The tangled web Neuheisel wove

An oral history of the white lie that blew up and singed Rick Neuheisel's nose hairs.

Sunday, Feb. 9, 2003

John Levesque sat at the San Francisco airport, waiting for his Alaska Airline flight to board. He’d spent the weekend in the Bay Area, having joined his wife on a business trip. The long-time television critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer had moved to the sports section the previous month. He’d met Rick Neuheisel exactly once, having been introduced at the Sports Star of the Year Banquet, when the head coach of the Washington Huskies plopped down nearby, a cell phone to his ear, waiting for that same flight back to Seattle.

Levesque: “It was just dumb luck. It wasn’t as if I was stalking him and hiding behind potted plants because I thought I was going to have a ‘Gotcha!’ moment in journalism.”

The specific seating configuration for this interaction became an issue so let’s get the logistics out of the way.

The boarding area for the flight — Alaska Airlines No. 361 if you must know — was crowded. Levesque wife had staked out a less-crowded spot at a nearby gate. Neuheisel came over, sat nearby and Levesque didn’t notice him until he heard his voice.

Levesque: “I really wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but you sort of couldn’t help because he talks so loud, and all of a sudden I hear things like ‘Bill Walsh’ and, ‘It went well,’ and I’m going, ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’ So anyway that was the ‘Holy crap!’ moment.”

Levesque was sitting next to the ticketing gate, which was empty. Neuheisel was on the other side of that empty desk, no more than 12 feet away. Levesque could tell Neuheisel was speaking to his parents.

One the one hand, it was an absolutely extraordinary piece of information. There had been rumors the 49ers might be interested in Neuheisel. Terry Donahue — who’d coached Neuheisel in college at UCLA — was the 49ers president. According to Washington, Neuheisel had been in Idaho that weekend on vacation with his family. Now here he was in San Francisco, and Levesque knew he had — in fact — interviewed.

He learned that because he’d overheard it, though, and while Neuheisel was a public person in a very public place, part of being a journalist — at least a good one — is giving people the opportunity to explain themselves.

Levesque: “As we were boarding, I purposely got right behind and as we’re getting on the plane I introduced myself. I said, ‘We’ve met before. I’m John Levesque from the P-I, and what would you say if I overheard you just talking about having interviewed for the 49ers head-coaching job?’

“He’s just kind of a little bit deer-in-the-headlights at that point because he’s probably thinking, ‘How could this have happened?’ He thought he was the only person in the gate area. I’m not sure if he could see me or not because he was sort of facing the window or facing the tarmac. So anyway, I have to give him credit, he was pretty quick about it, ‘Oh I was playing golf with friends,’ bla, bla, bla and just let it go. And so I said, ‘You weren’t interviewing for the 49ers job?’ ‘Absolutely, not.’

“So that ended that. He sat pretty far forward, I sat pretty far back and we didn’t see each other when we got off the plane.”

This was Sunday evening. Levesque was not writing for Monday’s paper. Twitter did not exist yet. No one knew exactly what was going to happen the following day.

Levesque: “What was funny – in fact one of the things I’ll always remember – is that he claims he showed me a golf ball to prove that he was out golfing. That never happened to me.”

That was another journalist, and it happened the following day.

Monday, Feb. 9, 2003

The speculation about Neuheisel’s potential candidacy with the 49ers ramped up on Monday.

Ted Miller covered the Huskies for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and he knew the truth when he walked into Washington’s athletic administration building to interview Neuheisel. He immediately saw Washington’s athletic director.

Miller: “Barbara Hedges runs by me, I always thought Barbara wanted plausible deniability. Just like a lot of college football coaches, boosters cheat, but I don’t want to know about it so I can just say, ‘I knew nothing about this.’ Well, that’s kind of what Barbara was doing. She was hustling by me. I could tell she did not want to engage me. She was running. She put her hand up.”

Neuheisel was standing in front of his assistant’s desk, waiting for Miller.

Miller: “Rick held up the golf ball and the tee and told me about how he had been playing golf.”

Now Miller had spoken to Levesque. He knew what the columnist had overheard as well as what Neuheisel had said when he was asked about the interview. In preparing to talk to Neuheisel, Miller had discussed with Ron Mathews, the sports editor, the possibility that it might be better just to lay all the cards on the table.

Miller: “Is it better for me to tell him that I know and we can break the story that he actually did interview? And Ron was like, ‘It’s going to be your call, man. You’re in the room.’ I loved working with Ron because he kind of gave you that flexibility, so I was in there, and I was so close to pressing the pause button on my tape, and I told (Neuheisel) this (later), I was going to be like, ‘Rick. Dude. I know you’re lying. You need to come clean. I mean you’re really screwing this up and it’s such a stupid thing. Honestly. You interviewed for the 49ers. You’re not going to get the job. Just come clean, and don’t blow it.’

“And he’s wallowing in like reproducing details. He’s not just saying, ‘No, I didn’t interview. That’s all I’m going to say and repeating it. He’s talking about the golf game. He’s making up stuff about, ‘Look, I’ve got a tee in my pocket still.’ “

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published two stories about Neuheisel’s candidacy in Tuesday’s paper.

One was Levesque’s column, which described the columnist’s encounter with Neuheisel in the airport. The columnist quoted the coach saying he was there to play golf, and while Levesque didn’t mention the conversation he’d overheard, he made it clear that he didn’t really believe the coach, either.

“Asked if he’d be interested should the 49ers give him a jingle, (Neuheisel) said, ‘Only in the sense that I’d be working for my old boss.’

“ Forty-Niners general manager Terry Donahue was Neuheisel’s head coach at UCLA in the early 1980s.

“ ‘But I’m not very familiar with the 49ers situation,’ Neuheisel added.

“Right. And I’m not familiar with the alphabet.”

John Levesque, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “Neuheisel explores links in Bay Area” Feb. 11, 2003

The other story in that day’s paper was written by Ted Miller:

Neuheisel ended intense speculation that he was a candidate to take over the San Francisco 49ers with a statement released by the university yesterday.

"I have not been contacted by anyone from the 49ers organization about the position," the statement said.

When asked yesterday afternoon in his office if the statement left any wiggle room for him to become the 49ers coach, Neuheisel made a throat-cutting gesture to demonstrate a lack of ambiguity.

"Categorically, no," he said. "Absolutely not ... I don't know how I became such a hot candidate in the first place."

Ted Miller, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “Neuheisel spikes talk of 49ers job” Feb. 11, 2003

If Neuheisel had stopped talking, the story might have died there. (Spoiler alert: He didn’t stop talking.)

Join the conversation

or to participate.