Friday, January 04, 2008

Can Slick Rick Deliver?

The impression I have, based on some Rick Neuheisel statements since he was hired as UCLA's new football coach, is that he is establishing a definition of success for his tenure that is based on UCLA's future performance in relation to USC. I don't mean just UCLA's head-to-head record against USC, but also an ability to win championships and bowl games at a rate comparable to USC. Neuheisel's statements include his televised interview from the stands as a spectator at the Rose Bowl game and his recorded telephone message to UCLA supporters, in which he said, “The team across town has risen to national prominence, and it’s time we meet this head on.”

I respect this approach, but is he setting up himself and his program to fail? My guess is UCLA fans expect to beat the Trojans about as often as they lose to them. Is that a realistic expectation right now? In the past quarter century, USC is 12-12-1 against UCLA, but that includes an eight-game losing streak during the 1990s, pre-Carroll. With Pete Carroll at the helm, the Trojans climbed the college football mountain and have performed at an elite, unprecedentedly consistent level – the 2008 Rose Bowl championship gives the Trojans a 5-1 record over six consecutive BCS bowl appearances. In the same period of time, UCLA has compiled a 43-33 (28-22 Pac-10) record including a 2-4 record in bowl games, none of which were played on or after New Year’s Day.

I don’t expect the Trojans to beat UCLA every year in perpetuity (I can live with one loss out of nine!), but Neuheisel is sowing the seeds of disappointment unless he can engineer a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of both programs. If he cannot, his performance will not compare favorably against the bar he is setting, and he may not last long in what is probably his last chance as a head coach in the college game.

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