Part 2: The tangled web Rick Neuheisel wove

After letting his nose grow with three days of lies, Washington's coach finally came clean.

This is the second part of an oral history that details how Rick Neuheisel spent three days denying he had interviewed with the San Francisco 49ers before admitting that he had. If you missed it, here’s part one:

Monday, Feb. 10, 2003

Rick Neuheisel wanted to go on the radio the afternoon after he interviewed with the 49ers.

This will always strike me as deeply humorous. He was — in a fairly literal sense — asking for it.

“I get a call from from a UW representative,” said Mike Gastineau, “who says, ‘Hey, Rick wants to come on your show and set the record straight.’ “

This made sense for a number of reasons:

  1. Gastineau — KJR 950 AM — had the broadcasting rights for Washington

  2. Gastineau hosted Neuheisel’s weekly coach’s show as part of that arrangement

  3. The Gas Man is part of the bedrock of Seattle sports, having come to town as a radio host in 1991. He’s written a book about the Sounders, a book about the Huskies and along with Art Thiel and Steve Rudman served as the co-author on “The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists.”

Neuheisel’s desire to appear on Gas’s show did not make sense for one very big reason:

Over the course of that Monday — as speculation over Neuheisel’s candidacy with the 49ers increased — Gastineau was willing to give the coach the benefit of the doubt.

Gas: “Everybody is like, ‘Oh wow. Neuheisel is interviewing for the Niners job.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, he says he wasn’t. I’m going to go ahead and take that side of it.’

“And I had been defending him, but I’m starting to feel like I’m the only guy out here on Neuheisel Island and it sure is lonely and windy.”

Then came the call saying Neuheisel was willing to be interviewed. In programming terms, it was a coup. Just one thing that needed to be certain.

Gas: “I said, ‘Listen. If he comes on, he’s got to be telling me the truth or there’s going to irrepairable damage done to our relationship.”

Neuheisel joined Gastineau’s show, and if there was one moment in which Neuheisel’s denial of the 49ers interview went from being a white lie to one of the more bald-faced variety, this was it.

It might seem overly dramatic to say the appearance went down in the history books, this specific line was replayed in 2005 when Neuheisel sued the University of Washington over his termination. 

“I have not been contacted by the 49ers about this job.”

Rick Neuheisel to Mike Gastineau, KJR 950 AM, Feb. 10, 203

Gas: “So he and I have a bunch of yuks about this, and then we talk about recruiting because I think it was in recruiting season and we talk about a few other things and the whole thing ends, and I’m thinking, ‘All right, why would I not believe this guy?’ “

In recalling the whole scenario, Gastineau summoned a scene from “Seinfeld” in which George spends so long lying to his fiancee’s parents about his income that he eventually tells them he owns a place in the Hamptons.

Gas Man: “It’s like when George Costanza goes all the way to end of Long Island to prove he’s got a house except he doesn’t. Why is this guy taking this so far if it’s not true?”

Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2003

Dennis Erickson’s hiring by San Francisco — first reported on Tuesday — is made official. He is introduced as the new coach of the 49ers.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published a column by John Levesque, headlined: “I Know What I Heard: UW fans should, too”

Levesque then spelled out exactly how he knew that Neuheisel had — in fact — interviewed with the 49ers.

“Though I’m loath to share an overheard conversation with readers … in a phone call to his mother Sunday night, Neuheisel discussed his meeting with the 49ers and said: ‘It went well.’ “

John Levesque, Seattle Post-Intelligencer “I know what I heard: UW fans should, too” Feb. 12, 2003

He said Neuheisel is the one who sat near him, and they were separated by only about 6 feet. Levesque said he first recognized Neuheisel by voice, which was audible from at least 30 feet away. Levesque wrote:

“Was I eavesdropping? Sure.

“Was I ashamed? Hardly. If a public figure wants to have a phone conversation in a public place, reporters are always happy to listen. Most such conversations — especially the loud ones — turn out to be exercises in self-important blather, but every now and then a gem emerges from the conversational rubble.

“What’s a reporter to do?

“I had a good story, but in yesterday’s column I decided not to divulge everything I knew. My ‘smoking-gun knowledge was from an overheard telephone conversation, which I thought I should treat the same as I would an off-the-record remark.”

John Levesque, Seattle Post-Intelligencer “I know what I heard: UW fans should, too” Feb. 12, 2003

In other words: Levesque gave Neuheisel a tremendous amount of grace in that initial column, dutifully quoting the coach’s on-the-record denials with a heavy dose of skepticism instead of coming out and saying the coach was lying. Neuheisel, however, took the fact he wasn’t called out directly as a license to fully and completely commit to his denials at which point Levesque felt it necessary to put everything out in the open.

Later on the day the column was published, Neuheisel called the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s newsroom. It was about 7 p.m. and he read a statement admitting he had interviewed with the 49ers. Speaking to Levesque, Neuheisel said:

“When you originally asked me, I denied any involvement. I did so based on an agreement of confidentiality with the 49ers.

