Jim Mora’s transformed UCLA Bruins see reflection in Stanford

UCLA Coach Jim Mora, like former Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh, seeks to change the way the Bruins football program is viewed. He'll get a chance to make a new impression when UCLA faces Stanford in Palo Alto on Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

A tale of two locker rooms.

Jim Harbaugh met his Stanford team for the first time in 2007.

Bo McNally, a Stanford safety from 2006-09, recalled: “He said, ‘Look, we’re going to be champions here. If you don’t think it’s possible, we don’t want you here. No hard feelings, but take your scholarship for the rest of the year and figure out what else you want to do.’”

Jim Mora faced UCLA players for the first time in 2012.

UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr said: “His face was stone cold. He said, ‘The way NFL people perceive UCLA is it is soft. I’m not a soft guy and that is no longer going to be the mark of this program. You’re going to work harder than you ever have in your life. If you’re not willing to do that, there’s the door.’”


Two coaches. One mandate.

The Cardinal has realized Harbaugh’s vision. Stanford, no longer the Pac-12’s 98-pound, 198-IQ weakling, is the defending conference champion.

A clearer picture of UCLA will be known after this weekend. The No. 9 Bruins are tough. How tough will be judged after they play the No. 13 Cardinal in Palo Alto on Saturday.

Many have compared Mora to former USC coach Pete Carroll, who was also a former NFL coach when hired to coach in Los Angeles. But Carroll merely reanimated a culture that had existed at USC. Mora, like Harbaugh, has changed a culture.

Stanford had not been to the Rose Bowl since losing the 2000 game. The Cardinal is 35-5 the last three seasons. Harbaugh left for the San Francisco 49ers after 2010. The Cardinal continued on, winning the 2012 Rose Bowl under his successor, David Shaw.

UCLA has not been to the Rose Bowl since losing the 1999 game. The Bruins came close last season, finishing 9-5 and losing to Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game.

Cardinal wins

Harbaugh walked into his first conference media day and poked the bear. Deadpan, he insisted that USC was not only the best team in the nation, but the greatest team in college football history.

“He called them out,” McNally said. “We looked at each other and it was like, ‘This is interesting, but we’re the guys who are going to have to back it up on the field.’”

The Cardinal had a 30-49 record in six seasons before Harbaugh arrived. Stanford finished 1-11, losing to USC, 42-0, in 2006.

“There was no way around the fact that we were everyone’s punching bag,” McNally said.

So …

Shaw, an assistant who came with Harbaugh, said: “We had to change the attitude. It wasn’t that we had kids who didn’t know how to work, they just weren’t able to walk into a situation knowing they had a chance to win.”

Harbaugh showed some, and showed others the door, weaning out the non-believers.

He demonstrated that you could recruit at a school that had high academic standards. Brawn and brains could mix. He landed prized quarterback Andrew Luck in 2008 and brought in a passel of linemen, tight ends and linebackers, then beefed them up.

Stanford was 4-8 in 2007 and 5-7 in 2008, and then jumped to 8-5 in 2009.

“It takes time to get out of that funk,” McNally said.

What accelerated the pace was the USC game in 2007. Stanford, 41-point underdogs, pulled off a 24-23 upset that was clinched by McNally’s interception with 30 seconds left.

“We didn’t think we would get instant respect nationally from that, but it validated everything we were doing,” McNally said.

Bruin brutes

In one of his first media sessions, Mora referred to USC as “Southern Cal” … twice. Those at USC detest the moniker. Mora later pleaded innocent, but it was clear there was a new voice in Westwood.

“The first meeting, all the older guys looked at each other like, ‘This dude is the real deal,’” linebacker Jordan Zumwalt said.

The Bruins had meandered, going 81-80 in the 13 seasons before Mora was hired.

Nothing demonstrated the attitude better than the Bruins’ annual tradition of going “over the wall,” in which players skipped practice. Mora said anyone going over the wall could just keep going.

“Are you kidding?” Barr said, when asked whether an “over the wall” day has been suggested recently.

When Mora called the program soft, it stung, Barr said. But, he added, “It wasn’t the first time we heard that. We were ready to be better.”

Mora inherited a quarterback, Brett Hundley, and made some personnel adjustments, like moving Barr from receiver to linebacker, where he was an All-American last season. His staff ramped up recruiting, and new strength coach Sal Alosi went to work.

Sheds at the practice field were repainted black and blue, though the Bruins colors are baby blue and gold. Even the truck that takes equipment to games was painted black with a blue “UCLA” on the side.

“You see black everywhere,” Hundley said. “No more happy-go-lucky Bruins.”

There was a method to the brush strokes.

“I wanted to create a program that would not break,” Mora said. “Not just knock-them-down tough, but mentally tough.”

UCLA won eight of its first 10 games in 2012, then dominated USC, 38-28.

“UCLA for a few years was the little sister to USC,” McNally said. “There was no question who was the dominant team was in Los Angeles. Now that seems to have turned.”

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