Jim Mora faces a tough sell at 'soft' UCLA
'I want us to be a team people don't want to line up against,' says Bruins' new coach
Seattle Times colleges reporter
UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — A breezy sort of quality pervades Pac-12 football media day, a session when everybody is excited to be there, every team is in its best shape ever and it's all good.
Jim Mora Jr. found himself caught up in that bonhomie here Tuesday. He joshed easily with a lunch table of L.A. writers, by turns confiding and kibitzing.
You get the feeling that's going to end shortly.
In a conference enlivened by three other intriguing new coaches and their offensive reputations, Mora is engulfed in a campaign far different from Mike Leach's air-raid passing at Washington State or Rich Rodriguez's fast-paced spread at Arizona.
"I've heard it for years, just like everybody has," says the former Washington player and Seahawks head coach, "that there was an element of toughness lacking."
Old stereotypes die hard, and UCLA's hasn't yet expired. By reputation, the Bruins have long been without that certain take-no-prisoners mentality that marks the best teams.
After the Bruins named him to replace Rick Neuheisel last winter, Mora was aghast to learn that a UCLA tradition had been dusted off — "Over the Wall," sort of a senior skip day, was perpetrated again, an innocent stunt but one that seemed to reflect perfectly an absence of commitment around Bruin football.
So UCLA has turned, for a third straight time, to a coach with Seattle ties to try to get it right. First there was Karl Dorrell, who had been an offensive coordinator under Neuheisel at Washington. Then Neuheisel himself, but he was fired last November after four undistinguished years.
And now Mora, who, when I asked him about toughness, began thumping his hand on a table for emphasis.
"I don't want to (tick) UCLA off, but when I played for Don James, you didn't want to line up against 'em," he said. "I want us to be a team people don't want to line up against. The last time I played at Washington, when we walked down that tunnel, there was no doubt we were going to be the tougher, more physical team that day."
So when the opportunity came to take UCLA off campus for two weeks of fall camp — to Cal State-San Bernardino — Mora jumped at the chance. The Bruins' campus practice field is undergoing some renovation.
"I'm not trying to create the 'Junction Boys' or anything like that," Mora said, invoking the famously rugged camp in Junction, Texas, conducted by Bear Bryant when he arrived at Texas A&M in 1954. "We're not going to go out there with two buses and come back with one."
But Mora wants bonding and an interdependency that might be missing on campus, where, as he puts it, maybe a player's girlfriend picks him up after practice "and they go get yogurt or something."
You could think of Mora as a bit of an experiment for UCLA. His coaching background is virtually all in the National Football League, and there's some skepticism that he is bound to make mistakes dealing with collegians.
Indeed, Mora cops to some innocence about the ways of the college game. He said he doesn't know what a "preferred" walk-on is. He says he was in the dark about "grayshirting." And he was saying he didn't know a lot about how to choose captains.
"I don't even know when you're supposed to name captains," he said.
If there's still some naivete in a 50-year-old coach, it doesn't stretch forever. He discussed the sanctity of the player-coach relationship and recalled the ill-fated incident in his 2009 tenure with the Seahawks, when he publicly called out kicker Olindo Mare for missed field goals in a game lost to Chicago.
"I think when I did that, I lost a little bit in the locker room," Mora said. "I'd never done that before, and I'll never do it again."
He has heard he's a "player's coach," but he's uneasy with that label.
"They've got to believe they can trust you and count on you," he says, "but that doesn't mean you're a pushover."
He plans to strike that balance in his first real college coaching job, starting with two weeks in steamy San Bernardino, where the Bruins will work at living down an image long held.
"I've found a group of kids," Mora said, "that just can't wait to prove that wrong."
He seemed to say it with some pride. He's counting on his new players to show theirs.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com
|The Pac-12 media picked USC to win the conference title this season. First-place votes in parentheses.|
|1. Oregon||732 (117)|
|2. Stanford||533 (5)|
|4. California||382 (1)|
|5. Washington State||228|
|6. Oregon State||205|
|1. USC||729 (117)|
|2. Utah||514 (1)|
|3. UCLA||435 (2)|
|5. Arizona State||353 (3)|
|Others receiving title votes: Oregon (18), Arizona State (3)|
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