Alabama plays Louisiana State in the BCS Championship game on Monday. It's a rematch of a game these two schools (featuring two very cool SBN blogs And The Valley Shook and Roll 'Bama Roll) played earlier in the year, a 9-6 overtime win for LSU on November 5, 2011.
I remember exactly where I was when LSU's Drew Alleman kicked a 25-yard field goal to give the Tigers the win: I was sitting in my car, in traffic, attempting to navigate through sand traps outside the Rose Bowl after our 29-28 win over Arizona State.
That was a weird game, weirder now even, the view skewed by the events of the past month, month and a half. The game was a billed as a battle for the Pac 12 South, the winner would control their destiny on the way to the conference's first title game. We took the lead with less than a minute to go on a short touchdown run by Derrick Coleman. Then Brock Osweiler led the Sun Devils right into field goal range (aided by a very questionable pass interference penalty), only to see ASU's kicker miss for the second time in the fourth quarter. You know the rest of the story, though we controlled our own destiny, needing just to win out to get to the conference title game, we instead struggled down the stretch, getting blown out by both Utah and USC as we backed into the playoff game where we lost to Oregon. Interestingly, Noel Mazzone, who called plays for ASU as their offensive coordinator that day is now UCLA's OC/QB coach.
Now it's almost two months later and while what might have been the inevitable rematch between the country's two best teams is scheduled for Monday, Monday also marks the real beginning of the Jim Mora era at UCLA.
Sure, Mora has been on the job for a while by now, hiring staff and doing the recruiting thing, but he kept the existing team at arm's length, allowing Interim Head Coach Mike Johnson and company to run things through the bowl game. With classes starting next week, the players returning to campus are now Mora's responsibility.
With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to go back to a post I wrote (I think it's important to note that while the post run under my byline, it was a joint effort by Bruins Nation's front page bloggers; the ideas expressed where shaped and shared by the whole group) outlining the criteria we felt were necessary for our next head coach. To put it in context, the post was written just after the Thursday night blowout loss to Arizona. (As an aside, someone with better research skills than me should go back and see what UCLA's record on ESPN/ABC has been the last few years in football and men's basketball. I don't have the results in front of me, but it feels like every time we get a national TV game, we get lit up.)
UCLA's Next Head Coach Should Have No Prior Ties to UCLA Football
I'm going to check this one off in Mora's favor. Yes, he had a prior relationship with Terry Donahue when the latter was in the San Francisco 49ers' front office and the former was the defensive coordinator. And, yes, Mora's dad was an assistant coach at UCLA in the 1970s (which means our new head coach spent a season as a child running around the UCLA locker room trying on helmets and shoulder pads). But in the sense we conceived this criteria, we meant we wanted a coach who formed his coaching ideas, methods, strategies and approach wholly removed from UCLA. We wanted someone who would bring a new way of doing things, who would have a different approach than the status quo. In that sense, Mora fits the bill. He's been a career NFL coach and whatever relationship he had with Donahue when both were in the Bay Area was insignificant in that regard.
UCLA's Next Head Coach Must Have Total Control of the Football Program
It remains to be seen. To this point, it looks pretty good. To my - to our - knowledge no one has tried to force any of the current coaching staff on Mora and it looks as if he's going doing things his way. But, it's too early too tell if he's got complete control or if he'll run into any road blocks along the way as he puts his stamp on the program. So, while I can't say this criterion has been completely met, I think it's fair to say "so far, so good" and we'll see what happens.
UCLA's Next Head Coach Must Either Have Prior Head Coaching Experience or Must Be a Well-Regarded Coordinator
Mora has head coaching experience. I do feel that when we came up with these criteria we were thinking college head coaching experience. Mora has also been a play caller as a defensive coordinator, again in the pros. So, I'll consider this criterion mostly met, though not as well as it would have been met had we hired someone with more college experience.
This pro vs. college experience thing is arguably the biggest question mark on Mora's resume. NFL coaches not named Pete Carroll have by and large not been successful in the college ranks. The games are very different. The time you get to spend with your players is drastically reduced. The ancillary skills (dealing with academics, parents, recruiting, younger players) are different. I would go as far as to say that if Mora is able to pick the lock on making the adjustment to the college game, he's at least halfway to achieving the type of success we are all hoping for.
UCLA's Next Head Coach Must Be An Enthusiastic Recruiter How Believes In What UCLA Stands for As a University
We just don't know the answer to this yet. So far, he's said all the right things and he's jumped right into the recruiting waters. He's hired some assistant coaches with reputations as top recruiters. But we might not have a complete answer here for another year, when he and his staff really have a recruiting class all its own. So far, so good - but we just don't know.
