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Mora gets the message

UCLA's new coach quickly grasps intensity of USC rivalry, with assist from an unusual source -- Kiffin

April 04, 2012|Chris Foster
  • UCLA Coach Jim Mora is greeted by the UCLA cheerleaders during his introductory news conference in December. Renewing the Bruins' longstanding rivalry with USC isn't one of Mora's top concerns heading into the 2012 season.
UCLA Coach Jim Mora is greeted by the UCLA cheerleaders during his introductory… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

The welcome arrived via text message.

"I'm standing outside your house. Welcome to Trojan country."

It was sent by USC football Coach Lane Kiffin.

"I guess we're neighbors," said the man who received it, first-year UCLA football Coach Jim Mora.

Quipped Kiffin: "A town divided."

Why should Manhattan Beach be any different?

The UCLA-USC rift stretches through Southern California and beyond like a fault line.

Mora, who presided over his first spring practice on Tuesday, arrives at UCLA at a time when the city rivalry is so slanted toward downtown Los Angeles that it's an uphill drive to Westwood on the 10 Freeway.

Not even NCAA sanctions have slowed USC's dominance. The Trojans' 50-0 victory over UCLA in November was the most lopsided result in the annual series since USC pounded the Bruins, 52-0, in 1930.

But Mora has put the rivalry on the back burner.

"I don't think about it right now," he said. "Ask me a year from now, or on Nov. 18, and I'll have a much different answer than right now."

Yes he will.

"In the context of keeping your job at UCLA, being able to keep the fan base satisfied, those sort of things, naturally you have to beat your crosstown rival enough," said former UCLA coach Terry Donahue, who was 10-9-1 against USC from 1976 to 1995, and is the last UCLA coach to post a winning record against the Trojans.

And enough would be . . .

"That's to be determined as you go along," Donahue said, laughing.

The Bruins' last conference title was in 1998. Since then, UCLA has lost 12 of 13 games to USC, though two of those Trojans victories were vacated by the NCAA.

Right now, though, Mora's to-do list spans well beyond one series against one team -- even if that team is the big rival. UCLA had a 6-8 record last season and is 81-82 since playing in the 1999 Rose Bowl.

Still, the topic of USC tends to spring up -- often.

Fans and alumni ask Mora his opinion of the Trojans. And then there is the kind of stuff to which the coach wouldn't have given a second thought before taking his new job.

Such as when he spied his daughter's youth volleyball coach wearing a USC shirt a few months ago.

"We got to get you a real sweatshirt, a Bruins shirt," Mora told him.

Mora actually has family ties to USC. His mother, Connie, was a Trojan. His father, also Jim, received his master's degree from USC. The coach said USC or "Southern Cal" were common terms around home, which is why he says he occasionally uses the latter name when referring to the university.

Of course, some USC fans bristle when anyone refers to their school as "Southern Cal."

Mora said he might do it out of habit. "It's not meant to be disrespectful," he added.

Mora also said the full extent of the rivalry "hasn't entered my orbit," although "it will."

That's a different tack than the one taken by his predecessor, Rick Neuheisel.

"I don't think you can coach at UCLA without spending an immense amount of time focusing on USC; it's part of the job description," Neuheisel said after he was hired. Less than a year later, a UCLA marketing campaign famously declared the "college football monopoly" in Los Angeles was over.

It was wishful thinking.

Among Neuheisel's last acts before his dismissal was to say that UCLA had "closed the gap" with the Trojans.

That was wishful thinking, too -- followed by that 50-0 score.

Donahue likes Mora's approach.

"As the UCLA coach, you are constantly aware of USC," Donahue said. "That doesn't mean you are focusing on them, worrying about them, trying to control them. You control what you can control, which is your team and what you can do to have direct effect on the rivalry."

Kiffin has already directly affected it.

"There was a Realtor that I knew that said where [Mora] was moving, which was a street or two away from us, so I just texted him something," Kiffin said.

It made Mora laugh.

"I think it is interesting that people expect me as the UCLA coach to not like Lane," Mora said. "Lane is a good person and a good coach. Why wouldn't I want to like him?"

Like him? Would that not be sacrilege?

Fear not, Bruins and Trojans fans. He also said: "This is a sibling rivalry, and I'm going to try to beat his brains in like he's going to try to beat my brains in."

--

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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