Mon Jan 18 05:23pm EST
Of all the burned bridges, ruffled feathers and toppled dominoes in the wake of Lane Kiffin's defection from Tennessee to USC last week, maybe no development is quite as jarring as Rick Neuheisel's sudden status as the most sober, stable element in L.A. football. "Slick Rick" landed at his alma mater two years ago with a reputation as one of college football's master of fast-talking, ladder-climbing sleaze, an up-and-coming opportunist who had racked up several dozen NCAA violations before bolting one school and been fired from another for violating Association rules on gambling while allegedly going to great lengths to save his rampaging players' eligibility at all costs.
But after two years of quiet mediocrity at UCLA, it's the crosstown Trojans who find themselves welcoming the new gold standard among NCAA scofflaws even as they're under the NCAA's thumb for possible sanctions accrued by the old regime, and next to Kiffin's unearned bravado, Neuheisel's trash talk comes across as positively meek:
UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel welcomed his new competitor, Lane Kiffin, to town with a rousing speech at halftime of the basketball game at Pauley Pavilion. ... Here’s some of what Slick Rick had to say:
"If you've paid attention to anything that’s gone on in college football this week, you can see the landscape has slightly shifted.
"Make no mistake, we are not going to rest until we bring back the Pac-10 championship, the Rose Bowl championship and the national championship!"
"Slightly shifting landscape ... Check. Indeterminate future glory ... Check. Now where is my oatmeal?" Later, Neuheisel got really bold when he told a reporter that, "Until the new regime proves itself, we feel we have every right to claim this city." Of course, UCLA's media department already did that a couple years back, which hasn't counted for much so far.
But the upcoming year will be the Bruins' best opportunity for taking a bite out of the still-reigning USC monopoly, beginning with the next few months: USC is still clearly ahead of the curve in local recruiting, but the Bruins have managed so far to hold the ground they've gained over the last two years, and still have a chance to make a big splash with hyped local Anthony Barr. (Naturally, they'll be in Kiffin's shop, looking to repeat last year's raid of a couple top USC commitments.) Year Three, though, is the year Neuheisel has to deliver some kind of breakthrough on the field that screams progress! at the precise moment that the Trojans are looking the most vulnerable.
Looming sanctions may help his cause in the buildup to signing day in a little over two weeks -- and actual sanctions will help even more, if they finally come down sometime this spring -- but with essentially the entire Bruin offense back and USC coming into the Rose Bowl to close a season of maximum uncertainty, this year may be the opportunity for L.A. to stare across the line at the Trojans as more or less equals for the first time in a decade. If it is, though, it's also likely to be fleeting: If the Bruins don't get their foot in the window while it's open over the next year or two, the drumbeat about "taking back the town" for UCLA is going to ring more hollow and ridiculous than it did when Pete Carroll was still ruling the coast and the hills with an iron fist. If the Bruins don't begin to make their move now, it's not going to happen.