Aug. 12, 2000
SEATTLE (AP) - Rick Neuheisel can hear the boos already. The coach who left the Colorado Buffalos to take over the Washington Huskies last year returns to his old digs for the first time on Sept. 16.
The game will surely bring out Colorado fans' anger for the coach. But while he might be despised in Boulder, he's now loved in Washington, where he has helped turn the team into a Rose Bowl favorite this season.
"We want to become one of the nation's elite," Neuheisel said. "We want to be in a position where if the stars are aligned correctly, we can compete for a national championship. And we want to be in a position where we can talk about that on a yearly basis."
To accomplish that goal the Huskies will have to do better than their 0-2 start in Neuheisel's first season. Although they rebounded to finish 7-5 before losing a close game to Kansas State in the Holiday Bowl, Neuheisel believes 13th-ranked Washington can improve even more.
The Huskies open at home against Idaho and Miami before their first road game - against the Buffalos, whom they beat 31-24 at Husky Stadium in 1999.
Neuheisel knows the boos await.
"That's part of the passion of college athletics," he said. "I don't think it'll get out of hand."
The fast talker with the movie-star smile will get nothing but cheers from Washington fans this season, who are happy to have a top team once again.
So far, they think he's worth every penny of the contract he signed to turn the program around and improve recruiting.
"He makes a very high salary, but he works very hard and he's incredibly committed to what he's doing," said athletic director Barbara Hedges, who lured Neuheisel away from Colorado after firing Jim Lambright.
Washington won its only national championship in 1991 under Don James. He retired two weeks before the 1993 season and Hedges replaced James with defensive coordinator Lambright, who compiled a 44-25-1 record and got the Huskies to four bowl games in six seasons.
But in 1998, Washington lost 55-7 to Nebraska and lost to USC, Oregon and UCLA on consecutive weeks. When the Huskies were embarrassed 45-25 by Air Force in the Oahu Bowl, Hedges had seen enough.
In stepped Neuheisel, who wants to bring a national championship back to Seattle.
Improving the team must start with recruiting, of course, and Neuheisel's second recruiting class was better than his first, when he had less than a month to work on it.
This year he landed 6-foot-6, 290-pound offensive lineman Dan Dicks, who was regarded as the state's top player.
Last year, Neuheisel brought in Paul Arnold, a highly recruited running back from Seattle's Kennedy High School and the state's top prep player in 1998. Arnold will be Washington's starting tailback this season.
"I like recruiting," Neuheisel said. "And that probably puts me ahead of a lot of guys."
Neuheisel also will get more help on the sideline. Keith Gilbertson, a former head coach at California and Idaho, has gotten his old job back with the Huskies as offensive coordinator this season. Gilbertson, the team's offensive coordinator in 1991, also coached with Dennis Erickson with the Seattle Seahawks.
Gilbertson called the 39-year-old Neuheisel "bright and energetic."
"I'll guarantee you if you underestimate him as a football coach he's going to kick your fanny," he said. Neuheisel has the players on his side, too.
"I think things are definitely going in the right direction now," said senior Elliott Silvers, the starting offensive tackle.