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UCLA Football and The End of The Jim Mora Revolution

After 5 years, UCLA football is back to where it started.

Arizona v UCLA Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
  1. There was an odd feeling among the folks at the Rose Bowl Saturday. For the past four years, the Crosstown Rivalry has been a bitter struggle, usually between two good teams and that led to animosity between the two groups of fans who filled the Rose Bowl and the Coliseum. Emotions ran high with UCLA fans unleashing payback for slights suffered during the Carroll era while USC fans coped with lesser coaches turning what had been a yearly celebration into a competitive matchup that they had grown unfamiliar with.

On second thought, odd might be the wrong word to describe the atmosphere at the Rose Bowl. The better way, unfortunately, would be to call it a return to status quo.

2. I know that we have a lot of older fans who read this site who have memories of UCLA under Red Sanders, Tommy Prothro, Dick Vermeil and Terry Donahue. I myself came in at the tail end of the Donahue era. But all the past success does not remove the fact that for the past 16 years, UCLA has lived in the shadow of their LA rivals. Where USC was competing for national championships, UCLA was competing just to return to respectability.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but it's an important fact to note.

3. In professional wrestling, the best grievances a heel (the bad guy) can possess tend to be tinged with a hint of truth. In this case, the statement of the heels, aka USC fans (and I say this because this is a UCLA fan site and so we are obviously the good guys in this scenario) that UCLA is a basketball school does have a ring of truth to it. Yes, UCLA has had success in football in the past and one day will have success in the future, but basketball reigns supreme. After all, I doubt you will see banners being flown around Westwood calling for Mora’s job.

Of course, UCLA has played with the idea of being a football school. The soon-to-open Wasserman Football Center stands as a physical manifestation of UCLA’s attempts to capitalize on the football boom. And the contract of one Jim L. Mora stands as an example that athletic director Dan Guerrero knows that he is supposed to pay big money for a football coach, but doesn't have a grasp on the why part yet.

But basketball is also getting a facility. And then you have to consider the situations regarding the firings of head coaches in basketball and football under Dan Guerrero: in basketball, Ben Howland was fired after a PAC 12-winning season because it wasn't up to previous standards; in football, coaches were fired because they couldn't win period. There’s a pressure to win big that exists in UCLA basketball and is nowhere to be found among the football program.

4. Before I go any further, I guess I should disabuse you of the notion that this article is about the game UCLA just played. It is not. After the first quarter, UCLA managed 3 quarters of uncompetitive play and lost by 22 only because USC called off the dogs at the start of the fourth. Both sides of the ball got outcoached by the USC coaching staff, which should be a chilling fact to any UCLA fan who made light of Clay Helton’s continued employment. Also, Clay Helton is now 2-0 against the Bruins, just to rub salt in that wound.

The most notable fact of that game, to me, occurred at the 10:40 mark in the 4th quarter. At that point, UCLA fans, having seen enough, walked out of the stadium in droves. The score was 33-14 at the time, and UCLA had the ball in USC territory, facing a 4th and 5, but those Bruin fans had seen enough of the team to know what was going to happen.

And so, coming out of a TV timeout, UCLA ran a 3 yard drag route on 4th and 5, and turned the ball over on downs in front of a fraction of the 71,137 announced attendance. The last gasps of the rivalry game were barely witnessed.

5. There was also a fight in the stands, which has become an unfortunate tradition in the past few years and it was the most entertaining thing to happen in the second half.

6. In the aftermath of this game, the Bruins Nation Twitter account was hit up with the typical messages calling for patience in the coaching staff, calling the year an aberration, and self-assured in the fact that the ship would be righted as long as the course was maintained. In a way, I understand where these people are coming from. For them, they have to believe that things will get better because a continuation of the poor showing of this year would mean, for the third time in a row, UCLA had made a poor coaching hire. This one is even more devastating because early returns had looked so good and UCLA tried to overcome years of ineptitude.

