LOS ANGELES – Although Jim Mora hasn't coached college football in a quarter-century, the longtime NFL coach has spent the last two years preparing for a chance to go back to school.
UCLA is giving him that opportunity in the hopes this polished pro coach can revitalize a beleaguered college program.
Mora agreed to a five-year, $12 million contract with UCLA on Saturday, replacing Rick Neuheisel as the Bruins' first football coach in more than 60 years with no ties to the school.
"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 was the coach of the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks, going 31-33 over four seasons while reaching one NFC title game. The son of longtime NFL coach Jim Mora is a former University of Washington defensive back who had only one season of college coaching experience at his alma mater in 1984 before beginning a 25-year career in the NFL.
Mora realizes the majority of NFL coaches who go back to the college game have little success. For every Pete Carroll, who replaced Mora with the Seahawks after a spectacular run at Southern California, dozens of pro veterans couldn't figure out college football's morass of recruiting details, and NCAA rules.
"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."
Mora spent the past two years out of coaching, working as a television analyst after the Seahawks fired him in January 2010 after just one season. 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 went 21-29 over four seasons at his alma mater, getting 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."