UCLA Coach Jim Mora cheers on his players as they take the field before their… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
The $179-million Rose Bowl renovation is only halfway finished, yet Saturday night, UCLA football fans will immediately notice one new touch to the space behind the Bruins' bench.
You know the spot from where Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel would address fans after nearly every home game?
Jim Mora won't be there.
Win or lose in his home debut against Nebraska, Mora will end it by sending a strong public message about his own difficult remodeling job. The Bruins are now all about football, and only football, and the only postgame speeches the new coach will give will be in the locker room.
"I respect the tradition, I would never mean any disrespect to Rose Bowl fans, but the most important people you can talk to after a game is your team, and I don't want to delay that any longer than I have to," Mora told me Thursday after practice.
Mora said he was politely asked about the speech by alumni cheerleader Geoffery Strand. He politely told Strand that not even every man, woman or child could persuade him to put image ahead of substance.
"I told him, I appreciate what you're doing, but the guys who need to hear from me first are the players," Mora said. ''I believe there's a sanctity of our core that you have to protect with a passion. Our players need me, I need them, all that other stuff has to melt away."
Oh, all that other stuff is melting all right, disappearing quicker than Mora's smile when he sees a team manager laying down a water bottle or a media member creeping too close to the field. One game into the new regime, and a Bruins program that used to spend so much time begging this town for love has lowered its head and stuck its fingers in dirt. Mora isn't looking for love, only respect, and he knows that won't happen by hugging patrons and coddling publicity.
"I don't consider myself a salesman, I'm a football coach," he said. "The best sales job we can do is put a product on the field that people appreciate."
The UCLA colors are brilliant blues and golds, yet on this Thursday afternoon, Mora was wearing all black, including black shorts that he said he purchased at the campus bookstore. The absence of color is typical of the attitude he has brought to a sideline where, at least in the first game, I rarely saw him even smile.
"I've been told black is slimming," he said.
I asked if there was any frustration in feeling scant buzz, and stunningly even some criticism, after last week's 49-24 thumping of Rice in his coaching debut. I don't care if this was an awful opponent, it was still an impressive coaching debut, with UCLA gaining 646 yards, with rookie quarterback Brett Hundley running 72 yards for a touchdown on his first snap, with running back Johnathan Franklin reeling off touchdown runs of 78 and 74 yards.
The victory over the Owls should have been treated as an absolute hoot. Yet the postgame reaction was a yawn. I wondered if this angered him. He acted as if it pleased him.
"I hope we're under the radar all year, I hope we're discounted all year," he said. "We don't deserve the spotlight on us. Time will tell who we are."
I asked about this being the kind of speedy, hard-hitting team that could produce highlight stars, and he asked me to check out the campus football banners, much of the football literature available to the public, and even the football tickets.
At Mora's request, there's not an identifiable player on any of it. Any face is blurred, any number is smudged. The tickets will contain photos of only helmets.
"If you're on Bruin Walk and you see a picture of a player hanging up there, I don't want the other 109 players wondering why that's not them," Mora said. "I'm developing a team environment here. The best thing they can do to stand out is perform on the football field."
When Mora showed his players the video of Hundley's run, he saved his praise for the downfield blocking of guys like Shaquelle Evans and Joseph Fauria and Simon Goines, who wiped out two defenders. When the team watched Franklin's runs, the coaches didn't talk about the runner's jukes, but the linemen's upright blocks.
"It's not about the individual, it's about the team, and every little thing matters," Mora said.
And when it came time to collect the game ball as a souvenir of his first collegiate victory? Refusing to even single out himself, Mora forgot about it.
"I didn't think about it until a couple of days later, and it's probably gone, but that's OK," he said, pausing. ''You now, my kids like that stuff, maybe I'll go get it right now."
Nobody has any idea how the Bruins will look Saturday in their first real test against favored Nebraska. But from what I've seen, they will be neither sideshow nor vaudeville. Jim Mora will field an old-fashioned football team. For now, that is progress enough.