History lesson: Georgia Tech fired Chan Gailey after he lost to Georgia in 2007. It settled on Paul Johnson of Navy as his replacement and hasn’t been sorry. Johnson beat Georgia in his first season and won the ACC title, since vacated, in his second.
In sum: Good hire.
That said, there was another candidate who could have been described as the runner-up and of whom a few impressed Tech insiders would say later, “We hired the right person, but that other guy’s going to do well in his next job.”
That other guy: Rick Neuheisel.
He’s about to get fired at UCLA.
Tech liked Johnson because he seemed to fit the Institute. (Again, can’t argue that.) Tech was impressed by Neuheisel because he’s smart and innovative — not that Johnson isn’t — and glamorous. He played quarterback at UCLA and won the Rose Bowl, tutored Troy Aikman as an assistant coach, won as Colorado’s head coach and won the Rose Bowl coaching Washington. But the part about Neuheisel that made Tech uneasy was his background.
Nearly four years after he left Colorado for Washington, Neuheisel was hit with an eight-month NCAA recruiting ban for violations committed while coaching the Buffaloes. That was strange. Far stranger was the revelation that he’d broached another NCAA regulation by entering and winning an NCAA basketball tournament pool. This, eventually, prompted Washington to fire him.
Neuheisel at first denied his pool winnings, then said he’d been given permission by Washington to enter. The whole thing got so confusing that he filed a wrongful-termination suit against the NCAA and Washington and wound up settling for $4.5 million. Another win! (FYI, Neuheisel has his law degree.)
In 2007, Neuheisel was the offensive coordinator for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens but was looking to get back into college football. Tech didn’t hire him that winter, but his alma mater did. This was a huge story in Los Angeles. Neuheisel spoke boldly of unseating Southern Cal and Pete Carroll and went so far as to hire Norm Chow, the coordinator who’d coached Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart to Heismans at USC. But nothing much has gone right for the Bruins since.
Chow was bought out with two years’ remaining on his contract — seems he and Neuheisel couldn’t get along — and UCLA went 4-8, 7-6 and 4-8. On Thursday they lost 48-12 to Arizona, which had just fired coach Mike Stoops, to fall to 3-4. (The game was enlivened, if that’s the word, by a players’ brawl ignited by, of all things, a fake referee who started ripping off his clothes.)
Afterward Neuheisel told reporters: “My argument is that I’m absolutely the right guy for the job.”
The best Dan Guerrero, the UCLA athletic director, could offer was that he wasn’t going to fire Neuheisel over the weekend.
Maybe it would have been different for Neuheisel at Tech. Maybe he’d have charmed and disarmed this big city and the ACC. (That approach hasn’t exactly worked in a bigger city or the Pac-12, we must note.) On the strength of 3 1/2 seasons you’d have to say Dan Radakovich’s instincts served him well: Rick Neuheisel was a good guy to interview; Paul Johnson was absolutely the right guy for this job.
By Mark Bradley