Four days before what could be the greatest powder-blue football season in history, the leader of UCLA’s team is dressed in black and staring darkly.
“I’m not afraid of responsibility, not afraid of pressure, not afraid of people being critical of me,” says Jim Mora.
With a highly ranked team at the end of his whistle, the UCLA coach is focused and fearless. He is, however, not unique. In the last 25 years, Bruins fans have bought that look, believed those words, and both have pierced their hearts.
With a softer smile and gentler tone, Jim Mora was once Bob Toledo, 1998, his team on the verge of playing in the first Bowl Championship Series title game, needing only a December win at unranked Miami. The Bruins lost, 49-45, in a game that featured so many blown assignments, some onlookers thought the UCLA defense was actually missing tackles on purpose.
To the eyes of this sideline observer, maybe they were. It turns out many Bruins were angry over Toledo’s refusal to allow them to wear black arm bands that day as part of a collective University of California student protest over a decrease in minority enrollments. They played distracted, maybe even destructive, and their awful effort showed that Toledo had lost control of the locker room. He never got it back, and the Bruins have never been that close again.
With a quieter voice and more distant stare, Jim Mora was also once Karl Dorrell, in 2005, after the Bruins won their first eight games with future NFL star Maurice No-Jones-Yet Drew. They traveled to two-win Arizona to begin what they hoped was a final stretch toward a dream season, and promptly lost by 38 points. Two games later, USC beat them by 47 points, and Dorrell’s reign was never same.
Finally, if but for a moment, Jim Mora was actually Rick Neuheisel, in his 2008 debut, beating ranked Tennessee by a field goal in overtime at the Rose Bowl amid a roar for the ages. The next game, they lost by 59 points to Brigham Young, and the era ended before it started.
This is the Bruins’ past. This is Mora’s present. This is his burden. This is why, even as some national announcers are predicting a UCLA national title, Bruins fans are waiting for proof that this year is different. When told he must provide that proof, Mora narrows his eyes like, what past?
“I care about the past, I respect the past, but it doesn’t matter to me,” he says. “Every year is its own deal. We’ll see how this one plays out. I don’t pay any attention to the past.”
The lifting will be heavy. The work will be tireless. Mora wants his team to look the part. He dresses his program like he dresses himself, black Bruins flag flapping above practice, black Bruins sheds lining the field, black Bruins practice jerseys. He laughingly says he wears black because, “It’s slimming,” but there is nothing slender about his shoulders, his jaw, his intensity.
Mora has already shown he is broad enough to not only carry the oppressive weight, but transform it into a thing of beauty, winning 19 of 27 games including last year’s Sun Bowl, developing a quarterback named Brett Hundley who could win a Heisman Trophy, filling up the Rose Bowl with a rare and relentless passion.
But he’s yet to beat a team that finished the season in the top 10. He’s yet to beat Oregon or Stanford. Both come to town this fall. The schedule stiffens further with games at Arlington against Texas and conference trips to Arizona State and Washington. Plus, of course, they will be visited by a USC team still stinging from Mora’s pronouncement last season that UCLA owns this town.
The only thing Jim Mora owns right now, frankly, is all the pressure that this town can muster.
“We’ve got a tough road ahead of us,” Mora says. “It’s gonna be a monster.”
Whether he can teach and inspire his team to tackle that monster could define Mora’s legacy. It’s only this third season, so it’s early. It’s also very, very late.
“I don’t feel the pressure, but I do feel responsibility, to keep this team on track, playing the right way every day,” he says.
This is Mora’s team, as reflected by his recent decision to toss one of the nation’s most popular players out of a practice. Yes, he directed two-way Myles Jack to a third position, that being through the door.
This is also Mora’s program, as his presence has led to the donations of approximately $43 million toward a $50-plus million goal for the construction of a new practice facility, an amazing figure for what used to be a basketball school.
Now, Mora just needs to make this his season, and if you don’t think he’s feeling it, then you haven’t seen his personal post-practice field workouts that include wild-eyed rides on stationary bikes and incessant tossing of medicine balls against walls. Just the other day, he ran around four miles, the UCLA campus perimeter. Before every home game, before fans are admitted into the building, he runs the Rose Bowl stairs.
“During the season, I have to work out to alleviate stress,” he says. “Running around typically opens up my imagination a little bit, makes me think of things I want to say to the team.”
He tells them to ignore the hype, forget the past, and fix a solitary focus on the colorless task of creating greatness. He attempts to convince this powder-blue program of the beauty and strength of black.
Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke