The Evolution of Jim Mora


Or, alternatively, ‘The Evolution of Our Understanding of Jim Mora.’

When Jim Mora was hired as the UCLA head coach after the 2011 season, there were a couple of commonly voiced, non-football related concerns, thing we might euphemistically call ‘personality fit issues.’ Most Bruin fans either have come to dismiss these concerns or have become reconciled to them. I thought it would be interesting to look back and see how Mora grew into his current role, or how we came to understand him better.

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Note: This was something I had begun working on before Mora’s Wasserman Center donation gave me some more material to work with. Then came this week’s public disciplining of Josh Rosen, which appears to have touched a nerve for several people. So while this article addresses these two recent events, my hope is to take a broader perspective on Mora as a personality and the public face of UCLA football.

The NFL Lifer, or A Husky at Heart

One of the main concerns about Mora was that he had spent the entirety of his 26-year career (aside from a season as a grad assistant at his alma mater) in the professional ranks. Even Pete Carroll, the poster child for leaving the NFL and succeeding in college football, was eventually drawn back to the pros. So it’s natural, then, that people would assume that Mora is partly biding his time at UCLA while keeping his eye on the NFL for a potential opportunity.

November 30, 2012; Stanford, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins head coach Jim Mora looks on during the third quarter of the Pac-12 Championship game against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

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The success he’s had at UCLA has drawn the attention of a number of pro teams, including the Chargers and Jets. Despite unfounded rumors to the contrary, however, Mora hasn’t so much as interviewed for an NFL job. He has repeatedly said that he’s happy in the college ranks, and I’m inclined to believe him, for reasons I’ll get into below.

The same is true of other college jobs. He was contacted by both Auburn and Tennessee at one point, and actively courted by Texas after Mack Brown left but firmly told them that he wasn’t interested.

The only time I can remember being worried that Mora might take another job was when the Washington job opened up in 2013. This was, famously, his ‘dream job‘ and his alma mater. But Mora declined Washington’s interest, citing his commitment to what he’s been building with the Bruins.

He ultimately leveraged Washington’s interest into a commitment from the UCLA athletic department to improve facilities and increase the funding for assistant coach pay. This ties in nicely with the recent gift Mora made to the Wasserman Football Center project, as both instances show Mora’s investment in the program and lend further credibility to his repeated claims that he’s happy at UCLA and does not want to leave. He explicitly said as much after the gift was made public:

"I would hope that it would put out any of those silly rumor that our opponents are using against us that I’m leaving. I don’t know what more I can do to prove that I’m not leaving. I didn’t go to my alma mater. I didn’t go to Texas. I haven’t taken an NFL job. And I just gave a little bit of cash to help build this building. One thing that’s always been important to me in thinking about my career is leaving some sort of legacy somehow. I’ve never been able to stay anywhere long enough to do that. And I’m hopeful that this can be the place that I do that."

Prickly with the Press

Jim Mora also came to UCLA with a reputation for run-ins with the press. Most famously, he had this exchange with Doug Gottlieb on ESPN’s The Herd:

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what to do with this aspect of Mora’s public presence. I mean, Nick Saban belittles the media all the time, and Steve Spurrier has long-standing grudges with local beat writers, but they’re not burdened by reputations of pettiness. I suppose they’ve both won national titles, which buys them some leeway.

How about Jim Harbaugh, who took similar umbrage with Colin Cowherd earlier this offseason? He’s seen as off-beat and intense, not a prick. Or Paul Johnson, whose impatience with the media* is seen as fun and old-timey.

*Yes, I know that’s a parody. I include it as an example of the fun that a lot of folks have with Johnson’s grumpy demeanor.

But Jim Mora gets fed up with Doug Gottlieb — freaking Doug Gottlieb, a man so grating and smug he would test even the Pope’s patience — and it’s seen as a fundamental flaw in his character, evidence of peevishness and meanness. Maybe it’s because of Mora’s relative youth (or youthful appearance), or something in his tone of voice; something about Mora makes people more sensitive to this, to the detriment of his reputation, which is unfair, and a shame.

Looking Out for No. 1, or Good Looking Out?

The main concern about Mora as a leader, when he was hired by UCLA, was his demonstrated willingness to publicly blame a player when things went wrong. Specifically, during a postgame press conference as the head coach in Seattle, he hung Seahawks kicker Olindo Mare out to dry for two missed field goals in a six-point loss:

"There’s no excuses for those. If you’re a kicker in the National Football League you should make those kicks – bottom line. End of story. Period. No wind, doesn’t matter. You’ve gotta make those kicks…We’re not going to fight our ass off and have a field-goal kicker miss two field goals. It’s not going to happen."