Then there were some criteria that I framed as "nice to haves" as opposed to "must haves." Such as:
It Would be Nice to Have an Up and Comer, Not a Retread (Though Some Coaches Rise Above Either Criteria)
Chris Petersen would have been a coach who rose above this criterion. I'm not sure if Jim Mora does. He's definitely not an up and comer, unless you consider him being new to the college game as up and coming. I don't. Is he a retread? Sort of, I suppose. But, in the sense that some hot coordinator or mid major head coach is an up and comer, Mora isn't. I'd have to say he doesn't meet this criterion.
UCLA's Next Head Coach Should Be Mediagenic; It's Still L.A. After All
Mora is fine in this regard. If anything, his NFL experience helps out here. He's not Rick Neuheisel in terms of his effusive personality, but he's fine in front of the camera. The fact that he insists on calling USC "Southern Cal" gives him extra credit here. And finally ...
UCLA's Next Head Coach Should Call Plays on One Side of the Ball or the Other
I referred to this last criterion as "the most controversial and the easiest to disregard." The point I was trying to make is that I didn't want to pay a coach 3 million bucks to recruit and give the pregame pep talk. I wanted someone with an identity on one side of the ball or the other and I wanted someone whose input and style would define the offense or the defense. It doesn't really matter if the defensive coordinator actually "calls the plays;" what matters is that Mora is a defensive coach whose philosophy will define the way we play. As it stands, we have the only defensive-minded coach in the conference and the first defensive-minded head coach in the conference since Pete Carroll.
Mora clearly meets this criterion. More importantly, the hope is that we establish ourselves as a defensive-minded team. I've been following UCLA football closely since Dick Vermeil was head coach and I don't think we've ever had a defense first mentality. We've had some good defenses and some good defensive players, but were never known as a team that prioritized the defense.
So during the heat of the hiring process I along with others listed serious reservations about Coach Mora. The reservations we shared on BN were based on his record at previous jobs. They are well documented here. Despite those reservations, I have been encouraged by his initial moves at paper. Plus, at least on paper (or on the web?) he seems to be someone who fits some of the criteria previously laid out on BN.
In some odd way, I'm excited by the possibilities here. UCLA has always struggled to recruit the top defensive linemen, maybe that will change now that we have a defense-oriented coach. Don't misunderstand, I like touchdowns and razzle dazzle plays as much as anyone. I actually miss Bob Toledo's creative offense and the thing that disappointed me most about the Rick Neuheisel era was how unimaginative our offense was under him.
Having Mora coaching the defense is going to change things. The defensive players are going to be getting a lot more face time with the head man, they are going to be scrutinized more closely, expected to execute fundamentals and scheme with greater attention to detail. This is a good thing. Our tackling has been poor, the cushion we give opposing receivers too great, our blitz packages predictable. Jim Mora has to learn a lot about coaching in college, but coordinating a defense is something he already understands. I'll even go as far as to predict that it will be easier for a coach with pro experience to implement his defense than it has historically been for a pro coach to install the West Coast Offense.
Now that I look at it, Mora meets most of the criteria we laid out back in October. Which doesn't mean he isn't without flaws. There is the aforementioned transition from pro to college to account for, then there is the fact that he hasn't coached in a few years.
Still, as we wind down the recruiting season then start gearing up for the long offseason, I'm pleasantly curious about what is going to happen. I can't say I'm tingling with excitement - we didn't land Chris Petersen or someone like him - but I feel we've definitely turned a corner at least as far as making a clean break from the Donahue-Toledo-Dorrell-Neuheisel era.
I made the point a few weeks ago that even in our worst seasons, we don't completely implode. We've never had zero or just one win, like maybe Cal and Stanford did, forcing them to make wholesale changes in culture and approach. To the contrary, no matter how badly we play, no matter how poorly we're coached, we still win four games. Chianti Dan has fired three coaches in his tenure - and each reached a bowl game in the year he was fired. This suggests to me that a good coach with a good staff is going to get to 8-9 wins just about every year and that at least once in a while things will come together with the right quarterback and supporting cast and we'll challenge for the conference and national titles. Even with the academic issues we create for ourselves, we still get enough talent to go to bowl games in our worst seasons, we just need the right guy to instill the qualities of the best teams: discipline, creativity, toughness, intelligence, passion.
Jim Mora hasn't shown us he's the right guy yet. But I feel it's within the realm of possibility that he might be that guy.
With that, here are your Pregame Guesses for the BCS Championship Game. (I think this is going to be the last Pregame Guesses of the season. I'll have to come up with something else for these posts until next year rolls around. Or I'll start doing hoops guesses, not sure.)
- Last time these two teams played, there were 15 total points scored. The over under for Monday's game is 41. Are you taking the over or the under (41)?
- Which team will win the turnover battle, which should be key in a defensive struggle?
- Alabama is favored by 4.5 points. Picking against the spread, do you like the Tide or the Tigers?
- Spread, shmead -- who is going to win the national title, Alabama or LSU?