Mora then called a reverse of sorts. He gathered his players with the banner in the background for an unlikely team picture.
“They immediately laughed and they said, ‘OK, our coach is OK. We’re OK,’ ” Mora said of the scene before a game in which his team rallied to defeat Arizona State last weekend. “My job is to make sure that these guys get through this experience with a bright future and I’m never going to lose track of that.”
As UCLA prepares for its rivalry game with No. 11 USC on Saturday at the Coliseum, it’s Mora who can’t quite shake the storm clouds. His Bruins, 5-5 overall, 3-4 in Pac-12 Conference play, must win one of their last two games to qualify for a bowl and avoid UCLA’s first back-to-back seasons without a postseason appearance since 1989 and ’90.
Gripes about Mora have dominated message boards, letters to the editor and sports talk radio in recent weeks. When will he stop using injuries as an excuse for the worst rushing defense in the nation? How come his teams have always been among the most penalized in the country? If Mora can’t win with Josh Rosen at quarterback, why would next season be any better with Rosen likely leaving for the NFL?
“If 6-6 is the best-case scenario with a top quarterback, next year is likely much worse,” said Michael Peters, a longtime UCLA fan who organized the GoFundMe page that paid for the two airplane banners that flew over the Rose Bowl. One banner was directed at Bruins athletic director Dan Guerrero, noting that UCLA had not won a football conference title in the 16 years he has been on the job.
The Bruins have gone 10-16 since late in the 2015 season, significantly diminishing the equity Mora had built earlier in his UCLA tenure. Attendance has sagged at the Rose Bowl, where the team’s average of 57,195 fans this season is the lowest under Mora and a 25.4% decrease from 2014.
Guerrero was not made available for comment Thursday, but he said after last season that his expectation for 2017 was for the Bruins to contend for the Pac-12 championship. UCLA currently resides in fourth place in the six-team Pac-12 South, though Mora pointed to the possibility of an upward trajectory if the Bruins can build on their 44-37 victory over Arizona State.
“We have a chance to be 6-5 this week, 7-5 next week and 8-5 if we win a bowl game,” Mora said. “My record here speaks for itself; I’m not going to defend it.”
Mora has gone 46-29 at UCLA, twice winning 10 games in a season and taking the Bruins to bowl games in each of his first four seasons. His 37 wins over that period tied Terry Donahue for the most by a UCLA football coach in any four-year span. Donahue, widely considered the gold standard of Bruins coaches, declined to comment when asked for his opinion of the state of the program and the job Mora was doing.
Mora has undeniably improved the infrastructure of the program, securing considerable raises for his assistant coaches and playing a pivotal role in the construction of the $75-million Wasserman Football Center that opened in August.
Finances could help save Mora’s job even if the Bruins stumble the next few weeks. His contract that runs through 2021 includes a buyout of roughly $12 million, money that would likely have to be raised by disgruntled boosters.
“Knowing that, I guarantee he’s not going to get fired,” said John Peterson, a former UCLA center and linebacker who was captain of the school’s 1954 national championship team. “Guerrero, I won’t say he’s tight, but he’s money-conscious, let me put it that way.
“My gut feeling right now is that maybe [Mora] deserves one more year … If I was Guerrero right now, I would say, ‘One more year and then you’re done if you can’t be successful’ because you kind of start losing your fan base is what I’m kind of observing right now with this guy flying stuff around in the air.”
UCLA has endured epic struggles over the last two years. The Bruins’ rushing offense was the second-worst in the nation in 2016 and their rushing defense currently ranks last among 129 major college teams.
Mora overhauled his offensive coaching staff after last season, leading to widespread speculation that should he return for the 2018 season he would do the same on defense.
Highly ranked recruiting classes haven’t been able to adequately replenish the depth UCLA needed in recent seasons to withstand rampant injuries at quarterback and along the offensive and defensive lines. The Bruins used Mike Fafaul, a former walk-on, as a fill-in starter last season after Rosen was lost for the final six games.
Rosen has returned this season with the exception of two games in which he was sidelined by a concussion, but it hasn’t been enough to elevate the Bruins to elite status. They have lost five of their last eight games and haven’t defeated a ranked team since beating then-No. 18 Utah on Nov. 21, 2015.
It’s enough to make one wonder whether Mora might be coaching to keep his job over the next two weeks.
“I don’t think there’s any denying that,” said Gary Beban, the former UCLA quarterback who in 1967 became the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner. “I’m just not close enough to it, but it would seem to me that if you’re not winning some games that you’re not supposed to win — and I don’t think we’ve done that for a while — then it gets to be a difficult circumstance.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch