The disappointments during Jim Mora’s first four seasons at UCLA were mostly of the we’ll-get-’em-next-time variety.
There were two 10-win seasons that didn’t lead to a major bowl. A trip to the Pac-12 Conference championship game that ended in defeat. A poor finish to the 2015 season that included a loss in the Foster Farms Bowl.
Mora’s success was widely thought to have stabilized Bruins Athletic Director Dan Guerrero’s job security while reviving a program that had fallen onto drowsy times under predecessors Rick Neuheisel and Karl Dorrell.
Now, for the first time under Mora, the Bruins have hit a football DEFCON 3-4.
That’s UCLA’s record after three losses in four conference games have dropped the Bruins (3-4, 1-3) into fifth place in the Pac-12 South Division heading into a resurrection-or-dejection game against No. 19 Utah (6-1, 3-1) on Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl.
The first rocky patch of the Mora era has resulted in massive roster shake-ups, lengthy rants and … hey, who are we kidding?
“Jim’s pretty consistent with how he coaches,” UCLA defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. “I think his interest in everybody getting better is the key right now.”
Mora did that in part this week by emphasizing competition periods between the first-string offense and defense, hoping to produce the toughness his team needs to close out games. The Bruins’ four losses this season have all come down to slip-ups on the final drive.
During a quiet moment inside UCLA’s Athletic Hall of Fame, Mora readily acknowledged that these are the kinds of doldrums he hasn’t experienced since two losing seasons in the NFL.
“It’s really the first time we’ve had a problem present itself that we haven’t been able to solve right away, which is the run game,” Mora said. “While I hate it, it’s also one of the things that I love is that challenge, to overcome adversity, to hold guys together, to press on when there’s a lot of negativity around what you’re doing.
“I’ve always felt like I’m at my best in these situations. I don’t like them, but I embrace them when they come.”
The search for solutions prompted Mora to analyze every aspect of the way he was doing his job. Did he need to change his routine? The way he taught in practice? The words he used with players?
Mora pledged to alter a running game that has ranked among the worst in the country but said it wouldn’t prompt any sort of double take among those who have followed the Bruins. He also tried to remain upbeat for fear it would send the wrong message to his players.
“They play off your mood so much,” Mora said. “It’s not like we’re going to go down to Disneyland and go on Space Mountain or anything like that, but we’re going to continue to try to work hard, be serious but also keep it in perspective and learn our lessons and have fun.
“You hear oftentimes when teams are struggling, ‘Oh, we weren’t having any fun.’ Well, the fun comes from winning, but you’ve also got to make it an environment where they want to come in and they want to come to work and they want to find answers.”
The losses have been harder to take in college than in the NFL, Mora said, because reaching a major bowl or the Pac-12 title game requires winning almost every week.
“In the pros, you can absorb some losses because the goal is to get into the playoffs,” said Mora, who went 31-33 in four NFL seasons. “In college football, it’s really tough to do that. Every game is just so incredibly important, so that’s a little bit different for me. It’s that increased sense of urgency to win every single game is different.”
Mora has maintained a similar fiery demeanor amid wins and losses. His sideline rant directed at punter Austin Kent last week for failing to try to knock a backward-bouncing punt out of bounds during a loss to Washington State wasn’t much different than a tirade toward receiver Darren Andrews for receiving an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty during a victory over Brigham Young.
The same could be said for Mora, who made his players run the same play over in practice four times earlier this season while trying to perfect the details.
“All I know how to do is just to approach your job with an increased sense of urgency and enthusiasm and energy and most importantly, urgency to get it corrected,” Mora said. “I try to be demanding and honest, but at the same time you’ve got to give these young guys some hope. You have to lead them out of the woods.”