New coach Jim Mora eager to start work at UCLA
LOS ANGELES (AP) – Jim Mora figures he can only fill his knowledge gaps about college football through hard work and repetition.
That’s why UCLA’s new coach planned to start recruiting Tuesday night, right after the Bruins introduced him as the latest savior for their beleaguered program.
Mora made no dramatic promises when the former Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks head coach arrived in Westwood. He only vowed to make UCLA fans proud of a football team that hasn’t reached the Rose Bowl in 13 seasons, constantly overshadowed by behemoth Southern California across town.
“It’s been a tough decade for UCLA football,” Mora said at a news conference attended by his wife and two of their children. “This is a program that has always represented academic and athletic excellence, and I look forward to the challenge of returning this team to prominence.”
Mora replaces Rick Neuheisel, who went 21-29 in four seasons and lost the inaugural Pac-12 title game to Oregon this month. Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson is coaching the Bruins in preparation for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco on Dec. 31, and while Mora will drop in on practice, he will be busy building a program.
Mora knows everything in college football starts with recruiting, and he passed the NCAA’s test for recruiting eligibility earlier in the day “with flying colors,” according to athletic director Dan Guerrero.
Although Mora doesn’t know all the details of that labyrinthine pursuit, he sees some similarities with the process of courting NFL free agents. Where others see the obstacles of UCLA’s high academic standards and recent football history, Mora prefers to emphasize the Bruins’ picturesque campus, ideal climate and vibrant urban setting.
“It might be the thing that I’m most looking forward to right now,” Mora said, citing his desire to mentor young athletes. “I’ll probably start later today, actually.”
Mora knew little about the college game until the Seahawks fired him two years ago, but he decided he wanted his next coaching job to be at a major college program. While he worked as a broadcaster and considered NFL opportunities, he also insinuated himself into the program at Washington, his alma mater, and picked up innumerable tips from coach Steve Sarkisian, his neighbor in Seattle.
“This is a guy who studied quite a bit to prepare for a move into college,” Guerrero said. “He’s passionate, he’s committed, he wants to win championships, and he has a plan. It’s very compelling.”
The 50-year-old Mora hasn’t coached college football since a single season with the Huskies a quarter-century ago. But Guerrero is likely betting his own career that the longtime NFL defensive coach can figure it out in time to compete with the Pac-12’s elite offenses and star-studded coaching staffs.
“He has all the qualities to be able to be a successful recruiter,” Guerrero said. “He can evaluate talent. He’s been in the NFL for many, many years. He knows what you need to move to that next level, and more than anything else, he knows the character that’s required to be successful.”
Mora spoke to his new players earlier Tuesday, saying he was impressed by their “eagerness to get this thing turned around quickly.”
“I really enjoyed standing in front of a team again,” Mora said. “I don’t feel like it’s my team yet, obviously, but it was a great feeling. I think it’s important for me not to be a distraction (during bowl preparation). I want the players who are seniors, the coaches who got them in this situation, to enjoy the experience as much as we can.”
Mora’s father, Jim, the 76-year-old former coach of the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts, is a Los Angeles-area native who retired in Palm Desert, Calif. The younger Jim Mora said his father probably will show up occasionally at Bruins practices.
Mora is a longtime defensive coach, serving as Steve Mariucci’s defensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers before becoming a head coach. He hasn’t hired any coordinators at UCLA, but he anticipates a flexible approach.
“I can tell you this: You won’t be able to put a name on our offense, and you probably won’t be able to put a name on our defense, because we’ll be multiple,” he said.
Yet Mora realizes the enormity of his challenge in stepping into the Pac-12, where Oregon’s unorthodox offense, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and USC’s pro-style attack dominated the current season. The Pac-12 only got tougher in recent weeks with the additions of Washington State coach Mike Leach and Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, both masters of the spread.
“I’ve always felt this was a program and a university that you could build into a special, special place,” Mora said. “This was the job that I wanted, and I was fortunate to get this job.”