Jim Mora reflected on the words and considered every stop he’s made in a coaching career that has spanned 34 years. Then the UCLA coach thought once more about what he had told reporters after his team’s most recent loss.
I’ve never been through anything like this before.
Mora realized it wasn’t true.
When he was the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, his team had started seven rookies against the New Orleans Saints. At one point during the game, Mora peered onto the field and saw nine rookies playing for the 49ers.
“It was really a tough, tough stretch there,” Mora recalled, “but that experience that those guys gained by playing there, because they were talented players, led us to become a very good defense over the next several years, which allowed me to go on to be a head coach.”
Mora’s hope now is that his young Bruins can persevere through some of the most epic defensive struggles in school history, allowing him to remain the head coach.
His desires aren’t shared by everyone. Disgruntled UCLA fans have paid for two banners expressing their displeasure with Mora to be flown over the Rose Bowl on Saturday afternoon, a few hours before the Bruins (4-5 overall, 2-4 Pac-12 Conference) face Arizona State (5-4, 4-2) inside their home stadium.
According to organizer Michael Peters, one banner will read “UCLA FB 16 YRS 0 ROSE BOWLS 0 CONF TITLES!” and the other will say “GUERRERO 9-16 THE LAST 25 GAMES NO MORA!”
Airplane banners will then take aim at UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero starting at noon Monday when they are flown over the Westwood campus for 35 minutes, Peters said. The same routine is scheduled to take place Tuesday and Wednesday.
It hasn’t exactly been a banner season for the Bruins, who have lost three of their last four games and feature a defense that ranks as the worst in the nation against the run. They must win two of their last three games to become eligible for a bowl. Considering that one of those games comes against No. 15 USC at the Coliseum, there is added urgency to get a victory against the Sun Devils.
“No one has given up right now,” linebacker Kenny Young said. “There’s still hope, you know, we still can make a bowl game. And that’s what our focus is right now.”
Among the reasons for optimism Saturday is the return of quarterback Josh Rosen, who cleared the concussion protocol after being sidelined most of the last two games. Rosen led what had been the nation’s most prolific passing attack before he was injured and is the primary reason the Bruins are still in the running for a bowl.
He’s also perhaps Mora’s best hope to hold onto his job.
“We’re doing everything we can,” Rosen said when asked about trying to help his coach. “We’re trying to look for every sense of motivation that we can and we’re all playing for each other, so we’re putting in everything we’ve got.”
UCLA has gone 4-0 at the Rose Bowl this season, albeit against far lesser competition than the Bruins have faced on the road. Their defense has also logged its two best games in Pac-12 play at home, holding Colorado and Oregon to 23 and 14 points, respectively.
That defense has gotten progressively younger as UCLA’s injuries have mounted. Ten redshirt or true freshmen played on defense against Utah, contributing to the uneven play that yielded 506 yards of offense.
“The encouraging thing is I see talent, I see guys working at it, I see them gaining experience every day, I see them taking it very, very seriously; it matters to them,” Mora said. “So those are all positive signs amidst what’s very dark right now in terms of our statistics and our ability to stop the run consistently.”
Mora had hoped the lengthy injury to Rosen that derailed the Bruins last season amid a 4-8 record was a one-time annoyance. But stick around long enough and even the outliers can repeat themselves.
“I thought I hadn’t been through this before,” Mora said, “but actually, when you’ve been doing it as long as I have been, you’ve really been through everything.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch