- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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And so UCLA’s coaching search is over after 12 days.
Now, will the decade-long mediocrity end?
Jim L. Mora will take over the UCLA football program, and while it may seem like it took forever to hire Rick Neuheisel’s replacement, 12 days really isn’t all that bad -- especially when you compare that with the amount of time UCLA’s football program has basked in the company of second fiddles and also-rans.
True, Mora isn’t exactly the splashy, big-name hire many UCLA fans were hoping to land, but there are reasons to believe his hire makes a lot of sense.
First, he has no UCLA ties in his past. Second, he is a defensive-minded coach. Third, he has no noteworthy experience as a college coach.
That bucks the trend of the past three UCLA coaches who are seen as the holy triumvirate of mediocrity. Bob Toledo, Karl Dorrell and Neuheisel were all Bruins assistants at some point before they became head coach; Dorrell and Neuheisel were UCLA players.
Mora has no such ties, unless you count the one year his father spent as a UCLA assistant in 1974. But Mora was 13 at the time and probably not all that in tune with UCLA’s football culture.
That makes him the first football coach without a UCLA playing or coaching background since Red Sanders left in 1957. A fresh perspective may help rid the program of the-way-it’s-always-been-done attitude, and that would be a good thing because the way it’s always been done isn’t working.
Over the last 13 seasons, with Toledo, Dorrell and Neuheisel leading the way, UCLA is 80-78 -- just beyond perfectly average.
Toledo, Dorrell and Neuheisel also brought offensive-minded backgrounds to the job. Toledo and Neuheisel are former quarterbacks. Dorrell was a wide receiver. All three were offensive coordinators when they took the head job at UCLA.
Mora is a former defensive back who cut his teeth as a defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks before becoming an NFL head coach.
The Bruins lost 88 games in the 16 years Toledo, Dorrell and Neuheisel coached. That’s seven more losses than Terry Donahue had in all of his 20 years. Donahue was a former defensive tackle.
And sure, Mora’s lack of college coaching experience is a knock, but it could also be a bonus. He’ll bring some new ideas that aren’t contaminated by years in the college game. As long as he gets a couple of top-flight recruiters on his staff, he’ll be fine, and his NFL ties certainly won’t hurt in drawing recruits to UCLA.
Besides, Pete Carroll took the USC job under similar circumstances and things turned out OK for him during his time with the Trojans.
Bruins fans wanted Urban Meyer, Chris Petersen or Mike Leach. True, Mora isn’t the home run hire those guys would have been, but they were really wishful thinking.
The Bruins had little hope against Ohio State in landing Meyer, a man with Ohio roots. UCLA tried and failed, as many had before them, to draw Petersen out of his Boise cocoon. And Leach’s bombastic personality definitely would have been a culture change for UCLA. But these things need to be done in baby steps, and Leach was probably a bit too much at this point for conservative UCLA.
Another glitz-and-glamour guy just isn’t available without poaching from another school, and that would probably mean waiting until after the bowl season.
Making the outside-the-box hire of Mora is only the first step in the culture change needed at UCLA if the Bruins are to again reach national prominence, but Mora will need help. Toledo, Dorrell and Neuheisel were hampered by a lack of commitment from the administration to make UCLA a nationally prominent football school.
The school has to allow boosters to pump money into facilities upgrades so potential recruits don’t get turned off by the 80-yard practice fields currently used by the Bruins. The administration needs to pony up the cash for elite assistant coaches so game planning and technique improve, and also needs to relax admission standards a bit more for football players so that UCLA isn’t turning away potential recruits based on GPAs and test scores.
Surely Mora asked for these things before signing his contract because these are the types of things that have kept big-name coaches away from UCLA in the past. Athletic director Dan Guerrero has promised that some of those things are changing in order to get UCLA on a level playing field with other elite football schools.
If Mora gets those things, he has a head start on his predecessors. That, and the change of pace he brings, will give UCLA football a new business model, one that is current with the modern college football landscape.
And one that breaks the recent Bruins tradition of mediocrity.