Rude welcome might await Neuheisel in Boulder

Thursday, September 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) _ Rick Neuheisel returns to Boulder on Saturday with his ninth-ranked Washington Huskies, hoping the focus will be on football and not his abrupt and bitter departure from Colorado 20 months ago at the height of recruiting season.

While Colorado players say Neuheisel has been forgotten, fans may not be so forgiving.

Neuheisel acknowledges he's likely to receive a rude reception.

``I don't anticipate a lovefest or anything like that,'' he said. ``If people are bitter that I left, then that's part of college football.''

Neuheisel watched with interest the return of former Mississippi coach Tommy Tuberville _ now at Auburn _ to Oxford, Miss., last weekend. Some Rebel fans wore T-shirts featuring Tuberville's face and ``Liar, Liar'' printed under it.

``There's a lot of passion associated with college football,'' Neuheisel said. ``If the passion manifests itself in a distaste for me, I've got big enough shoulders to handle that. As long as they're passionate about the Colorado Buffaloes, that's OK by me.''

Neuheisel calls his four years in Boulder _ when he led Colorado to 10-2, 10-2, 5-6 and 8-4 records _ ``a great time in my life and my family's life. It will be neat to be back there.''

But will CU fans who felt jilted by Neuheisel have the same sentiment?

When he walked away from Boulder to sign a $1-million-a-year contract with Washington, Neuheisel, once a darling of the Colorado media and of fans, was instantly vilified.

Initially, he was applauded as a different kind of coach who wasn't afraid to be frank, to sing and play the guitar in public or to be close to his players. He became famous for taking his players on inner-tubing trips down Boulder Creek and instituting Popsicle breaks at practice.

But when his teams began showing signs of lacking discipline such as excessive penalties, his approach began to be questioned. A reputed quarterback guru, he was criticized for failing to develop a worthy successor to Kordell Stewart. And his emphasis on a finesse passing game at the expense of running caused his teams to suffer in the ground-oriented, physical Big 12.

The former wunderkind began to be seen as all style and no substance.

He departed on a recruiting weekend when CU officials discovered him negotiating with Washington while at the same time entertaining CU prospects.

He didn't improve his image in Boulder when, after his departure, he characterized CU athletically and financially as a ``have-not'' institution that will struggle to stay competitive in the Big 12 _ even if that view bears some truth.

Neuheisel was Topic A when the Huskies entertained and defeated Colorado 31-24 last season. Judging by the reaction of CU players, he is hardly a factor at all in the rematch this weekend.

Bobby Pesavento, elevated to Colorado's starting quarterback job after two straight creditable performances in relief, said Neuheisel's return ``is not that big of a deal.''

Center Andre Gurode added, ``Neuheisel is in the past. We've all gotten over that.''

Besides, Colorado, at 0-2, has too much at stake against the Huskies (2-0).

``Last year there was a little revenge thing,'' defensive end Brady McDonnell said. ``But this game isn't about him. We're 0-2 and need a win.''

Bill McCartney, Neuheisel's predecessor at Colorado who brought the former UCLA assistant to Colorado in 1994, weighed in on Neuheisel this week, saying Neuheisel deserves both praise for his first two seasons and blame for the program's slippage in 1997 and 1998.

``He did an extraordinary job,'' McCartney said. ``The first two teams, he took them further than I could've taken them. I wasn't sure there was that kind of talent.

``But when the program starts to deteriorate, he has to take some of the credit for that. He was a victim, in some respects, of the expectations of people.''

McCartney said the Buffs became ``no longer a rugged team. They were high-risk on both sides of the ball. It's a style. Really, we went a little soft.

``But I think he's learned from that. He's got some seasoned coaches around him at Washington. It's showing up in the current style of play that Washington has.''

And McCartney believes CU coach Gary Barnett is restoring that type of hard-nosed football to Boulder.

``Neuheisel imparted his personality and style,'' McCartney said. ``Barnett needs at least two years to officially install all the things that are ingrained in him. We're getting it back, but it takes time.''

On Saturday, the Buffs intend to prove they're on the way back, even if it is at the expense of their former coach.