Security was sparse at UCLA’s football practice Tuesday.
The workers the school employed to guard the practice field before the Bruins played rival USC in 2012 haven’t been seen in a few years.
Even the rhetoric has been dialed back. Jim Mora, UCLA’s coach, used to routinely refer to the Trojans as the team from “Southern Cal,” a variation of University of Southern California that is universally disliked by the USC faithful.
He still slips in the term occasionally, though in recent days it has seemed like he was trying to avoid mentioning UCLA’s next opponent by any name at all.
This is evolution.
When Mora arrived in Westwood, USC was firmly established on top in the crosstown rivalry. The Bruins were wannabes.
Since then, the momentum has flipped entirely. Mora-coached teams have three consecutive victories in series.
The teams meet again Saturday at the Coliseum, where two years ago Mora could be heard shouting “We own this town!” in the tunnel near the USC locker room.
“Beating USC validated Jim’s position as the head coach,” said Dan Guerrero, the UCLA athletic director who hired him. “It was important for him to flip that switch.”
But ruling the home roost was only part of Mora’s end game.
The winner Saturday advances to play in the Pac-12 Conference title game Dec. 5. From there, the Pac-12 champion goes to the Rose Bowl game.
UCLA’s home field is the Rose Bowl, but the Bruins haven’t played in Pasadena’s Jan. 1 game since the 1998 season.
Mora has a 37-14 record at UCLA, and the Bruins have climbed the bowl-game ladder the past three seasons — from Holiday to Sun to Alamo.
“What he has done, what we hoped he would do, is really put this program on the national platform,” Guerrero said.
But a Pac-12 title has been elusive. UCLA came close in 2012, leading in the fourth quarter before losing to Stanford, 27-24, in the conference championship game.
“During recruiting he told me to help him build something special,” Jordan Payton, a UCLA senior receiver, said of Mora. “He had a vision. That resonated with me.”
A foundation was laid by defeating USC in 2012.
Terry Donahue is the only UCLA coach to win more consecutive games in the series than Mora. Donahue won five straight from 1991-1995. USC’s Pete Carroll won five consecutive games from 2001-2005, though the 2004 and 2005 victories were vacated by order of the NCAA.
For the Record
Nov. 25, 3:16 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said that USC football teams coached by Pete Carroll defeated UCLA in seven consecutive games, from 1999-2005. Carroll’s teams won five in a row, from 2001-2005. Paul Hackett was USC’s coach for the 1999 and 2000 victories.
Mora showed up to find the Bruins on the bottom, with only one victory in the series since 1998, and set his sights.
“When you win your rivalry game, it’s awesome. When you lose, it’s a tough year,” former Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti said.
“You want to have the final word in recruiting, and when you win the rivalry game it sort of gives you an upper hand.”
There was a clear importance attached to the USC game in Mora’s first season. The coach posted security at the Bruins’ practice field in the days leading up to the game. Whether he actually felt it was needed or was simply sending a message to his players isn’t known, but the week ended in a 38-28 UCLA victory.
“We had been in a funk,” Guerrero said, referring to the football series. “To be able to change that and create a dynamic with our fans that we can compete with anyone in the country, and certainly with anybody across town, was important to us.”
At the very least the win provided a foothold.
“I’m not sure any coach understands a rivalry until he is there and has experienced it firsthand,” Bellotti said. “You get a sense to what it means to the people around you.”
Mora said that is exactly what he has taken from the past three seasons.
“The effect it has on current students at UCLA and at Southern Cal, also the alumni at both schools, I guess, for them, it’s bragging rights,” Mora said. “For us, it is a passionate game we play against a team this week that means a lot for both of us.”
Previous UCLA coaches often talked about catching up with the Trojans. Mora didn’t set USC as the bar; rather, merely a step to it.
After UCLA defeated Utah last Saturday, Mora omitted mentioning the rivalry when asked of it would be easy to get his players focused this week.
“Certainly this being the last game of the season, the last regular-season game, and with so much at stake, they’ll be focused,” Mora said.
That the opponent was USC seemed secondary.
“That’s how you have to approach this sport,” Mora said this week. “If you create too many highs and lows, you slip into inconsistency. What we’re trying to be is consistent.
“The emotions will come on Saturday. They always do, and it’s a little bit more when playing a team you’re a little familiar with.”
He did not name the familiar foe that was next up.
As for the absence of security guards around the field, Mora shrugged it off, saying, “That was a long time ago.”
It’s been even longer since UCLA lost in football to USC.
Follow Chris Foster on Twitter @cfosterlatimes