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Jim Mora -- good guy, good coach, bad choice for UCLA?

T.J. SIMERS

UCLA's new football coach is smart, competitive and has a winning personality. But winning on field may require more than he has to offer, given the huge obstacles imposed by Bruins' athletic culture.

December 10, 2011|T.J. Simers
  • Jim L. Mora, arguing a call during a Falcons game, paid his dues in 19 years as an NFL assistant coach before leading the Atlanta to an 11-5 record in 2004.
Jim L. Mora, arguing a call during a Falcons game, paid his dues in 19 years… (Ric Field / Associated Press )

Great guy, competitive, friendly and in-your-face honest. And more than likely the wrong choice to be UCLA's football coach.

Jim Mora, and he's no Jr., is 50. I've known Jimmy the kid since he was 25.

He was in charge of quality control for the Chargers, and as you know, quality continues to elude the Chargers.

But Jimmy the kid was a winner, overflowing with energy and confidence, refreshingly brash but always respectful. People gravitated toward him because he flashed the kind of potential that suggested he was really headed somewhere.

He worked his way forward, a few years later coaching the Chargers' secondary before becoming an NFL defensive coordinator and then head coach.

Bill Walsh thought the kid had "it" as a great coach in the making; the Atlanta Falcons were 11-5 and in the playoffs in his first year as an NFL head coach.

A joke gone sour in a radio interview ended his Atlanta run, and a poor start in Seattle coupled with Pete Carroll's availability made a broadcaster out of him.

Now he's UCLA's new coach because every other coach in the country had no interest in the job.

It remains almost incomprehensible how ill-prepared Dan Guerrero was after firing Rick Neuheisel. As it turns out, Guerrero had done nothing to assemble an inviting package capable of persuading candidates UCLA was now indeed serious about football.

The Bruins failed to convince Pac-10/12 Conference veteran Steve Sarkisian to leave Washington and come home.

It appears UCLA has once again hired a coach who will need every break to go his way to have a chance for success. I guess that's the one thing we've come to count on about UCLA football: It just isn't that big of a draw in coaching circles.

One UCLA alumnus pledged additional funds if needed to hire a top college coach but closed his checkbook when the school seemed to settle for Mora.

As for Mora, he said Saturday that UCLA has made no specific promises of facility upgrades. But he's convinced UCLA will do what it takes to be successful, he says, or he wouldn't have accepted the job.

As I told him, I'm not buying it. I think he really wanted the UCLA job and would have taken it under any circumstances, believing he has what it takes to overcome all handicaps.

That's the Mora folks in Los Angeles will come to know, hard-nosed, competitive and defiant when confronted by challenge. It's unquestionably how he's dealing with his inexperience as a recruiter. He will do it and excel, he will tell you, because he says he will do it and excel.

Carroll had almost no recruiting experience when he took the job at USC, and it worked for the Trojans. But the circumstances were different.

UCLA was on the downswing, 10-13 the two years under Bob Toledo, before Carroll arrived across town.

Mora arrives with Lane Kiffin and USC coming on stronger maybe than any other football program in the country, which is why Mora's probably the wrong guy for the job.

He will have so much to learn about the college game and so much to understand about the built-in limitations at UCLA.

Anyone who knows the guy wishes him the best, but how about an opportunity where he might have the chance to succeed?

Difficult circumstances can beat a coach just as much as a high-powered offense or stifling defense. Ask anyone who has coached the Clippers.

Kiffin, who has already proved himself on the job, had one of the country's top recruiting classes last year. No reason to think there will be a drop-off after the Trojans' strong finish.

USC will be limited to 15 scholarships a season over the next three years, but that only heightens Kiffin's need to be even better as a recruiter.

Mora will make mistakes. It's what happens when you haven't done something before. He's been dealing with grown men the last 25 years in the NFL, and while he can tell you the prospects for success of draft choices after being signed, what does he know about tracking gifted high school seniors?

If the gift of gab were enough — and Mora is overloaded with gab — Neuheisel would have done better as a recruiter.

Mora will also need a quality coaching staff to succeed, something UCLA lacked under Neuheisel. Based on history, I wouldn't suggest asking Guerrero for advice.

Mora knows what it takes to coach in the NFL, but how about coaches who need to teach as well as draw plays in college football? He's a defensive specialist, but this is still the entertainment capital and he will have to hire an offensive coordinator who provides an exciting offense.

UCLA's interim head coach, Mike Johnson, is an offensive specialist. Mora fired him the last time they were together.

No one really knows at this moment whether Guerrero has gotten it right or wrong with Mora. I didn't think USC was on target when Carroll was hired.

As good guys go, I know Guerrero found one in Jimmy the kid, unless he's changed. As Kobe always reminds me, it happens.

It'd be nice for old time's sake to maybe give Mora the benefit of the doubt here before he loses a game. But he gets the same treatment as Karl Dorrell and Nueheisel until UCLA delivers something more than disappointment.

As it is, I like Kiffin's chances for success better with Pat Haden and J.K. McKay providing support than I do Mora's with whatever Guerrero offers. But that's just the way it is.

It helps explain, though, why UCLA struggled so to find a new coach; everyone is left now to wish Mora good luck. More than that, I'm rooting for him to prove me wrong.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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