This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

UCLA’s head football coach visits U.S. troops

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College football coaches are used to giving pep talks. It’s part of their job, and they do it well.

Neuheisel in cockpit to Iraq
UCLA’s Coach Rick Neuheisel (right) and Air Force Academy’s Coach Troy Calhoun talk while riding inside the cockpit of an Air Force C-17 Globemaster headed to Iraq. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Jason Schaap, U.S. Air Force.
But from May 27 to June 4, a group of head coaches from colleges across the country came together to bolster the spirits of an entirely different group of young people — U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

UCLA’s head football coach, Rick Neuheisel, was one of seven coaches chosen to participate in the 2009 NCAA Coaches Tour, coordinated through Armed Forces Entertainment and Morale Entertainment. He was joined by Mack Brown of the University of Texas; Troy Calhoun of the Air Force Academy; Jim Grobe of Wake Forest University; Houston Nutt of the University of Mississippi; Jim Tressel of Ohio State University; and former Auburn University head coach Tommy Tuberville.

Neuheisel met up with the other coaches on May 28 at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, where they took off for Ramstein Air Force Base in Ramstein, Germany. Their first stop was at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, where severely injured U.S. soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are taken for treatment before getting sent back to the States.

“We all had a little bit of trepidation because we were walking into an area where people were hurt,” Neuheisel said. “What are you going to see, how are they going to be, are they going to want to see you, and all that kind of stuff. But these guys were just as committed as anybody you could imagine. If anything, they were disappointed they weren’t still in the battle and finishing the job.”

Neuheisel with soldier
Coach Neuheisel with a soldier at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
The tour stopped in six countries over nine days: Germany, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Djibouti (Africa) and Spain. At almost every stop, the coaches participated in meet-and-greet sessions where they would answer questions from soldiers and their families and then would hand out mementos they had brought with them.

“Three continents, no big deal,” Neuheisel said, laughing. “It was unbelievable. You had to be able to sit because you were on airplanes forever; you had to be able to sign your name 8,000 times; and then you had to be able to eat sandwiches. If you could do those three things, you were fine. Sleep wasn’t part of the deal!”

It was, however, a most memorable trip, and one that Neuheisel said he would gladly take again.

“It made me feel very proud to be an American, and also very fortunate to be an American,” the coach said. “Sometimes you need to go abroad to realize all the gifts that we have here, and that became very evident.

“And then the mission,” he continued. “Sitting with some of the commanders and talking about what we were trying to get done and why we were trying to get it done made you proud. And also the commitment of our country toward the soldiers, as well as the commitment of the soldiers toward the effort. It was a well-oiled machine.”

For more information about the 2009 NCAA Coaches Tour, click here.
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