Not a good look for Mora, who was wrong on the merits, as demonstrated by Seahawks blog Field Gulls, and wrong in an ethical and leadership sense. As a college coach, especially, that can’t fly.

Sep 25, 2014; Tempe, AZ, USA; UCLA Bruins kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn (15) against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

And this is where I think Mora has changed the most as a college coach. He’s been consistently supportive of UCLA kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn, despite Fairbairn’s significant struggles early on. Even in recent instances where some have taken issue with Mora’s comments after a loss, the difference with the Seattle quote above is striking. He says ‘we have got to figure out’ how to execute or reduce turnovers or convert field goals. That’s collective responsibility and includes the coaching and game-calling as much as player performance.

Mora has commented about the sense of purpose he’s found as a leader of young men, someone responsible for shaping and teaching them to improve as players and as men. It’s this newly found comfort zone that suggests Mora realizes his leadership style and paternal instinct is a better fit for the college game. This is borne out, I think, by the instances at UCLA where his temper has flared and he has gotten angry with the press.

In 2013, the day after freshman Nick Pasquale was killed, Mora was talking about the loss in a press conference when a media producer began talking on his cell phone. Mora grew visibly upset, yelled at the offender, and ultimately walked away from the session. This was rightly seen by many as Mora protecting the memory of Pasquale and demanding respect for his team’s grieving process.

Additionally, immediately after the Alamo Bowl this January, Mora was noticeably curt with reporters who were pressing him for information on the brusque exchange he had with Kansas State coach Bill Snyder at midfield. He maintained, with a hint of defensiveness in his voice, that the handshake was unremarkable and that he didn’t know what the big deal was. He of course followed that up with defiant tweets that he would ‘defend the safety of [his] players…forever.’

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It came out that Mora was upset with Kansas State players diving at Brett Hundley in the victory formation at the end of the game. So again it appears that Mora’s embrace of a paternal role in the college game comes at the expense of his public image, something I’m sure he’s fine with. As a fan, I’d prefer if he found a way to use the media as an asset in voicing his concerns or defending his players, rather than assume an adversarial attitude, but I’m sure it’s easier said from the outside than done in the heat of the moment.

Rosen on Blast

These concerns came to a head this week when Mora called out Josh Rosen in front of the gathered press in training camp. To many steeped in the (I would argue outdated) prejudices of Mora as a hot head with no concern for his players who’s pining for the NFL, this episode hit all the buttons.

Click through that previous link to see how Every Day Should Be Saturday reads Mora and the incident. I’ll just caveat that I like and respect Spencer Hall and voraciously read everything he writes. But I do think that Hall’s image of Mora is colored by the fact that he lives in Atlanta, where Mora is not remembered fondly at all after his disappointing first head coaching gig. First impressions are often lasting impressions; I get that. But Mora’s not the same guy he was ten years ago – few of us are.

To wit, I think we can put to rest the notion of Jim Mora waiting for his chance to return to the NFL. He’s invested – personally, professionally, and financially – in UCLA, and he’s demonstrated that time and again.

Secondly, my colleague Jake Merrifield has made a good case that Mora’s outburst was far from ill-considered. Another fellow GJB scribe, Michael Hanna, and I went back and forth on this via Twitter:

Mora has stood by these comments, and explained that his intention is to toughen up Rosen, make sure he gives his all, and prepare him for the pressure and scrutiny of being a Division I starting quarterback.

Lastly, Michael’s concern is not that Mora yelled at Rosen, but rather that he involved the media and specifically told them that Rosen’s failure to step up was why the QB competition was still ongoing. I agree with this, and I think it points to the deep unease with the press that will likely always be a part of Mora’s coaching style.

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It’s not hard for me to imagine that his frustration with Rosen bled into his frustration with the media’s persistent questions about naming a quarterback and he took his tirade a step farther than he should have. But Rosen does not appear to have been shaken, and other players concurred that Rosen took the incident in stride, so I think it’s a stretch to say that Mora showed his true colors in humiliating a player.

To sum up, I think it’s safe to say that Mora has found a new direction for his career in the college ranks and that it’s unlikely we will see him bolt to the NFL any time soon. He’s embraced the role of coach and mentor for 18 to 22-year-olds. And while it’s clear Mora has matured and mellowed a bit, he will always be an emotional guy with a bit of a temper, which we’re likely to see in situations where he feels his players are threatened or where he falls into the trap of seeing the media as his adversary.

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