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It's a losing battle as UCLA's Mora and Ulbrich have at each other

It's a losing battle as UCLA's Mora and Ulbrich have at each other
UCLA Coach Jim Mora encourages defensive back Anthony Jefferson to keep his cool after a teammate was called for a penalty in the first half. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

There was shouting. There was stalking. There was pointing.

One guy jabbed his hand in the direction of the other guy's midsection. The other guy responded by calmly placing his hands on his adversary's head.

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It was a heated encounter filled with the trademark UCLA football aggression, brimming with the famed Bruins fight, marred by one tiny problem.

It occurred not on the field, but the sidelines, between UCLA Coach Jim Mora and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich during the second quarter of a football game that, for the Bruins, wound up looking just like the argument.

Utterly embarrassing.

On a promising Saturday afternoon in a nearly filled Rose Bowl, the Bruins lost any faint national title hopes, diminished their Pac-12 title game chances, and pretty much put a torch to all the preseason hype with a 42-30 loss to Oregon that was far worse than the score indicated.

The Bruins needed three fourth-quarter touchdowns to scrub some of the stain off a game that, when it was first underlined on the schedule in those giddy days in August, was supposed to lift the Bruins into the shine of championship contention. Instead, it became the game that dropped them back into the muck of their history, back to the core of their annual disillusionment, marking another year of unrealized expectations, bringing back the chaos.

"You have two options, you can quit or you can fight,'' said Mora afterward. "We choose to fight."

Well, see, that can be sort of a problem when this fighting stuff occurs between two coaches and is viewed by national television cameras and clearly stunned Bruins players. It happened early in the second quarter after Oregon had just driven 72 yards in less than three minutes and scored on a perfect screen pass from Marcus Mariota to an unhindered Thomas Tyner to give Oregon a 15-3 lead.

Fans were booing at the ease of the touchdown, but apparently they weren't the only ones, as Mora seemingly said something to rookie defensive coordinator Ulbrich, who was standing nearby. Ulbrich, a former NFL linebacker, began angrily gesturing and shouting at Mora, at which point Mora pointed to the field and walked away. Ulbrich followed Mora with more screaming and gesturing and pointing to the field. Ulbrich finally grabbed the coach to slow him down, then handed Mora his play card and took off his headsets.

It was as if Ulbrich was telling Mora if he didn't like the defensive plays, he should call them himself. Mora remained calm, putting his hand on Ulbrich's waist, then placed both hands on either side of Ulbrich's head to settle him down.

Ulbrich eventually put the headsets back on, retrieved the play card and went back to work, not that it did a lot of good. Not counting the final clock-killing play of the first half, Oregon scored on its next three possessions after the public argument to take a 35-10 lead that became 42-10 before UCLA finally mustered three late scores in front of thousands of empty seats.

In the end, while the coaching disagreement wasn't nearly as detrimental as UCLA's 468 allowed yards or two turnovers or 81 yards of penalties — which included an Eddie Vanderdoes punch that led to a Ducks touchdown — its message was as clear as the veins in Ulbrich's neck.

The tough culture that Mora has created can turn on him. The aggressiveness that is so admirable when the Bruins are winning can quickly become chaos when they are losing. Faced with the reality their national championship dreams have been reduced to budget-bowl hopes, Mora's famously controlled Bruins are struggling to maintain a grip.

Afterward, that struggle continued as Mora defended the argument while Ulbrich was apologizing for it.

"If you don't have that fire, then something's wrong," said Mora. "We're fighting to win, and we love each other dearly.... I challenged him a little bit and he responded."

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Ulbrich, meanwhile, sturdily faced the media and acknowledged his response was inappropriate.

"I just responded in the wrong way, I should have responded better," he said. "Obviously I lost a little control, I can't do that, that's not a good message for my players, I got to handle it better."

Mora didn't agree, and actually said that any media making an issue out the incident was ignorant.

"If you are going to make a big deal out of it then you don't understand sports," he said. "I would hope no one makes a big deal out of something as stupid as that because if they do, they don't understand what competition really is, they don't understand what passion really is."

Mora was probably just trying to save his coach and friend from further grief, as one imagines that Athletic Director Dan Guerrero was not thrilled to see this, especially on a day when the Bruins sold a record number of student tickets (13,500) and filled most of the bowl with blue. But it was a bit unsettling to hear the UCLA head coach actually downplay that sort of reckless sideline behavior that was as subtle as, well, a Vanderdoes jab.

When asked about the danger of that argument sending the wrong kind of message about his program, Mora said, "To who?''

His question was answered by Ulbrich, who said, "Our players, they are accustomed to our passion, but not accustomed to the passion in that sort of setting, that sort of outburst. I have to put it on my own shoulders. I've got to respond better."

It's indeed all about the UCLA players, who now must figure out how to maturely turn the disappointment of a 4-2 start into a strong finish with dignity and class. Hopefully they won't have to figure it out alone.

Twitter: @billplaschke

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