, I thought he played well. The game that really impressed me was the game that preceded that one where he played against Washington, and I think he was 18 of 21 (actually 18 of 22) and was unbelievable with his legs as well. Going into our game, I thought he was going to be a handful because of what he brought to the table as an athlete. This year, given the things that Rich is going to teach him and his ability to be elusive, I think he’s going to be really, really special.”
Q: In terms of the Pac-12 race, who do you have, USC or Oregon?
Neuheisel: “If both teams stay relatively healthy and play as they’re capable of, they will play in the championship game. I’m on record as saying USC would win the first one and Oregon would win the championship game.”
Q: What’s the reasoning behind that?
Neuheisel: “I think that it’s very difficult to have a myriad of game plans against Oregon because of the pace at which they play. I think with the film of how (USC) played not only this year but last year — which means USC would have beaten them two times in a row — Oregon would have some answers.”
In light of Javier Morales’ countdown of the Top 50 football games in Arizona history, I asked Neuheisel about the 1983 game that came in at No. 42 on the list. UA had lost three in a row. UCLA, quarterback by Neuheisel, then a senior, had won five in a row to take control of the Pac-12 race. A tie would have done the trick for the Bruins, but All-American John Lee — one of the most accurate kickers in NCAA history — missed wide right from 37 yards on the final play as the Wildcats stunned UCLA 27-24.
“It was a weird game because we were playing to tie,” Neuheisel said.
“You spend your whole life in clock offense trying to go down and win a game. It felt like we had momentum to win the game but then we had to stall out and put the pressure on what seemed like an automatic guy in John Lee. I love John Lee, and there is no more reliable kicker, but I just regret that we didn’t try to finish that drive. … I remember my sister telling me, ‘It’s OK.’ And I’m telling her, ‘No, it’s not.’ My sister was a cheerleader for U of A that year.”
It did turn out to be OK as the Bruins knocked off USC a week later to advance to the Rose Bowl, where they smacked Illinois 45-9. So, it’s not as if the 1983 loss to Arizona is a huge regret for Neuheisel.
“It’s not one of those things that haunts me like some of the other things that have happened to me in my life.”