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UCLA must open its eyes, doors and wallet for football coach

CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

As others fill their vacancies, insular Bruins are being rejected, with outsiders suspicious of its facilities, recruiting and commitment to winning. But Jim Mora Jr. could be the guy they need.

December 06, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Former Seattle Seahawks coach Jim Mora Jr. might have what it takes to turn around UCLA's football program.
Former Seattle Seahawks coach Jim Mora Jr. might have what it takes to turn… (Otto Greule Jr. / Getty Images )

UCLA masquerades by day as a dream job in a dreamy location minutes from the beach and Rodeo Drive. The campus is sun-splashed and gorgeous and surrounded by swimming pools and movie stars.

Jackie Robinson, Bob Waterfield and Troy Aikman graced these university grounds, so how come no outsider wants to coach the descendants?

The search for Rick Neuheisel's successor drags on, like Igor and his chain, with prospective candidates drying up or seeking employment elsewhere.

Checked off the list so far are Boise State's Chris Petersen (no surprise), Houston's Kevin Sumlin and Miami's Al Golden.

Larry Fedora, a hot prospect out of Southern Mississippi, is headed to North Carolina.

Ohio State hired Urban Meyer (bingo), Washington State secured Mike Leach (fantastic!) and Arizona snagged Rich Rodriguez (home run).

UCLA is still at home plate.

"It's a mystery," former Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer said Tuesday. "But I don't really know. You have to live in someone's house to know what it's like to be there."

That's been one of UCLA's problems. For years it's been an insular, closed shop where people stay forever and are promoted from within. Every Bruins football coach since Red Sanders has either been a UCLA assistant coach or former player. Sanders died in August of 1958.

UCLA football looks like Miss America from 100 yards but more like Miss Piggy the closer you get.

You can't blame outsiders for being suspicious — few have ever been allowed inside the gates.

UCLA is an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a months-old requisition order for new goalposts.

The school colors are powder blue and fool's gold.

UCLA's rigid academic requirements have always been a legitimate concern and counterproductive to building a competitive team. But then Stanford and Jim Harbaugh came along, so now what's the excuse?

Outsiders tap on UCLA's window and ask questions.

"What are the facilities like?" Switzer wondered. Response: probably not at upper-echelon standards.

UCLA has an 80-yard practice field. Because of construction at Pauley Pavilion this year, yellow-painted PVC pipes fixed to a chain-link fence substituted as goal posts.

"You can't win the arms race if you don't have facilities," Switzer said. "Eighteen- to-19-year-old kids won't go where there aren't great facilities."

Switzer wanted to know why UCLA didn't hire Leach, the former Texas Tech coach recently hired at Washington State. Leach pursued the UCLA job four years ago but wasn't in the running this time.

"People that hire and fire coaches have never run down on a kickoff or run one back," Switzer said. "They don't know what the hell they are doing."

Outsiders can't quite crack the code of Westwood's inner sanctum.

"I would think UCLA would be a great job, just with the talent base you have," Switzer said. "You can only recruit 85, and Southern Cal can't get them all."

Recruiting has been a problem, though, particularly the inability to procure and develop a top-flight quarterback.

Outside of Drew Olson, the Bruins have struggled for a decade. Injuries certainly were a factor in Rick Neuheisel's demise. He had to play JC transfer Kevin Craft because his top two quarterbacks, Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson, were lost to injuries on consecutive plays in spring practice.

John Wooden and Terry Donahue also made things difficult. The school got 47 years of high yield at low cost basketball and football and could hold that payment model over any coach who asked for a raise.

UCLA worked weekly-wage Bob Toledo to the brink of a title, hired Karl Dorrell on the cheap and most recently prayed Neuheisel could turn things around at $1.25 million per year.

The brain trust finally understands the cost of doing business. Boosters are now resigned to chipping toward the $3- to $4-million coach who might someday defeat USC's $4-million coach. UCLA has even upped the ante for assistant coaches. However, the administration seems hamstrung in executing a productive search for a head coach.

For starters, they should have considered a contingency plan after their coach went 4-8 in his third year.

Instead, UCLA seemed tone deaf to the fact Petersen, who turned down Stanford last year and thinks three people in a room is a crowd, wasn't going to fight rush-hour traffic.

Any athletic director can take the top five names on anybody's wish list and start a search. UCLA can't hire like it is Alabama, because it's not. UCLA has unique qualities, and also unique challenges.

The school's fallback in the past has been hiring former Bruins who know how the operation works. If nothing else, it certainly makes the guided tour easier.

UCLA has been, as a head-hunter, cryogenically frozen. It has either blithely ignored innovators such as Leach or June Jones when they were hot commodities, or failed to identify Meyer when he was at Bowling Green (Utah did) or Brady Hoke when he was Ball State (San Diego State did).

Coaching bloopers are not exclusive to UCLA — they happen everywhere — and the Bruins may yet fall into something special the way USC fell into Pete Carroll.

Jim Mora Jr.?

A former NFL coach who is packed and ready to rescue a popular Southland team on the skids?

It could work.

For leadership's sake, (another) failure is not an option.

Mora would be different from most Bruins football hires in this respect: he'd have to learn the fight song.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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