- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif.--Jim Mora had heard all about UCLA's reputation for being soft, and it didn't take him long to find out that the talk was more than just rumor.
So one of Mora's main missions as head coach is to erase the notion that the Bruins are a bunch of West Coast wimps.
Step one in that plan came during the spring when Mora began to instill a sense of urgency by running practices at a breakneck pace. Step two commences Aug. 4 when the Bruins will open training camp at Cal State San Bernardino, away from the comfort and familiarity of their apartments and dorm rooms, away from their friends and girlfriends and away from the cool Westside climate.
It's all in an effort to give UCLA more grit and change the culture of a program that is struggling to escape the clutches of mediocrity.
"I’ve heard it for years just like everybody has that there is an element of toughness that’s been lacking," he said. "You have to be tough to play this game and that’s mentally tough, physically tough and emotionally tough."
Less than two weeks after his hire, Mora was flabbergasted to find out just how deep the laid back approach in Westwood ran. He hadn't yet taken the reigns of the team when UCLA players revived the decades-old tradition of ditching a practice during preparation for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
Mora became so incensed about the tradition of going "over the wall" that he reneged on his vow to lay low while interim coach Mike Johnson coached the team through the bowl and made a point to publicly and emphatically blast the team and the tradition.
"The over the wall thing blew me away," Mora said, still shaking his head about it. "That’s never been part of the mindset of any team that I’ve ever been around. That was never part of our culture. NFL players don’t think about going over the wall, they think about how they can get more practice in and watch more film and get better."
With the specter of "over the wall" a constant reminder of just how much work he had to do, Mora devised a plan to make it loud and clear that his regime would not include any room for players interested in ditching practice.
He purposely made spring practices as difficult as possible, running practices at a speed-metal pace with drills coming in rapid fire succession and no breaks in between plays. He freely admitted that he did it mainly to see if the players could handle it.
"I wanted to shock them," Mora said. "I think we shocked them. That’s always your objective is let’s go out and shock them. You want to shock them every day if you can. That’s how you push people to a new level."
Taking the team to San Bernardino for camp is only indirectly about making the team tough. Mora said it's more of a team bonding thing where the players will have only each other and their coaches around 24 hours a day for two weeks. He's looking for more of a "Remember the Titans" result than a "Junction Boys" scenario.
"We’re not going to practice on a dirt field and we’re not going to go out there with two buses and come back with one or anything like that," he said. "The primary reason for going is to be in an isolated environment to get to know each other better. I want them to be for two weeks where they really have to depend on each other for everything. If they are going to have a conversation, it’s going to be with a teammate. If they are going to do something fun of mischievous, it’s going to be with a teammate."
The goal is to create a bond that will make the team mentally tougher. Safety Tevin McDonald said that was missing last season, when the Bruins seemed to crumble at the first sign of adversity and that led to often lopsided losses. UCLA lost games by scores of 49-20, 45-19, 48-12, 31-6 and 50-0 last season, clearly having trouble recovering when things went wrong.
So when McDonald hears Mora talk about the need to be tougher, he interprets it to mean mentally tougher when facing challenges.
"That hasn’t been our forte," McDonald said. "When we lost, we lost big. When he talks about tough, he’s talking about being able to fight adversity. Not bicker at each other when things are going bad, just locking arms and getting tough mentally."
That is definitely part of Mora's master plan. During spring, he purposely kept the players guessing about what was coming next. He made it his mission to make them uncomfortable both mentally and physically just to see how they would react. Expect more of the same over the next month.
"When you get in a game, you don’t know what the heck is going to happen and you’ve got to respond and if you don’t respond, you get you’re a-- kicked," Mora said. "You have to be able to create that urgency in practice. Keep them guessing and make them adapt on the move. Not jump offsides when something changes. When you get slapped with adversity, not go in the tank and not relent."
The end result, Mora hopes, is a team that plays relentlessly hard and with discipline. A team that doesn't make mistakes, a team that fights from the opening kickoff to the final whistle and handles everything in between.
And a team, he said, that plays with such physical and mental toughness that the thought of stepping on the field with them makes opponents cringe.
"I want us to be a team that people don’t want to line up against," Mora said. "The last time I played football was at Washington and when we walked down the tunnel, there was no doubt that we were going to be the tougher, more physical team on the football field that day. There was no doubt. We just knew it. And that’s what I want our guys to eventually be."