Senior College Football Columnist

Defensive-minded Mora Jr. changing business as usual at UCLA


Mora's path to UCLA is very similar to the one Pete Carroll took to USC. (Getty Images)  
Mora's path to UCLA is very similar to the one Pete Carroll took to USC. (Getty Images)  

This is the third installment of a three-part series on The New Defenders, profiling defensive coaches fighting back in this age of record-setting offense.

LOS ANGELES -- Jim Mora Jr. chooses his words carefully. Still, an alarming message is delivered.

"The perception of UCLA football to those of who were not involved with UCLA football," the Bruins' new head coach says, "was that UCLA football had become soft."

Mora begs you not to write this is his opinion, just an aggregate byproduct from one of the great mysteries of the college football universe: How has UCLA not only ceded this town to USC for the last decade, but become almost irrelevant nationally during that period?

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And to be clear, the rookie college head coach is just passing along the gathered sense that UCLA had become pliable.

"That was the perception," Mora reiterated, "Our intent is to make sure that nobody can say that about us again. Whether it's truth, doesn't matter. Our goal is eliminate that perception, wipe it off the map, never let it cross anyone's lips again."

If this is an early indication of the comeback the Bruins have been waiting for since 1998, pass the shoulder pads. At a recent 7 a.m. interview for which Mora arrives early, the son of the veteran NFL coach of the same name laid out his plan. The overarching message is clear: The Bruins will become tough.

AD Dan Guerrero basically said as much when he went out of the box to hire Mora in December. Mora is the first UCLA head coach in at least 35 years with a defensive background. His reputation (31-33 as a head coach) had been made in the NFL. Mora hadn't been in college since 1984, and that was as a fresh-out-of-school grad assistant with Washington.

Mora's hire has eerie similarities to That School Across Town. Eleven years ago, USC AD Mike Garrett similarly hired an out-of-work former defensive-minded NFL head coach with no ties to the program.

"It's not offensive," to compare his situation to Pete Carroll, Mora says, "There is no question that can be offensive to me. I've done this too long."

Twenty-eight years, to be exact. UCLA is clearly trying to reinvent the Bruins with an outsider. Mora is the first coach here without school ties since 1949. Why not? UCLA hasn't been ranked since the first week of the 2008 season. The 13 seasons (and counting) since the last Rose bowl is an ongoing school record.

"When you're trying to change the culture, you probably want someone from outside that culture to change it," Mora said. "I despise the words, 'We do it that way because that's the way we've always done it.' I think that's a loser's mentality."

Guerrero has to know that perhaps his job hinges on the hire. Ben Howland has perhaps rehabbed himself and his program with a top recruiting class since a damning Sports Illustrated story. Meanwhile, there wasn't exactly a bidding war for Mora. He was more than available having been working as an analyst for NFL Network.

The urgency is palpable. That nemesis, USC, is seeing the light at the end of NCAA probation. UCLA has yet to capitalize, to make the one-time battle of L.A. even a skirmish in recent years. And despite his defensive background, it would be nice if Mora could develop a quarterback. That still is the essential building block in the Pac-12.

But if UCLA is going to find its inner macho, defense will lead the way. Mora is such a film nut that he spent part of Easter with his dad Jim Sr. breaking down Bruins' practice. The tape showed a 3-4 front taken directly from his father. Zone concepts, Mora Jr. said, come from defensive masterminds Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers.

The staff, according to Mora, has 93 years of NFL experience and five Super Bowl rings. Mora himself says he has coached 16 Hall of Famers, 38 Pro Bowl selections with a total of 98 appearances.

"We've been around greatness," he said, "and observed it first-hand."

The coaching chops come largely from his dad, now 76 and still widely respected. As a 23-year-old, Mora Jr. was interacting with Dan Fouts as part of Don Coryell's San Diego staff. In New Orleans 20 years ago, he was coaching his father's secondary, helping guide one of the best NFL defenses in history.

A lot of that career is stuffed into Mora's storage closet. He is a pack rat who keeps his Saints playbook from 1992, tape of Ronnie Lott's first practice with the 49ers, as well as a collection of Jerry Rice's last three practices with San Francisco.

The plan was to bring in Michael Irvin as a guest speaker for the Bruins. The same for Michael Vick, who was going to talk about anything but football.

"He's going to tell them what it was like to sit in a jail cell for 19 months wondering if you're ever going to play football again," Mora said. "I love Mike Vick. I'd let Mike Vick babysit my kids."

Those Bruins will find out about toughness -- how Lott intentionally had the tip of his left pinky amputated -- but they won't hear from Lott himself as a guest speaker.

"He's a Trojan," Mora said.

It is a different world in college football where school loyalties matter. Mora had to be schooled in the ways of recruiting. Before his first home visit with UCLA veteran assistant Angus McClure, Mora had to be told to remove his tie and change into more informal clothes. The second visit came with offensive line coach Adrian Klemm. During a recruiting visit in Utah, Klemm noticed that the parents weren't wearing shoes.

"Should I take off my shoes?" Klemm whispered to his boss.

"How did he notice that?" Mora said later. "He said, 'I don't know. You're supposed to notice that stuff. Something that small can be very meaningful.' "

Now, if only UCLA can matter again. Ever since the Bruins came within an epic 1998 loss to Miami of playing for the national championship, the program has lost its genetic code. A school known for its quarterbacks produced few after Cade McNown. Karl Dorrell, the person, was boring. The ebullient Rick Neuheisel fixed that, but it was his offense that was mundane. Attendance has dropped by 22 percent the past four years.

If there's one thing you can't be in this town, it's dull. Or malleable.

"You're not going to change anything until you start playing football and people on Saturday see you and feel you," Mora said, "and walk off the field [saying], 'That's not a soft football team.' "

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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