Does Jim Mora know something we don’t know?
It’s a weekday morning in the middle of Rivalry Week, he is being attacked from air and ground and internet, USC is a double-digit favorite over his football team, and recruits are disappearing faster than an eight-clap.
Yet the UCLA coach is standing on a gleaming practice field he pushed for, next to a stately training complex he helped inspire, and he’s smiling, laughing, reassuring.
“I don’t worry about me,” he says. “I’m fine, I’m good.”
He looks over at his Bruins as they jog into the Wasserman Football Center.
“I worry about them,” he says.
But it is not the Bruins players whose firing is being demanded in banners flown above the Rose Bowl. It is not the players who are being blamed for the 25% drop in home attendance over three years. It is not the players being criticized for everything from lack of control to recruiting to second-half adjustments.
Mora says he’s fine, but the facts say he should not be. Mora says he’s good, but the last 26 games of his six-year tenure have been 10-16 bad. Mora says he is relaxed, but you would think the grip on his job would be growing more white-knuckled by the week.
Mora clearly isn’t worrying, and again you wonder, does he know something we don’t know?
He probably does.
Here’s guessing he knows that given the muddled state of the UCLA athletic program, it would take some sort of massive meltdown in these last two games before the Bruins would fire him.
First, there is his contract, which runs through 2021 and has a buyout clause of about $12 million. How big is that? It’s nearly $4 million more than the recent buyout of Tennessee coach Butch Jones in the football-mad Southeastern Conference. Unless the generous Casey Wasserman wants to dig even deeper into his donor pockets, there simply aren’t enough fanatically insane Bruins boosters who have the impetus to write that check.
Second, Mora’s legacy, while diminished on the football field, remains intact in the fundraising sector so vital to the Bruins program. His “Bruin Revolution’’ may feel dead, but brick-and-mortar results of that revolution remain, and that gives him some equity.
Finally, he is also blessed with Bruins athletic leadership that, in what likely will be the final years of Dan Guerrero’s career, just doesn’t seem to want to get its hands dirty.
Considering Guerrero gave Mora that bafflingly sweet deal, it won’t be easy for him to tear it up and admit to the third failed football coaching hire in his tenure. And, face it, with school officials still undecided on the fate of the three admitted thieves from their basketball team, are they really going to want a football upheaval right now?
The Bruins athletic program sleeps soundly these days on the $280-million pillow it received from Under Armour, and appears reluctant to stir the nest with something so potentially difficult and controversial as hiring a new football coach.
Fans can fly banners and organize boycotts until they’re blue-and-gold in the face and it won’t matter. Here’s guessing Mora has one more year to save his job — and he knows it — and that’s why he can say he hasn’t heard talk of any imminent firing.
“I don’t know that there is,” he says. “I’ve not read one article, I’ve not been on the website, I don’t listen to the radio, I don’t watch TV, so I would not have a clue what’s going on outside these walls. If there’s speculation, I don’t know about it.’’
He even embraced the critical banner that flew over the Rose Bowl before last week’s victory against Arizona State, using it as a backdrop for an interesting team photo, then reveling in a passionate postgame defense of his job from quarterback Josh Rosen.
“The noise, I don’t control,” Mora says. “My focus is my players and their well being and teaching them how to move through adversity.’’
It appears he is learning these moves himself, fighting through his own adversity with an optimism that, before mistakes were made and focus was lost, nearly transformed this mediocre program into a powerhouse.
“Every day that I’ve ever coached football, I’ve felt like I’m coaching for my job, so nothing ever changes, because that’s my approach to life,’’ Mora says. “Every day I’m going to go into the office and do the best I can, and I’m not going to leave until I’ve done everything I can do be the best I can be.’’
It’s a feisty attitude reminiscent of the Mora who once stood in the Coliseum tunnel and screamed, “We own this town!’’ after a second straight victory over USC in 2013. Yet his Bruins have lost the last two crosstown meetings by a combined score of 76-35.
Remember the Mora who inspired his team to the cusp of the Pac-12 Conference title game and potential spot in the College Football Playoff in 2014? In the Bruins’ regular-season finale, on the day after Thanksgiving, they were inexplicably whipped by an average Stanford team and have never really recovered, winning exactly half of their 36 games since.
Remember their gritty win against Utah in November 2015, putting them again on the brink of the Pac-12 title game? They were blown out by USC the following week and haven’t beaten a ranked team in the two years since.
“My job is to make sure that these young men are prepared on Saturday to do the best they can through these incredibly extenuating circumstances that we’ve had the last two years,’’ Mora says. “Losing our quarterback last year, this year losing a ton of our defense … I just try to be the best role model I can.’’
Mora is admirably charging into his personal sunset, but his resume just doesn’t have the same pop. He hasn’t been able to win the big games with either of two star quarterbacks, Brett Hundley or Josh Rosen. He hasn’t been able to win consistently with players who were not recruited by predecessor Rick Neuheisel. The effect of all those injuries correlates not only to bad luck, but to a lack of recruiting depth.
Mora preaches toughness, yet this year’s team is the absolute worst of all 129 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in rushing defense, and last year ranked 127th in rushing offense. Mora preaches discipline, but his team has ranked 91st or worse in penalty yards in each of his six years.
Mora can still guide his team to stunning victories, such as the 34-point comeback win against Texas A&M to start this season. Remember that? It seems like years ago. It seems like a revolution ago.
“It was a lot of fun, huh?” Mora said after the game on that first Sunday night in September. “Glad you stuck around?”
It is likely he’ll be sticking around at least another year. Don’t know how many people will be glad. Fun has yet to be determined.