ATLANTA -- On a day when the Atlanta Falcons appeared poised to pursue the biggest fish in the pool of potential head coaching candidates, the franchise reversed course, with ESPN.com confirming the club has hired San Francisco defensive coordinator Jim Mora.
Mora agreed in principle to a five-year, $7.5 million contract, ESPN.com's John Clayton reported.
The Thursday decision to hire Mora wasn't overly surprising, given that he fits the profile the team had developed in its search for the successor to Dan Reeves, but the timing was unusual. ESPN.com reported early in the day the Falcons had arranged an interview with LSU coach Nick Saban within the next week. But sources close to Saban said the coach's representatives received a "strange [phone] call" from Atlanta officials at late afternoon, apprising them the club was headed in a different direction.
Mora's wife was en route to Atlanta on Thursday night for an afternoon Friday news conference.
The son of the former New Orleans and Indianapolis head coach, Mora arrived back in Atlanta on Wednesday for a second interview. Ostensibly, that was because owner Arthur Blank, due to a scheduling conflict, had been unable to participate in the first session last week. The second interview lasted into Thursday and, apparently, Mora was impressive as he laid out his plans for the future.
Beyond Mora, the team interviewed six candidates in all: defensive coordinators Lovie Smith (St. Louis), Romeo Crennel (New England) and Tim Lewis (Pittsburgh); interim head coach Wade Phillips and Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.
It is believed that Mora was the lone candidate brought back for a second interview. The Falcons had also scheduled an encore with Lewis, but canceled it after he was fired by the Steelers on Tuesday afternoon. Lewis was said to have been impressive as well, and may have been a finalist, had the Falcons not faced a public relations disaster relating to his dismissal by the Steelers.
One team official termed Mora the "consensus" winner of the Falcons coaching derby.
Mora, 42, was a finalist for the 49ers head coach position last year, after San Francisco dismissed Steve Mariucci. When the team awarded the job to Dennis Erickson, he stayed on as defensive coordinator, signing a one-year extension through 2004. Mora also interviewed for the Chicago Bears' head coaching job earlier this week.
Sources said that Mora has been assembling a potential staff for a couple weeks and that he hopes to bring some 49ers assistants, notably offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp and offensive line coach Pat Morris among them, to his first head coaching gig.
While his defenses have never rated among the league's top 10 in his five seasons as a coordinator, in part because the personnel hasn't always measured up, Mora is noted as an excellent tactician. This year, he became much more aggressive and turnover-geared in his approach, and that was especially evident in a late-season victory at Philadelphia.
The 49ers were statistically ranked No. 13 overall in 2003. They were 14th in 2002, No. 13 in 2001, 29th in 2000 and 28th in 1999, under Mora, who served as secondary coach in his first of seven seasons with the 49ers.
Prior to going to San Francisco, he was on staffs in New Orleans (1992-96) and also in San Diego (1985-91). Mora played defensive back at the University of Washington and then served one season as a graduate assistant at his alma mater.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.