SBJ/September 1 - 7, 2003/Opinion

Career is lost, but dad’s love endures

I've always been a little preoccupied with the relationship between fathers and sons. Perhaps that's why I'm drawn to sports. Whether you sit in bleachers, dugout or front office, sports is pregnant with poignant pop stories. And if you've read this column with regularity, you know I'm a sucker for stories about sons and their fathers.

Perhaps Dick Neuheisel knew that when he called. But more likely, he just wanted an ear for what ails his heart. He's a father in search of "a fair shake" for his son, Rick, the former University of Washington head football coach.

You should know the Neuheisel saga by now. He's the guy who filled out a couple of March Madness brackets in a neighborhood pool and got busted by the NCAA. Come on, we all do it. Isn't that why daily newspapers run blank brackets before the tournament? Isn't it the NCAA and its $6 billion television deal that capitalized on bracketology? OK, Neuheisel staked a lot of loot, a couple of thousand in 2002 and 2003, but comparatively not so much. And he had a get-out-of-jail-free card, a memo from his athletic department saying NCAA bracket pools are jake.

But this isn't Monopoly and the NCAA is no board game. So before passing "Go," Neuheisel, a trained lawyer who won the Rose Bowl as a quarterback, as an assistant coach and as a head coach, lost his $1.5 million job, his friends and his future.

Of course Father Neuheisel has his own take on the scandal, including villains, betrayals, old grudges and leaders without the courage of their convictions. But by and large, the respected Tempe lawyer and former Arizona State professor, who spent a career arguing cases, told much the same account that has been reported in either the original accusations against his son or in the suit Rick Neuheisel filed against the university and the NCAA.

Sure the older man had a spin, and sure it was compelling, especially to one who admits vulnerability. But it wasn't what the senior Neuheisel said that caused this newsman to lose sleep. After 30 years, I've heard all the claims of innocence. No, it wasn't the spin; it was the sap.

It was the way he was willing to tell a complete stranger, whose only recommendation was that he was a straight shooter, about his love for his son. It was the way Dick Neuheisel's voice called up something deep and haunting from his soul when he said, "All his friends have deserted him."

Because he feels betrayed by the press, Rick Neuheisel, who is currently volunteering as an assistant coach at an all-black high school, would only say, "My dad is tired of hearing bad things about his son. I am too." The vilified coach would not comment on specifics.

His father said Rick lives for January 2005, when he expects to be vindicated in a Washington court. But what then? No college will touch him.

The question stunned the father. "They've ruined him."

After a reflective pause, he said, "My boy is a good boy. You'd like him."

Guess I'll have to take his word for it. But I can tell you that I like Rick's father. This man, who for 15 years was the national president of the Sister Cities program, simply has no room for doubting his son. "The law is on his side."

And so is Dick. When everyone else turned against Rick — his friends, his assistants, his boss — his father didn't lose faith. "Rick is troubled. When he's in despair, I try to bolster him."

No, I can't add anything to the dialogue that would result in a fair shake for Rick Neuheisel. But for me there is a little comfort in knowing that you can take a career away from a man, but you can't take a father's love for his son. So for me, it's a renewal when Dick said, "I believe in Rick."

John Genzale (jgenzale@nyc.rr.com) is founding editor of SportsBusiness Journal.

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