By Rich Campbell
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 12, 2007
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The sound of a football hitting the crossbar echoed throughout the Baltimore Ravens' indoor practice facility late on a December morning, signaling a winner in a pre-practice throwing contest.
Surrounded by a group of four players at the 20-yard line, the champion wore a black and purple jacket and a black Ravens cap that concealed most of his wavy blond hair. With a wide grin, quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel basked in his victory, one of many reasons he is smiling these days.
Neuheisel, formerly a star in the college coaching ranks, has found contentment in tutoring Steve McNair, whose career rebirth has coincided with Neuheisel's. While he awaits another head coaching opportunity, Neuheisel is happy to contribute to a playoff team in a role for which he would have been overqualified before his fall from the top earlier this decade.
"I'm glad it has turned out the way it has," Neuheisel said recently. "I had to go through the other stuff before tasting this to realize that football is, from a macro scale, the same. Whether you're coaching Pop Warner kids or you're coaching in the NFL, when there's a connection amongst the team, when the chemistry feels right and when you can put the pieces together and everybody kind of knows their role and enjoys their role, then it works."
When McNair, 33, joined the Ravens in June looking for a fresh start after an acrimonious departure from the Tennessee Titans, he met Neuheisel, 45, whose rejuvenation had begun more than a year earlier. But unlike McNair, who came to Baltimore seeking to prolong his prolific career, Neuheisel arrived hoping to heal his wounded reputation and return to coaching at a high level.
On Jan. 1, 2001, Neuheisel coached the University of Washington to a victory over Purdue in the Rose Bowl, and the Huskies finished the season ranked No. 3 in the country. But 2 1/2 years later, he was fired for his involvement in an NCAA men's basketball tournament pool and for allegedly lying to NCAA investigators.
Neuheisel filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the NCAA and university, and in March 2005 he received a $4.5 million settlement after it was revealed that the university's compliance office had sent out a memo that permitted the type of pool in which Neuheisel participated.
"In this business, perception is so important, and you have very little chance to affect your perception when you're not out there," Neuheisel said. "Ultimately I got some measure of vindication, but . . . you're never going to get it all back."
About two months prior to the settlement, Neuheisel was hired as the Ravens' quarterbacks coach -- a rung on the coaching ladder normally reserved for up-and-comers, not Rose Bowl winners. Still, the former UCLA quarterback embraced the opportunity.
"There's a certain amount of self-pity you feel when you go through the rise and fall," Neuheisel said. "But you have to get over that quickly because it's such a wasted emotion. It brings everybody down around you, and it just isn't who I am or certainly not who I wanted to be. I just tried to harness my energy and turn it into a positive as much as I could."
Neuheisel's personal rejuvenation accelerated when the Ravens traded for McNair. For a coach who had tutored Troy Aikman at UCLA, the chance to work with a former NFL MVP and the success McNair has brought to the team have helped Neuheisel find satisfaction.
"We are both trying to start over and we're both trying to do a great job," McNair said. "We are trying to teach each other and put ourselves in a position where the team is successful. That's the most important thing because everything starts with the quarterback."
McNair had about 90 days to learn Baltimore's offense before training camp began in July. To hasten that process, Neuheisel employed a tactic he learned from longtime UCLA coach Terry Donahue.
Neuheisel learned the terminology McNair used in Tennessee regarding reads and other techniques. McNair still had to learn the Ravens' plays using Baltimore's terminology, but Neuheisel was able to teach McNair the offense using a language with which McNair was comfortable.
"He spent more time with me than a normal coach would to get me to know this offense," McNair said. "Going into this role, he knew what to expect out of a quarterback and he demands perfection, he demands consistency. That is one of the reasons we have grown so fond of each other, because I demand that of myself."
Neuheisel got his first in-depth look at McNair's play in January 2003 as a spectator at the AFC championship game, which Tennessee lost to Oakland. He was impressed by McNair's attitude as he tried to rally the Titans from a significant second-half deficit. He further was impressed this season when the Ravens traveled to Tennessee and McNair went out and simply played, showing no animosity toward the team that jettisoned him after 11 seasons.
"Should I get a chance to go back to places, I want to try to be exactly like Steve McNair was when he went back to Tennessee," Neuheisel said. "Play your tail off and be thankful for the opportunity you had there."
Neuheisel gradually has settled into a comfort zone on a Ravens offensive coaching staff that at one time included Jim Fassel and is led by Coach Brian Billick. Neuheisel occasionally was frustrated early on when his suggestions in meetings were dismissed as "college ideas." Over time, though, he earned credibility as his suggestions worked on the field.
With both Billick and Fassel serving as the main offensive leaders last season and earlier this season, Neuheisel's voice sometimes was drowned out. "There's a saying in coaching, 'Holding the cord,' " Neuheisel said. "Somebody is making the calls and the other guy is holding the headset. I was basically holding the cord."
When Fassel was fired from his offensive coordinator post in mid-October -- a move Neuheisel said he was sorry about -- it allowed Neuheisel to put more of an imprint on the Ravens' offense, which has succeeded with Billick as coordinator. Billick's head coaching responsibilities occasionally draw him away from the offense during practice, but he feels comfortable leaving the group in Neuheisel's hands.
"Sometimes assistant coaches take on a perspective and their view tends to be narrow because that's all they know," Billick said. "But when you've been a coordinator or head coach, you kind of understand the bigger picture a little bit better."
Neuheisel's chances of becoming a head coach again remain uncertain. Besides any damage to his reputation that lingers from the situation that prompted his firing at Washington, the Huskies were found to have committed minor recruiting violations during his tenure and were sanctioned by the Pacific-10 Conference.
One athletic director from a school in a BCS conference, who requested anonymity to avoid the possibility of damaging his relationship with his school's football coach, said that any school considering Neuheisel for its head coaching job would have to carefully balance his past on-field success with off-field issues.
All Neuheisel wants is a chance to explain his side and, eventually, prove himself. He is eager to be a head coach again, he said, but if it doesn't happen, he is happy with what he has accomplished and what lies ahead for him with the Ravens.
"You learn from your mistakes -- I certainly made some -- and you go on," he said. "There is still a great deal of competitiveness left in me, and I'm anxious to harness it and put it in the right way. But I'm not going to go out over my skis to the point where I'm going to be miserable until my name is in the bright lights again. At the end of the day, it's about quality of life. I want to enjoy what I'm doing. I work with a great guy right now in Steve McNair, and I'm enjoying every day of working with him."