LOS ANGELES -- The clock is about to begin ticking on the Jim Mora era at UCLA, and that’s one of the things that has Mora nervous.
The clock ticking part, that is, not his debut as a college coach.
Clocks tick differently in college football than they do in the NFL. They stop after first downs. They don’t stop with two minutes remaining in each half.
Mora spent the vast majority of his 27-year career in the NFL before UCLA hired him last year to replace Rick Neuheisel, and he learned to manage clocks the NFL way. Now he has had to retrain his brain to think on college time and hope it doesn’t slip back into NFL mode when the game-time juices start flowing during UCLA’s season opener at Rice on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. PT.
“Am I afraid of calling a timeout late in a game after a first down? Yes, I am,” Mora said. “I’ve always kind of prided myself on not making game management errors. One of my primary roles on game day is to manage the game and not waste timeouts or have silly timeouts or make silly decisions that will put our team at a disadvantage. I’m sure I’ll screw something up, I just hope it’s not something that hurts our team.”
Mora is not the first NFL coach to become a college coach, but he is the first to do so with so much NFL coaching experience and so little at the college level. He spent one year as a graduate assistant at Washington in 1984 before embarking on an NFL career that lasted until he was fired from the Seattle Seahawks after the 2009 season.
This makes Mora a trailblazer of some sort, and adds some intrigue to the project of turning around a UCLA program that has struggled for much of the last decade. The Bruins are 81-80 since 1999 and they are pinning their hopes of escaping mediocrity on a man who has never been so much as a position coach or coordinator at the college level.
So far, Mora seems to have made all the right moves. He hired a staff of successful recruiters to help ease him into that unfamiliar part of the job, and his NFL background has served as a bonus on the recruiting trail.
The X's and O's of scheming and game planning are pretty much the same and he’s conducting practices and film sessions the only way he knows how, so there is no difference in the football part and he has plenty of assistants with college experience as well as a compliance officer to help navigate the murky waters of NCAA regulations.
Rulebook notwithstanding, it’s off the field and away from the meeting rooms where Mora has had to make the biggest adjustment. He’s no longer coaching professionals with agents and wives and instead is dealing with developing young men with parents and homework. It’s a change Mora has embraced.
“At this level, you are so much more involved in every aspect of the player's life,” he said. “You’re dealing with a younger athlete that needs you a little bit more, counts on you a little bit more and is more impressionable. It’s been really exciting to be a part of that. You feel like you have more influence on who they are as people and as players than you do at the next level.”
His players say he has taken to it like a fish to water. His office is always open and there is almost always a player or two lounging around in there talking about grades or girls or being homesick. When he sees players on campus and asks them how they are doing, he really means it.
During training camp in San Bernardino, for example, the team had to walk about 200 yards from the practice field to the locker room. Almost every day Mora would grab a couple of helmets and shoulder pads and carry them so his weary players wouldn’t have to.
“And then he would walk with you and wouldn’t ever talk about football,” freshman receiver Jordan Payton said. “He wants to know everything that is going on with you because he really cares. He is involved in all of our lives and not just as football players.”
This is the part of the job that makes Mora wonder why he didn’t get into college coaching in the first place. He said Ted Tollner offered him a position at USC coming out of Washington, but he took a job with the San Diego Chargers instead and stayed in the NFL for the next 25 years.
He eventually ascended to head coach with the Atlanta Falcons and later with the Seattle Seahawks, but after he was fired in Seattle he started hanging around the Washington program. There, while talking to players and answering questions, the light went on about the college level.
“You go, ‘Wow, you can have a real impact on these kids,’ ” he said. “They’re really interested. I do have some experience doing some things and that just felt right. It drew me to it.”
And the more he’s around it, the more he loves it, he said. For instance, he has become enamored with the passion of college football fans. It’s quite different from the NFL because college fans have a much stronger connection to their teams.
In the NFL you are a fan because you live in a certain city or you have the running back on your fantasy team or because your grandma gave you a team hat when you were young. In college, many fans have a vested interest in their teams.
“These people went to UCLA, their kids went there, their parents went there and they live and die it,” Mora said. “It’s their school. It doesn’t have anything to do with fantasy football. It’s about ‘I went to UCLA. That’s my team.’ That’s a bond that just doesn’t break. Where you went to school never changes. That’s a really cool thing.”
Now that he’s fully engrossed in it, Mora said he can’t imagine ever leaving. So often in the coaching profession, Mora said, guys are just looking for the next opportunity to come along. Each job along the way is a stepping stone.
The UCLA job, he said, has a different feel.
“It’s not about me climbing anymore,” he said. “I don’t have aspirations to go back and be an NFL head coach again. I don’t have aspirations to go to any other school. This is it. You get to a point where you feel like OK, this feels good. This feels right.”
Now comes the hard part: He has to win. Loving the college game, being a mentor and his NFL background mean nothing if the team keeps putting up .500 records.
That’s why he has been as demanding as any coach on the field despite his good-guy nature off of it. He has a vision of taking UCLA out of the grasp of mediocrity and making it a player on the national college football scene.
Just how long it will take to put UCLA back on the college football map, Mora is unsure. He doesn’t have a specific timetable, saying only that he’d like it to happen as soon as possible.
“My vision is that when they are talking about the best teams in the nation, they are talking about UCLA,” he said. “That’s our goal. We’re not there yet, but I think it’s absolutely possible. How soon can it happen? I don’t know.”
The clock is ticking.