UCLA hires ex-NFL coach Jim Mora

Updated: December 13, 2011, 10:28 AM ET
By Peter Yoon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Jim Mora Jr. was named football coach at UCLA Saturday, the team announced.

Mora, the former coach of the Seattle Seahawks and the Atlanta Falcons, is currently an analyst for the NFL network. He replaces Rick Neuheisel, who was fired after going 21-29 during his four years with the Bruins.

"I think UCLA is truly a sleeping giant, and I realize that an opportunity like this, of this magnitude, doesn't present itself more than once in a coaching career," Mora said. "When the job was offered, I jumped at the chance to be a Bruin."

Mora signed a contract for five years, $12 million, plus incentives.

Mora, whose father, Jim, briefly served as an assistant a UCLA, has little college coaching experience. He was a graduate assistant at Washington, where he played defensive back, in 1984.

He spent most of his career in the NFL, most recently as the head coach of the Seahawks in the 2009. He was fired after going 5-11 in his only season. He was the assistant head coach for two seasons prior.

"I've given this a lot of thought," Mora said. "This isn't something that just popped up. This has been a goal of mine since I left the Seattle Seahawks. I've had a passion and a real strong desire to get back into coaching football at the collegiate level. I've had opportunities to go back to the NFL over the past year, and turned them down in hopes that one day I'd have the opportunity to coach at a college football program like UCLA's."

Before joining Seattle, Mora served as head coach of the Falcons for 2004-06. In his first season with Atlanta, the Falcons went 11-5 and made it to the NFC championship game. His teams went 8-8 and 7-9 the next two seasons and he was fired.

Mora spent the past two years out of coaching, working as a television analyst after the Seahawks fired him in January 2010. Mora also spent his down time studying college football, learning the fine points of recruiting and other NCAA arcana.

Although Mora's hiring immediately came under criticism on popular fan websites and message boards for the understandable qualms about his pro background, nobody can accuse athletic director Dan Guerrero of playing it safe.

Mora's hire is doubly unorthodox at UCLA, which has stuck to offensive-minded coaches who played or coached at the school for more than two generations. Mora is the first UCLA coach with a defensive background in at least 40 years, breaking up a lineage including offensive masterminds Dick Vermeil, Terry Donahue and Bob Toledo.

"He is high-energy, hard-nosed, disciplined and organized," said Guerrero, whose own fate could be tied to Mora after firing his last two coaches for mediocre results. "He has coached defense his whole life, and that bodes well for us with the kind of offensive firepower we see in our conference. Though he's never coached a game in college, bottom line is he is a terrific football coach, and he will surround himself with a staff that will aid in the transition from pro football to college football."

Neuheisel was fired last month after UCLA was embarrassed 50-0 by coach Lane Kiffin's fifth-ranked Trojans. USC's postseason ban still allowed the Bruins to play in the first Pac-12 championship game, where UCLA lost 49-31 to Oregon last week.

UCLA will play Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 31 under interim coach Mike Johnson, Neuheisel's offensive coordinator. Johnson also was Mora's quarterbacks coach for two seasons with the Falcons.

The 50-year-old Mora was born in Los Angeles and spent part of his childhood in the area, but has no links to UCLA beyond his father's one season on the Bruins' coaching staff in the 1970s. Guerrero said that wasn't a prerequisite for the job, but was determined to hire a coach with previous head coaching experience.

The Bruins probably could use a fresh start: They haven't played in a Rose Bowl in 13 seasons and haven't been ranked for more than five seasons, both school-record streaks, while rarely threatening to emerge from powerhouse USC's shadow across town.

Guerrero and Mora must drum up interest in a program with an attendance decline of 25 percent during Neuheisel's four seasons -- right when the Bruins are trying to sell upgraded seats for higher prices at the renovated Rose Bowl. Relatively flush with cash from the Pac-12's lucrative new television contract, Guerrero has promised to upgrade the Bruins' training complex, including 80-yard long Spaulding Field.

Mora emerged as the leader in UCLA's coaching search late this week after the school considered Boise State's Chris Petersen, Houston's Kevin Sumlin and Miami's Al Golden, who all apparently showed little interest in the Bruins. Guerrero claimed he had the funds to hire an elite coach -- and while Mora has a strong coaching pedigree, he wasn't known to be a prime target for any other schools.

But Mora has long shown an interest in college coaching, notoriously telling a Seattle radio station he was interested in someday coaching the Huskies -- while he was employed by the Falcons, earning widespread criticism. Mora's youthful demeanor and enthusiasm even impressed his NFL players, who often compared him to a college coach, but Mora also was known for aggressive practices and discipline, particularly when he ran several successful defenses as Steve Mariucci's coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers from 1999-2003.

UCLA probably is hoping Los Angeles football fans will notice other parallels between Mora's selection and the Trojans' famed hiring of Carroll, who had been out of college coaching for 18 years when USC hired the 49-year-old coach 11 years ago next week. Carroll led USC to seven conference titles and two national championships, albeit leaving before the NCAA leveled the program with heavy sanctions.

Neuheisel struggled to recruit elite talent at several positions -- notably quarterback, where Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut have been inconsistent at best for three consecutive seasons. Neuheisel also made a costly decision to use an unorthodox pistol offense for the past two years, even parting ways with veteran offensive coordinator Norm Chow after the Bruins went 4-8 last season.

"We're going to attack recruiting with relentless passion," Mora said. "I'm going to use the credibility I've gained in coaching in the NFL for 25 years to get myself into some of those homes and convince these kids that not only can we help them be great football players, but present them an opportunity to get a great education at one of the outstanding academic institutions in America."

Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Peter Yoon

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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