Tuesday, June 10, 2003
Folly, arrogance put million-dollar jobs in jeopardy
By Steve Wilstein
AP Sports Columnist
If foolishness is contagious, Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel is the latest to catch the bug making coaches, officials and players do dumb things that put their million-dollar jobs and reputations at risk.
These are frivolous follies, not serious crimes. They are on the order of a kid running with scissors, sticking a fork in an electric socket. Lick a frozen flagpole? Sure. Jump off the roof on a dare? Hey, here goes.
Every parent sees this behavior in 2-year-olds and teens, testing the limits, seeing what they can get away with. We expect they'll grow out of it. Some never do.
Neuheisel, 42, is like that, breaking little rules from time to time, fibbing a few months ago about his pursuit of an opening with the San Francisco 49ers.
Now he's trying to hang onto his Washington job after acknowledging that he took part in NCAA basketball tournament pools, chipping in with a few buddies on a $5,000 bet and sharing in a $20,000 payoff on Maryland last year and an undisclosed amount on Syracuse this year.
Doesn't everybody bet a buck or two or 10 on March Madness? What's the big deal if Neuheisel, who coaches football not basketball and makes $1.2 million a year, bets a little more?
Only this: Every coach, athletic director and player knows, or should know, nothing scares the NCAA more than gambling on any college sport. To bet or not to bet is not a question, it's a flirtation with disaster.
NCAA investigators wouldn't be going after Neuheisel if he had kicked in a few dollars to a friendly pool. In this case, size matters. The NCAA has 20,000 reasons to believe that Neuheisel was too brazen in his betting.
Neuheisel hopes to wiggle out of trouble by citing an e-mail from a school official that was dated March 13 and said "the bottom line" on the NCAA gambling rules is that "you cannot place bets with a bookie or organize your own pool inside or outside" college athletics.
If that curious interpretation by Dana Richardson, Washington's assistant athletic director for compliance, is correct, Neuheisel just might keep his job and his winnings. If not, Neuheisel and Richardson might both get fired, along with their boss, athletic director Barbara Hedges.
Either way, the whole episode is a study in stupidity. Or hubris.
Why would a coach making so much money, and charged with guiding the lives of college players, jeopardize his career by doing something he knows is at least borderline verboten?
Why would Mike Price, Neuheisel's former cross-state rival coach at Washington State, detonate his own $10 million deal at Alabama with some indiscreet partying at a topless club?
Why would Iowa State basketball coach Larry Eustachy, pulling down $1.1 million as Iowa's highest-paid state officials, blow everything by posing for a photo kissing coeds and holding a can of beer?
Why would Sammy Sosa take a corked bat even into batting practice, much less use it in a game? Even if it had splintered during BP and revealed the cork, his homers and reputation still would have come in question.
Why did Georgia basketball coach Jim Harrick's son, an assistant, engage in a shallow bit of academic fraud that cost his father $2.1 million and both of them their jobs?
Why would one U.S. Olympic executive after another act so shabbily that they are forced out or fired? These weren't big scams, just petty schemes.
It's not as if the whole country or even the whole sports world is suffering from a moral crisis, though it sometimes seems that way with the frequency of fishy stories.
Neuheisel is hardly the epitome of corruption in college sports. He's a nice guy with a soft spot for sick kids. He's given more than a few their happiest moments at Husky home games.
But Neuheisel has a tendency to skirt rules. Occasionally he gets busted on them, including sanctions last fall after an NCAA investigation into 51 violations during his reign as Colorado coach from 1995-98. Colorado got two years' probation and a cut in scholarships, Neuheisel got barred from off-campus recruiting until May 31.
Call it arrogance or call it carelessness, but the swaggering Neuheisel has become a poster boy for it in college football. In the process, he's also become an embarrassment to the Huskies.
"It's not like he's getting blindsided," longtime Washington booster and former Huskies All-American Rick Redman told the Seattle Times. "With the history there, you'd (think Neuheisel would) just be walking on eggshells. I think some (UW boosters) are perplexed, some are (mad), some are disappointed."
In 41/2 years at Washington, he's taken the Huskies to a Rose Bowl victory in 2001 and led them to 17 fourth-quarter comebacks, though his teams fell to 8-4 and 7-6 the past two years. He dealt gracefully with the death of Curtis Williams. He tried to make the game fun for his players.
If Neuheisel falls, it won't be because of his record. It will be because of a dumb error in judgment when he thought too little of the rules, too much of himself, and tested the limits of tolerance one time too many.
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com
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