Heat is on as UCLA Coach Jim Mora prepares for his first USC game


UCLA Coach Jim Mora has tried to put USC on the back burner all season. Trouble was, the rivalry simmers. It was there every day when he left the house.

“Every morning, when I wake up and walk out the front door, there’s my neighbor’s house with a big USC flag,” Mora said. “I drive out and make a left and the house on the right has a gigantic USC flag. It seems like that’s what everyone has been talking about for the last week, as much as I have tried to avoid it.”

There’s no avoiding it now.

Mora, hired last December, barrels headlong into his first USC game. The teams play at the Rose Bowl on Saturday at noon.

The usual frivolity has even more of an edge this season. UCLA is ranked 17th and USC 21st. The winner goes to the Pac-12 Conference championship game.

“This game has a lot of ramifications,” Mora said. “These games don’t come along very often. It’s important to a lot of people.”

A lot of people.

UCLA coaches are judged by how they do against USC, and vice versa. Former Bruins coach Terry Donahue has said the word around town as the 1980 game approached was that he was going to be fired. UCLA won, after having lost to the Trojans in his first four seasons, and Donahue stuck around 15 more years, going to four Rose Bowls and beating the Trojans nine more times.

On the other hand, Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel, the last two UCLA coaches, were a combined 1-8 against USC, a big reason why they are ex-UCLA coaches.

USC has won 13 of the last 14 games in the series, including a 50-0 rout in 2011.

“When I played at Washington, our rivals were Washington State and Oregon,” Mora said. “They were [hundreds of] miles apart, not 12 miles away. It is so unique to have such a division in a city like we’ve got here.”

Mora was the first coach hired by UCLA who did not previously coach or play for the Bruins since Red Sanders in 1949. He has tried to tap-dance around the USC issue since his arrival in Westwood.

Last spring, Mora said he would concern himself with USC when game week arrived. Yet, the rivalry affected him. When Mora was packing to move to Los Angeles after being hired, he noticed he had not included any red clothing.

Every day is a competition between UCLA and USC, even if the coaches are not directly involved. It’s a game played 365 days a year . . . 366 in a leap year.

USC Coach Lane Kiffin understands that.

“Any time you have a rivalry game where schools are this close, it’s obviously a big deal what’s going on over there because you’re dealing with recruiting and recruiting the same kids in the same areas because we’re so close,” Kiffin said.

“Obviously, there’s an in-season with the game and there’s a lot of battles in the off-season over the years in recruiting.”

Kiffin’s advice to Mora?

“He doesn’t need my advice,” Kiffin said, chuckling. “They’re ranked ahead of us.”

Mora thought he knew the rivalry. His father, Jim Mora, was an assistant at UCLA in 1974 under Dick Vermeil.

“I was on the sidelines, seeing all the pageantry,” said Mora, who was 13 at the time. “It was special.”

Not all that special to UCLA fans. USC won, 34-9

“Coming back, living in L.A., I’ve learned the significance of this game to so many people,” Mora said.

Whether intentional or not, Mora has picked at USC since being hired. Always there is plausible deniability.

He has often referred to the Trojans as “Southern Cal,” a moniker that USC officials loathe. Mora said that his mother attended USC and “Southern Cal” was used in their house.

“That caught me off guard,” Mora said. “I’ll use the term USC or ‘SC or Southern Cal, however it comes out of my mouth.”

In August, Mora said in a radio interview that, when recruiting, part of his pitch was safety. “We don’t have murders a block from our campus,” Mora said.

Two USC graduate students had been shot near campus last spring. There was a whirlwind of outrage from USC fans and equally passionate defense from UCLA fans.

Mora said he didn’t know about the killings and apologized.

USC fans probably have not forgiven.

“I really tried not to think about this game all season,” Mora said. “I’ve tried to keep to the game that was in front us.”

Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.