UCLA's Jim Mora, USC's Steve Sarkisian have personal history together

UCLA's Jim Mora, USC's Steve Sarkisian have personal history together
USC Coach Steve Sarkisian, left, and UCLA Coach Jim Mora share a unique history that goes beyond the USC-UCLA rivalry. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press; David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Jim Mora and Steve Sarkisian will warmly greet each other during warmups, scheme for more than three hours from opposite sidelines and then shake hands after Saturday's game between USC and UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

The pregame and postgame exchanges probably won't differ much from those shared by other coaches in a rivalry. But Mora and Sarkisian share an unusual history that has brought them together for the 84th game in the storied series.


Go back to 2011.

Sarkisian was heading into his third year as head coach at Washington. Mora, fired by the NFL's Seattle Seahawks after the 2009 season, was utilizing campus facilities in Seattle to rehabilitate a knee injury suffered during a skiing accident.

Mora, an NFL lifer, observed Sarkisian's program, occasionally sat in on meetings and traded philosophies with the staff.

"He was so incredibly helpful to me, giving me access first of all," Mora said. "He didn't have to give me access. I appreciated that."

UCLA hired Mora that December, and he has coached the Bruins to consecutive victories over the Trojans.

Sarkisian, in his first season as USC's head coach, would like to end that streak against a coach he helped reintroduce to the college game.

"The one thing I regret in all that is impressing on him the value of recruiting," Sarkisian said, laughing. "He's definitely adopted that at UCLA."

Mora's Bruins are 8-2 overall and 5-2 in the Pac-12 Conference. Victories over USC and Stanford would clinch the conference's South Division and send the Bruins to the Pac-12 title game for the third time in four years.

Sarkisian's Trojans are 7-3 and 6-2 in conference play. A victory over UCLA — and an Arizona State loss in at least one of the Sun Devils' remaining two games — would send USC to the title game for the first time. (USC finished first in the South in 2011 but was ineligible for the championship game because of NCAA sanctions.)

Mora coached UCLA to a 41-31 victory over Washington and Sarkisian last season. But this is the first time they will square off with a conference title and, perhaps, the upper hand in Southern California recruiting hanging in the balance.

Mora, who will turn 53 on Wednesday, and Sarkisian, 40, became acquainted in 2009 when the Seahawks practiced at Husky Stadium. Sarkisian said he observed and interacted with a coach who had worked as an assistant for the San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers and the Seahawks and also had been head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

The following year, Mora was left with time on his hands, having been fired by the Seahawks after going 5-11 in his only season as their head coach. He worked for Fox Sports and the NFL Network.

He also went skiing.

In 2011, Mora was on an alpine run in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest when, he said, he "tore up" his knee. He was faced with six months of rehabilitation.


Washington Athletic Director Scott Woodward called Mora and offered the Huskies' facilities.

"I was religious about recovering from my knee surgery, three hours a day, five days a week, for six months," Mora said.

He hung around Huskies football practices and attended a few meetings. He and Sarkisian developed a relationship.

Sarkisian, who coached quarterbacks for the Oakland Raiders in 2004, said he and Mora talked about the differences between the NFL and college.

"We spent quite a bit of time together," he said.

Mora, who played at Washington and served as a Huskies graduate assistant in 1984, also talked to young athletes. He had not been around a college atmosphere in nearly 30 years.

"I was in there not only with football players, but basketball players and volleyball players and swimmers, track athletes, males and females," Mora said. "They knew who I was and that I played there. I started to develop some rapport with them. They would, at times, come to me and talk about things other than football, life things."

Mora said he quickly realized, "This was an age group that maybe I could have a little bit of an impact on."

Sarkisian was not surprised.

"The more he was around us, the more you could tell he was serious about coaching college football," he said. "I don't know that the day he first walked into the building that was reality to him, but the more he was around, that's the biggest thing you could see.

"His excitement for it was starting to grow."

Demetrice Martin, a Washington assistant at the time, saw the same thing.

"He knew how to build an NFL cat," said Martin, who joined Mora's UCLA staff. "Building a college cat is different. He mentioned afterward that the type of questions he was asking me helped him realize that he had something to give kids in this age bracket."

Mora sought the UCLA job when Rick Neuheisel was fired after the 2011 season.

"Everyone wants to be needed in some way," Mora said. "I don't mean to be mushy here, but it was like 'You know what, I have something to offer these kids.'"