Jim Mora tasked with leading UCLA to equal footing with USC
The Bruins have been dominated by their crosstown rivals recently, and changing that balance is the team's primary focus.
Seattle Times college football reporter
UCLA at a glanceLast year: 6-8 (lost to Illinois in Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl)
Coach: Jim Mora (first year as college coach)
Leading lights: RB Johnathan Franklin, LB Patrick Larimore, S Tevin McDonald, P Jeff Locke
Key stat: In the Neuheisel era, UCLA had a 46-56 TD-interception passing ratio, and the primary starting QB never topped 56.2 in completion percentage in any season.
The schedule: Bruins have three straight September home games with Nebraska, Houston and Oregon State. They catch a break in missing both Oregon and Washington.
LOS ANGELES — This is a piece about UCLA, which inevitably means it's also about USC.
Jim Mora has arrived to prop up the beleaguered Bruins, and his progress will be defined in large part by how he compares to the program across town. No UCLA football coach in recent years has measured up very well, underscored by last November's 50-0 loss to the Trojans by Rick Neuheisel's outfit, which made Neuheisel an ex-coach very quickly.
No rivalry in the Pac-12 is more confounding in the past generation. It's startling to recall that the Bruins beat USC eight straight times from 1991-98. But since then, USC has won 12 of 13 (including two wins later vacated because of Reggie Bush's ineligibility), and given lie to the idea that these should be programs on similar footing.
"Until we turn this around and put a few more wins in our column against those guys, it's definitely that," said senior offensive lineman Jeff Baca to the notion that USC should be a yardstick for the Bruins. "It's something as a team we look forward to changing."
UCLA was burned badly with its marketing campaign early in Neuheisel's four-year regime, when the school took out an ad in the LA Times to proclaim that the "USC Dynasty is Over." Mora has to know that, reflected in his soft-pedaling of the rivalry in late-July comments.
"My concern is UCLA and this team being the best it can be," said Mora. "When we get to the Southern Cal game, we'll deal with Southern Cal."
But last week, Mora ruffled USC feathers when, in reference to UCLA's selling points, he said, "We don't have murders a block from our campus," comments for which he later apologized.
Of course, college coaching is a new adventure for the 50-year-old Mora, whose only experience at this level is one year at Washington under Don James in 1984 after his playing days with the Huskies. Everything else was in the NFL.
As for dealing with the myriad problems of youth that aren't in the NFL job description, Mora calls it the best part of the job.
"It could be school, girls, could be home life, it could be money," he says. "It could be players that can't find a parent. You've got to remember, some of these kids don't come from much. I like that I can be there."
Mora has assembled a go-getting staff that includes ex-Husky quarterback great Marques Tuiasosopo; a 2009-11 UW assistant in Demetrice Martin; and former WSU running back and assistant coach Steve Broussard.
Mora also makes it clear he'll trade on his staff's NFL ties. He says it includes 98 years of playing and coaching experience in the league and six Super Bowl rings.
Mora was the guy who impressed Seahawks players by his ability to run up Tiger Mountain as an assistant coach, and it's now one of his challenges to infuse resilience into a program that has long needed it.
"People say, 'How do you make 'em tough?' " Mora said. "I don't know. You recruit kids that have had some challenges in their life, that have demonstrated the ability to overcome adversity. You create situations where you find out who's able to rise up and who maybe can't handle the pressure.
"Some guys, physically, are just willing to go places that others aren't."
Friday, Mora named redshirt freshman Brett Hundley his starter at quarterback, which creates a new look for a team that struggled at the position virtually all of Neuheisel's four years.
The Bruins have 15 starters back and enough talent to sneak into the Pac-12 South race. On defense, end Datone Jones, linebackers Patrick Larimore and Damien Holmes and defensive backs Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price have a combined 125 starts.
Meanwhile, players describe more urgency under Mora than they knew previously. They're nearing the end of their two-week fall camp in the inland broiler of San Bernardino.
"If I had to put it in one word, it'd be 'intense,' " Baca said. "He just knows what he wants. They want a little more from every guy, and collectively, that makes a big difference."
It had better, because USC has a 50-point head start.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org