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Jim Mora started something at UCLA, but finishing is what matters

Coach Jim Mora has reversed Bruins' fortunes, from 6-8 last year to 9-3 with a shot at Rose Bowl this season. But his credo is, never quit until the job is done.

November 27, 2012|By Chris Foster
  • Jim Mora led the Bruins to the Pac-12 championship game, but the job isn't done.
Jim Mora led the Bruins to the Pac-12 championship game, but the job isn't… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Jim Mora is sitting on the edge of a chair in a tiny, windowless room, a place better suited for a Homeland Security chat than a newspaper interview.

The setting, in a space adjacent to UCLA's sports information department, is as close as an outsider can get to the football coach's upstairs office without proper clearance and possibly a retina scan.

Mora, 51, is always busy, nearly always serious, and at times alarmingly intense. And sure enough, the baseball cap he's wearing, the brim frayed from all the tugging, is pulled down so tight that it barely reveals his eyes.

But now he's wearing a smile rather than his just-try-me smirk .

He is relaxed, about as relaxed as he gets while the season is still being played out.

Credit the scheduled topic of conversation: UCLA's football season.

And why shouldn't that put Mora at ease?

The Bruins take a record of 9-3 into Friday's Pac-12 championship game against Stanford. A Rose Bowl bid dangles before them.

Anyone who says they thought this was possible in Mora's first season probably would be lying. Before he arrived, there was a culture in Westwood that needed to be overcome. Everyone had talked about it. Mora saw it watching his adopted players run sprints during off-season conditioning.

"Almost to a man they would let up right before the line," Mora recalls. "That's not where you finish. You're finished when you cross the line."

That's a proper metaphor for the Bruins' football season too, because they haven't crossed the line yet. But a victory over Stanford puts them in the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1998 season.

So what has changed since last season, when the Bruins finished 6-8? Brett Hundley became the starting quarterback and a major difference maker, but he was already part of the program, having redshirted last year. Johnathan Franklin, now the school's career rushing leader, was already in place before this season. So was linebacker Anthony Barr, an All-Pac-12 choice as a junior this season, though he played offense his first two years.

What's truly new are Mora and the coaches on his staff.

"Jimmy Mora will kick your [butt] when it needs to be," says former NFL linebacker Gary Plummer, who knew Mora when he was a young assistant for the San Diego Chargers. "But he will kick himself in the [butt] just as much."

Mora was not Athletic Director Dan Guerrero's first choice after Rick Neuheisel was fired. Nor was he the second choice.

Mora coached in the NFL for 25 seasons, but he had enjoyed limited success as a head coach. He took the Atlanta Falcons to the NFC title game in 2004, his first season, but he had an overall record of 32-34 in four seasons as a head coach — three with the Falcons and one with the Seattle Seahawks.

Still, Guerrero said he was impressed from the first interview. "He came armed with a this-is-the-way-to-do-it manual," Guerrero says.

Mora does not mince words. He has an engaging and friendly personality, but also a directness that can be caustic.

He had yet to assume day-to-day command of the program when UCLA players went "over the wall," a tradition of ditching practice during bowl game preparations.

Mora's reaction: "If they feel they want to skip over the wall, they might as well keep going."

So much for that tradition.

The pushing and prodding continued. Penalties for missing morning workouts escalated for repeat offenders, with teammates who play the same position sharing the punishment.

"Those kids will sense a person who is not genuine," Mora says. "I am what I am. I don't fake it. If I'm angry, I'm angry. If I'm happy, I'm happy. They know I have their best interests at heart."

Players feared him at first — and still may — but they were thirsty for direction.

"He took a bunch of guys who were kind of lost and got us together," senior cornerback Aaron Hester says. "He showed us how to play the game."

The winning not only has players in lock step, but also has mollified a typically grumbling UCLA fan base.

"There is going to be some skepticism when a new coach comes in," Mora says. "When I was hired, I'm sure some of those high-priced football donors were like, 'Wait a minute, who's this guy?' Human nature says, well, I'm just going to hold on to my wallet here for a minute until I see what's going on."

Finding that skepticism now would be hard.

The Bruins benefited from a schedule that included Rice and Houston, as well as Pac-12 doormats Colorado and Washington State. Fifth-ranked Oregon was not on the Bruins' path.

Mora can't be faulted for the schedule. And he can be credited with the Bruins' winning games they too often lost in the past. For example, UCLA had lost five in a row and 12 of 13 to crosstown rival USC before its 38-28 victory this month.

Sustaining the success will be the challenge. Karl Dorrell had a 10-2 season in 2005, his third season, and was fired in 2007. But the program now has a different feel.

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