Commentary

Mora has UCLA poised to make jump

Opportunity knocks for Bruins to stake their claim as one of the nation's best

Updated: July 25, 2014, 4:15 PM ET
By Arash Markazi | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- #BruinRevolution

The hashtag continues to pop up around Los Angeles -- on billboards, in newspapers and at the end of most tweets from anyone associated with the UCLA Bruins these days.

Like most revolutions, the movement didn't start overnight. It has been a slow build ever since Jim Mora arrived in Westwood more than two years ago and took over a UCLA football program that had failed to win more than seven games in a season since 2005 and hadn't finished above .500 at the end of the regular season the previous five seasons.

[+] EnlargeJim Mora
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsUnder Jim Mora, UCLA has defeated USC in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1998.

Mora didn't want to just come in and be better than average at UCLA. He wanted to overthrow the football powerhouse in Los Angeles and usher in a new regime. For the past two years, he and the Bruins have done just that. They have defeated USC in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1998 when the Bruins capped off eight straight wins, and they've finished both seasons with a better record and held their own in recruiting against their crosstown rivals.

This season, however, is different. This is the season when UCLA must take the next step and not just be the best team in Los Angeles but also the best team in the Pac-12 and potentially the best team in the country.

Mora smiles when he hears that. He understands the importance of taking the next step in UCLA's progression as a program under his watch, but his expectation for his team is the same as it has always been.

"I don't really view it any differently," Mora said Thursday at Pac-12 media day. "Every day our goal is to be the best we can be that day and come back the next day and be a little better. That is the approach you have to take. If you look too far down the line or listen to what's going on outside, you make a mistake and you hurt your ability to be successful. For us, it's always about narrowing the focus down to what we can control and what matters, and that's what we're doing that day. I know that sounds cliché and it's boring and nobody wants to hear it, but it's the truth."

It's an understandable approach for a coach to take heading into the season, but Mora knows this season is bigger than that. For the "Bruin Revolution" to be something more than a fleeting fad that is forgotten as quickly as other hashtags on social media, UCLA has to do something big this season. Winning nine or 10 games, beating USC and getting to the Holiday or Sun Bowl is great for a rebuilding squad that wants to make a mark locally, but that's not going to change the landscape of college football in Los Angeles, and certainly not nationally long term.

I don't want our players to feel like we're extra special and we've accomplished the goals we've set out to accomplish or that, but we're on the right track.

-- UCLA coach Jim Mora

Winning Rose Bowls, national championships and Heisman Trophies do that, and for the first time since 1998, the Bruins have a chance to do all of the above with the return of quarterback Brett Hundley. Back then, Cade McNown finished third in the Heisman voting and only a regular-season-ending loss to Miami kept the Bruins out of the national championship game. UCLA went on to lose to Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. That was the last time the Bruins played in a BCS bowl game. The last time they actually won the Rose Bowl was 1985.

Mora knows the history and the numbers and he also knows the Bruins haven't yet won the conference or beaten some of the top teams in the conference since he was hired Dec. 10, 2011.

"Our success right now in my opinion is still very limited," Mora said. "We haven't won the Pac-12 Championship. We're 0-3 against Stanford. I don't want our players to feel like we're extra special and we've accomplished the goals we've set out to accomplish or that, but we're on the right track."

Maybe it's expecting too much from Mora and the Bruins to say the next stop on that track is the Rose Bowl or a national championship, but that's the only way what the Bruins are building will last past this current three-year window.

The importance of this season for UCLA goes beyond just this season. It's about planting a seed for the kind of long-term success that has always eluded the Bruins and prevented them from dominating Los Angeles and being a consistent powerhouse. The Bruins have never won nine or more games in three straight seasons and haven't won back-to-back bowl games since 1988. It's hard to build something lasting with that kind of track record.

Does USC go on to win seven straight conference titles and beat UCLA 12 of 13 seasons if the Bruins had won the national championship and McNown had won the Heisman in 1998? Who knows? But, at the very least, it would have been harder for the Trojans to return to prominence if the Bruins had not paralleled that run by falling on hard times and going through five coaches.

This is the Bruins' window of opportunity to stick their flag in L.A. and make it their town before USC returns to full strength next season and can recruit the same number of players as UCLA. For the past four seasons, UCLA has had an advantage and has made the most of it. Now the Bruins have to make it last well beyond this season by doing something that will be remembered.

Mora took the first big step this offseason when he turned down overtures from Washington and Texas to stay at UCLA. He had always said returning home to coach at Washington was a dream of his, and most coaches would jump at the chance to coach at Texas, but Mora said he's building a new dream job at UCLA.

"UCLA showed a tremendous commitment to me and they trusted me by hiring me," Mora said. "I love it there, and I don't want to go anywhere. It's home now and I want to see us build something special. I'm committed to our university. I'm committed to [athletic director] Dan Guerrero and, probably most importantly, I'm committed to our players ... I'm staying there until they kick me out. That might be tomorrow, who knows? I've been kicked out before. But I'm staying until they kick me out."

Mora doesn't have to worry about getting kicked out tomorrow, and if this season turns out to be as special as the Bruins think it can, they might never kick him out.

Arash Markazi

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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