Jerry Neuheisel will fulfill his desire to coach on Sunday. But he’ll be on the opposite sideline of his dream destination.
The Texas A&M graduate assistant eventually wants to man the spot his father, Rick, did for four seasons, guiding to victory at the Rose Bowl.
“Without a doubt,” the younger Neuheisel said during an interview with The Times late last year. “That’s my dream. I want to be the head coach at UCLA.”
Neuheisel’s first homecoming will put him in enemy territory when the Aggies face the Bruins in their season opener, though he’ll have a few familiar faces on his side. Texas A&M offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone held the same post at UCLA when Neuheisel served as the backup quarterback to and Josh Rosen, and Aggies cornerback Priest Willis was a former teammate of Neuheisel’s for two seasons before leaving Westwood for College Station, Texas.
Neuheisel became a Bruins hero in September 2014 when he came off the bench after Hundley sustained an injury to his elbow and sparked a come-from-behind victory over Texas with a 33-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Payton with three minutes left. He departed UCLA after the 2015 season with a year of eligibility remaining, later explaining that it hurt too much to remain a backup.
A starter’s job followed with the Obic Seagulls of Japan’s non-professional X League; Neuheisel reached the Japan X Bowl in his only season with the team. He joined Texas A&M’s staff before spring practice after saying last year that it might be difficult to coach players who were once his teammates.
“All those guys are my friends,” Neuheisel said of the current Bruins players. “It’s hard to go from being their buddy to being a disciplinarian and doing class checks. That’s a difficult role to put yourself in.”
UCLA coach Jim Mora said he would enjoy having Neuheisel as part of his staff, describing him as smart, hardworking and conscientious. But Mora said he understood Neuheisel’s reasoning for working alongside Mazzone.
“That’s probably where he feels most comfortable at right now,” Mora said. “At some point, I hope he’s back at UCLA. I think he belongs at UCLA.”
Mazzone was widely derided for little variation in his play-calling during four seasons as UCLA’s offensive coordinator, but he gave the perfect signal to beat his former team in overtime last season when quarterback Travis Knight scored on a one-yard read option.
Having all spring and summer to prepare for the rematch could make Mazzone more unpredictable Sunday.
“You just never know what you’re going to see,” Mora said of season openers. “Noel is creative. He’s always been very creative, so we’ll see how it unfolds.”
Mora referenced legendary basketball coach John Wooden when describing how he would counter the unknown, saying, “You focus on yourself and your fundamentals and your techniques and your calls and your rules, and if you do that, then you can usually get through anything you haven’t seen before.”
As for his friendship with Mazzone, Mora said the texts that they shared over the summer stopped as Sunday’s game got closer.
“As good of friends as we are, I want to kick his tail and he wants to kick mine,” Mora said. “And after the game, we’ll give each other a handshake and a hug and wish each other good luck the rest of the way. But there will be no ‘good lucks’ before the game.”
Former UCLA safety Kenny Easley, a recent inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, will be honored during a halftime ceremony. Easley is one of only two three-time consensus All-Americans in Pac-12 history. Jerry Robinson, who played linebacker for the Bruins, was the other, from 1976-78. … Three F/A-18 Hornets based at Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado are scheduled to conduct a flyover before the game. The flight crew is expected to include alumni of both UCLA and Texas A&M.
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