New niche for Rick Neuheisel as ‘a natural’ on television

Perhaps the most popular person in the Pac-12 doesn’t wear a football headset or run basketball drills. Instead, he sits in a San Francisco studio, analyzing college football, making fun of his sidekicks and sometimes signing songs for the Pac-12 Networks.

In just two-plus years in front of the camera, Rick Neuheisel has reinvented himself. As a coach, the 1979 Tempe McClintock High graduate had his problems, losing jobs at two Pac-12 schools. A third was placed on NCAA probation for recruiting issues that occurred under his watch.

Today, Neuheisel, 53, is a sports Emmy-nominated studio analyst and the host of a new five-part series — that takes viewers inside the minds of five Pac-12 quarterbacks.

“Under Center with Rick Neuheisel” already has profiled Oregon State’s Sean Mannion and Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly. Tonight, Neuheisel sits down with UCLA junior Brett Hundley, a former Chandler High standout.

“I would be lying to you if I said I saw it coming,” Neuheisel said of his success. “I knew that I could talk about football. I did that for a living, and I knew I was familiar with the landscape with respect to the Pac-12. What I didn’t realize is how much I would enjoy it and how interesting it is behind the scenes as an occupation and how many talented people it takes to do it well.”

At McClintock, he helped win a 1977 state championship. To this day, he remembers pounding his football helmet on the ceiling of the school bus while singing Queen’s “We are the Champions” after the game.

Coaching ups, downs

Neuheisel’s coaching career didn’t always end in such celebration. At Colorado, he won 33 games in four years but left the program on NCAA probation because of minor recruiting violations. At Washington, he took the Huskies to the 2001 Rose Bowl but was fired just two years later for participating in a betting pool on the NCAA Tournament. (Neuheisel sued for wrongful termination and settled with the school and the NCAA for a reported $4.5 million.)

At UCLA, his alma mater, Neuheisel won a bowl game in his second season but failed to sustain the success. In 2011 UCLA informed Neuheisel he would not return for a fifth season. This opened the door for another opportunity.

With division champ USC ineligible because of NCAA sanctions, the second-place Bruins represented the South in the Pac-12 Championship Game that season. Before the contest against Oregon, Neuheisel took the field at Autzen Stadium to toss the football with his son. Commissioner Larry Scott approached them.

“I got an idea for you,” Scott said.

The commissioner wanted Neuheisel to join the upstart Pac-12 Networks as an analyst. Initially, Neuheisel was flattered but unsure. Every fired coach thinks the phone will light up with offers, and part of Neuheisel wanted to prove everyone wrong.

At the same time, Scott’s offer made him pause. Did he want to go so someplace and rebuild? Did he want to return to the NFL, where he had served as an assistant coach? Was it time to slow down?

Career change

With two sons in high school, Neuheisel decided to take a chance with the Pac-12 Networks, and it didn’t take long for him to feel at home.

“To me, there was almost a kindred spirit because that’s what I had come from — a team,” Neuheisel said. “And it was also really neat that I was part of a team that was just starting. A lot of kids were getting their first chances. It was fresh. Everybody was kind of diving in.”

On the set, Neuheisel mixes humor with intelligence. He has worn the coach’s headset. He understands the demands, knows the pressure.

“He has a lot of energy,” said fellow Pac-12 Networks analyst Jake Plummer, a former ASU quarterback. “He’s got a big chip on his shoulder, too, which I like. You got to love guys with chips on their shoulders. He just knows the game really well. He knows the zone read really well, which I have no clue about. He’s just a fun guy to be around. He’s kind of a beach bum kind of guy, a coach I would’ve loved to have played for.”

Neuheisel also doesn’t take himself seriously, which separates him from other analysts. More than once, he has broken into song, something national radio host Dan Patrick started a few years ago. Neuheisel explains:

“Dan Patrick used to have fun with me on the show,” he said. “One time he caught me in the morning and I was at home. Normally, I do the calls from the office. He said, “You’re at home? Is your guitar there?’ I said, ‘Yeah, and I got on and I played a lick of ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ the first thing everyone who plays guitar learns how to play. And it dawns on me, I got a phone sitting here on the couch, I’m on a national radio show playing with probably an un-tuned guitar. I got on the phone and told him, ‘You’re crazy.’ And he said, ‘No, this is great stuff.’ ”

‘A natural’

As a result, Neuheisel started preparing for his radio appearances. He wrote a song about former Texas AM quarterback Johnny Manziel on a plane ride back from Oakland. On the day he played it for Patrick, the song dominated social media. Eventually, the Pac-12 Networks caught on: Hey, they told him, we need a song, too.

So last November, with USC surging, Neuheisel sang a tribute to interim coach Ed Orgeron, using Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song (Day O)” as a guide.

“One win, two win, three win, four. Hey, Coach O, we want some more.

“Then beat Stanford, let the whole world know

“We will fight on all the way with mojo”

“Rick is a natural at this,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “I saw him a couple months ago at a charity golf event up in Phoenix and I told him, ‘I have such respect for you because you’re really good at what you do.’ He’s a football coach at heart, but he is really, really talented and he is really good at what he does for the Pac-12 Network. I think he’s a star already.”

Lydia Murphy-Stephans, Pac-12 Networks President, isn’t surprised.

“Oprah, when I worked for the Oxygen Network, would refer to the ‘it factor,’ and it’s somebody who on camera translates as comfortably as if they’re in your living room,” she said. “Rick has that.”

Quality of life

Neuheisel is enjoying his time away from the whistle. Son Jerry is a sophomore quarterback at UCLA. Son Jack is a freshman receiver at SMU.

Still, Neuheisel has the itch to coach. For most, it seldom goes away. Neuheisel likens it to a scene in the movie “Shawshank Redemption.” Near the end, Morgan Freeman’s character is released from prison, but he’s not sure how to act. He’s been inside so long prison has become his norm, the only life he knows.

The same goes for coaches once they leave the business, Neuheisel said.

“To get out of that and realize there is a whole lot going on out there and there are some things you’ve been missing takes some getting used to,” Neuheisel said. “I want to be careful about it. While I love football and I love coaching, I want to live my life, and I don’t want to be an absentee guy in respect to my wife, in respect to my family again, and yet sometimes that’s what the job calls for. It would have to be a great job (to return) and one of those things that really lights my fire.”