“I replied I had not had any contact with them when in reality I had, and I regret that a great deal. At the request of the 49ers I had traveled to San Francisco on Sunday and met with Terry Donahue, John York and Bill Walsh.

“I feel badly that I’ve misled anyone. I was only trying to keep the confidentiality I had agreed to, but in the past couple of days that confidentiality agreement weighed against my character and my credibility. I made the decision that I need to set the record straight.”

Rick Neuheisel in a statement read to John Levesque, Feb. 12, 2003

As a personal aside, I thought John handled the entire situation exceptionally well. Others had a differing viewpoint.

Levesque: “I was raked over the coals by some in journalism for not jumping on it the next day. And then there were those who said I betrayed his confidence because I was eavesdropping and I was unethical. So I’ve been pilloried for any number of reasons, but I’m still quite comfortable with how we handled it.”

Thursday, Feb. 13, 2003

There was one more mess Neuheisel had to clean up, and this one was entirely of his own making. For the second time in a week, Gastineau was told that Neuheisel wanted to be interviewed on his show. This time, it was the program director at KJR making the request.

Gas Man: ‘Rick wants to come on your show and apologize to you and apologize to Husky fans because he wasn’t telling the truth.’ And so that’s my Thursday.”

When it came time for the interview, Gastineau cued up a special song to play as the show returned from a commercial break with Neuheisel waiting on hold.

Gas Man: “I handpicked Pearl Jam covering Neil Young’s song ‘F- - - - -’ up.’ And I played up right up to the point where they say, ‘Why do I keep Effing up?’ and I faded it right then. It’s the longest, like a minute and 20 seconds, Neuheisel had to be sitting there like, ‘What in the hell is going on here?’ “

Like his Monday appearance, Neuheisel’s answers during the interview would be replayed during Neuheisel’s 2005 lawsuit against the school:

“I regret it deeply and want to set the record straight. There are those that would say it was unfair to be eavesdropped upon, but the fact of the matter was that I have a responsibility to be candid.

“These things have a way of coming back to haunt you.”

Rick Neuheisel to Mike Gastineau, KJR 950 AM, Feb. 13, 2003

Gas Man: “What I’ll never forget, he had that lawyer aspect to him. He did not apologize for telling a lie. He apologized for saying something that was untrue.“

The aftermath

Neuheisel had not broken any rules either in interviewing with the 49ers or denying that he had done so. There was no actual punishment he faced from his employer. He was not subject to anything other than embarrassment.

However, I believe that this was the tipping point for Neuheisel in terms of how the city felt about him. Up until that point, everyone had seen him as an eminently likable albeit somewhat slippery character. I believe that would have remained the case had he only lied the once to Levesque in the airport, denying he had interviewed.

Instead, he spent three days insisting he’d been telling the truth, going so far as to produce props. He never regained his credibility. At least not in Seattle.

He was, however, something less than contrite in the wake of those events.

Levesque: “He would not even look at me when he would have press conferences or something like that because he was just so ticked off that he had been caught.”

In May, Gastineau saw Neuheisel at an event, and came over with the expectation that they might even joke about what had transpired.

Gas Man: “I walked over to him to kind of say, ‘Hello.’ And he won’t talk to me. Kind of like it’s my fault. I’m the reason he got humiliated. I said, ‘Hey, how’s it going,’ and he said, ‘Hey, hey,’ and he turns and walks away.

“That’s when I decided, ‘You know what I’m going to be done with you.’ And before I could have the final word, ‘I’m done with you.’ The gambling scandal pops up and we’re all done with him.”

In the first week of June, NCAA investigators came to Seattle, summoning Neuheisel to a meeting at a downtown hotel. They interrogated him about his participation in March Madness betting pools the previous two years. This news was first reported by The Seattle Times, and in mid-June, Washington athletic director informed Neuheisel he would be fired.

He sued the school for wrongful termination, the case going to a trial that was memorable for a number of reasons including Rick Neuheisel’s sister flipping the double bird at Hugh Millen in the courtroom.

Gas’s grudge against Neuheisel dissolved several years later when the coach brought up his radio interview with Gastineau in a column written by Jim Moore.

Gas Man: “He (Neuheisel) said, kind of unprompted, ‘Listen, it was my fault. I didn’t have to go on Mike Gastineau’s show and say that story.’ And that made me feel, ‘How long can I stay mad at the guy?’ I never see him. What do I care?

“That was as close as you were going to get to him calling up and apologizing for that. I saw him then at a golf tournament a while later and we had a very brief, very cordial conversation. He did the thing – God he was the king of this – he’d reach out to shake your hand and pull you past him and look and see if there was anybody over there he should be talking to instead of you. He was just the best of that.”

Miller continued to cover Neuheisel, not just for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but at ESPN.com where he worked from 2008 to 2017. Miller has gotten to know him well enough that they’ve talked candidly about the fallout from the 49ers interview.

Miller:I remember at first he was kind of hemming and hawing, and then he goes, ‘You know what, sometimes you just think you can outsmart people and that was one of my problems.’

“And it was such an honest thing.”

Finally. It took him a while to get there, though.

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