An era that once appeared so full of promise for UCLA ended with a thud Sunday when the school announced it had fired football coach Jim Mora, who could not build upon considerable early success while his teams sputtered the past two seasons.
The Bruins, 5-6 overall and 3-5 in the Pac-12 Conference, could qualify for a lower-tier bowl game with a victory over California in Friday’s season finale at the Rose Bowl, but their downward trajectory led to Mora’s dismissal after six seasons.
Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, whose innovative play calling has made him a rising star in the college ranks, will serve as the interim coach, the school announced.
Mora, who turned 56 on Sunday, was informed of the decision during a meeting on campus Sunday morning, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. UCLA announced it would honor the terms of Mora’s contract, which included four more seasons and a buyout of roughly $12 million, using exclusively athletic department-generated funds. That money, secured in part from lucrative television deals and the recent mega-apparel contract with Under Armour, will preclude boosters from having to write a large check.
“Making a coaching change is never easy, but it’s an especially difficult decision when you know that a coach has given his all to our University,” Bruins athletic director Dan Guerrero said in a statement. “Jim helped reestablish our football program and was instrumental in so many ways in moving the program forward.
“While his first four seasons at UCLA were very successful, the past two seasons have not met expectations. We thank Jim and his family for his service to our school and his unquestionable commitment to our student-athletes.”
Mora was fired less than 24 hours after the Bruins turned in a gutsy but mistake-filled effort in a 28-23 loss to cross-town rival USC at the Coliseum. It was their 10th straight loss on the road dating to last season.
Mora compiled a 46-30 record at UCLA, including four bowl appearances, a Pac-12 South Division title in 2012 and 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014. But his teams have gone 10-17 since late in the 2015 season.
The Bruins also have lost their last three games against USC after a 3-0 start against their rivals under Mora, who declared, “We own this town!” in the tunnel near the Trojans’ locker room after a 35-14 victory at the Coliseum in 2013.
Mora issued a statement thanking Guerrero in addition to his coaches and players, calling his time with the Bruins “the most rewarding experience of my career. … I want to wish continued success to UCLA and its football program. With the opening of the new facilities and a groundwork laid for excellence, I firmly believe there are great times ahead.”
As UCLA commenced what it described as a national search for a replacement, widespread speculation centered on former Oregon coach Chip Kelly, the offensive mastermind who guided the Ducks to three Pac-12 championships and an appearance in the national championship game while compiling a 46-7 record in his four seasons with the school.
Kelly, 53, had less success in the NFL, going a combined 28-35 in four seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers before working as a TV analyst this season.
Kelly’s resume includes one other significant blemish. In 2013, the NCAA issued an 18-month show-cause penalty to Kelly and placed Oregon on probation for three years after the Ducks were found to have made a $25,000 payment to a recruiting service that had ties to a player the school was pursuing.
If the Bruins are interested, they have competition. Kelly met with Florida officials Sunday to discuss their coaching vacancy, the Associated Press reported.
Other possible coaching candidates could include Memphis’ Mike Norvell, who has guided the Tigers to a 9-1 record that included a 48-45 victory over UCLA in September; Central Florida’s Scott Frost, whose Knights are undefeated this season; Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, who took the Bulldogs to the Orange Bowl in 2014; Washington State’s Mike Leach, the pass-happy guru whose Cougars are contending for the Pac-12 North Division title; and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, who has consistently overachieved with less than top-tier talent.
Mora vastly improved the infrastructure of UCLA’s program, obtaining substantial raises for his assistants — Fisch makes $810,000 this season — while playing a pivotal role in the completion of the $75-million Wasserman Football Center, the sparkling practice facility that opened in August.
But his teams struggled the past two seasons. UCLA’s rushing offense ranked next to last in the nation last season and its rushing defense ranks next to last this season. The Bruins also were among the most penalized teams in the nation in each of Mora’s seasons.
One factor in the swiftness of the decision to dismiss Mora was the $280-million contract UCLA signed with Under Armour in 2016, a deal that provided the Bruins with additional financial resources but also heightened expectations for its top-tier programs. Guerrero is now left to make his fourth football coaching hire in his 16 seasons on the job.
UCLA announced that Guerrero would be assisted in his search by senior associate athletic director Josh Rebholz, prominent Bruins alumnus Casey Wasserman and former UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman.
UCLA has moved quickly in previous coaching searches. The school announced the hiring of Mora only 12 days after firing Rick Neuheisel in 2011.
There is added urgency to name a replacement considering the new early signing day for recruits starts Dec. 20. As of Sunday, the Bruins’ recruiting class was ranked No. 14 by ESPN and included 19 players, led by highly touted quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High. Five players renounced their commitments to the program over a weeklong span starting in late October.
UCLA players thanked Mora in an outpouring of support on social media.
“Coach Mora had more passion for the game of football than anyone I’ve ever seen, and he poured his life into it,” freshman defensive end Jaelan Phillips tweeted. “I will forever be grateful to him for believing in me early, and giving me the opportunity to play here at UCLA. I wish you the best coach.”
Tweeted safety Jaleel Wadood: “Coach mora [sic] made it cool to come to UCLA and that’s a fact. I will forever be grateful to play for a man so passionate about the game.”