The problem with these arguments is that they lack context. Often the argument becomes something along the lines of “"John Wooden would have been fired for his early record here” or “"Bill Snyder would have been run off long ago”, and these statements miss the fact that, with the large amount of money invested in college football, the game has become more results-oriented. There's a reason Kansas State fans are currently wondering how they’ll transition away from Bill Snyder and why longtime coaches like Frank Beamer, Mack Brown, Steve Spurrier, and others are now out of the profession: they stopped getting positive results to keep them employed.

Now, I will readily admit that I like Jim Mora as a person. For all his flaws as a coach, it's hard to deny that he has done his best to drag UCLA football kicking and screaming into the 21st century. After all, that football facility would never have been built without pressure from Mora, especially considering the last facility upgrade undertaken by the athletic department cost $140 million and succeeded in wrapping Pauley Pavilion in glass. Under Mora, UCLA finally got a dedicated training staff for the football team, increased services available to the team, increased salaries for the coaching staff, and generally started acting like a program that belonged in the national conversation. Recruiting has been steadily good under Mora, with an average class ranking that would put the Bruins among the 13 most talent-rich teams in the nation. From the outside, it would look like UCLA was ready to make the leap and take football seriously.

Which is why the failings of UCLA football under Jim Mora have been so hard to process.

Joe has done a fantastic job this season laying out the case for why Jim Mora should be let go, including his magnum opus right here. You can go read that now because I don't feel like retyping what he’s already written. Don't worry, though, I'll wait for you.

Back? Ok, good.

At the end of the day, football is a results-oriented business and Jim Mora has failed miserably this season. In year 5 of his tenure, that should be enough to receive a pink slip.

7. I'd caution against believing that Jim Mora will be fired, however, if only because of the man doing the firings.

Dan Guerrero deserves a fair share of the blame for UCLA’s current predicament. I don't begrudge Jim Mora and his agent Jimmy Sexton in the slightest for recognizing a patsy when one presents himself and, in Dan Guerrero, they found themselves a perfect mark. Over the past 5 years, Jimmy Sexton has played Dan Guerrero like a fiddle, extracting bigger benefits each time using the same method:

  • Use successful season to ask for increases in benefits (extensions, assistant pay, more control)
  • At same time, begin to float rumors attaching Jim Mora to possible vacancies (the Chargers and Rams have always been popular choices).
  • Wait for AD to panic and offer a new contract.
  • Publically proclaim Jim Mora’s commitment to winning at UCLA.

Now, Sexton won’t be able to pull off the same move again, but that's ok because the damage has already been done. If you’re looking for the biggest reason Jim Mora won't be fired, it'd be the $15+ million dollar buyout handed down from a man who has no idea what buyouts are and how they work. Between the buyouts for Mora and Alford, Dan Guerrero is showing just how incompetent he is as an administrator.

And again, don't blame Mora (or Alford for that matter) for chasing that paper. It's their job to try and get the most for their services. It's Dan Guerrero’s job to adequately judge the proper value of those services.

8. The obvious question to ask going forward is “What comes next?”

Let’s operate under the base assumption that Jim Mora will still be the head coach of UCLA in 2017. The offensive coaching staff should see a complete overhaul, but questions exist on what the path forward will be. Does UCLA continue to try a pro-style offense with a more experienced coordinator, or do they go back to the more open spread concepts that they reverted to this year? Does Kennedy Polamalu stay on staff in a demoted role? What about Marques Tuiasosopo or Rip Scherer? And does Jim Mora have the coaching rolodex available to him to get quality replacements?

Questions exist defensively as well, but they exist on a more theoretical level. Tom Bradley seems to have gotten enough of the Penn State stench off of him that, combined with losing defensive playmakers Takkarist McKinley, Eddie Vanderdoes, Jayon Brown, Fabian Moreau, and others, might cause him to believe now is the best opportunity parlay that success into a head coaching job somewhere. Jim Mora has gone 2-1 in his defensive coordinator hires so far, but the record past the initial hiring when he first took the job have been shaky at best.

And even recruiting, which Mora has been able to fall back on, is struggling. UCLA looks poised to, once again, bring in an impressive defensive class, but once again the offensive side of the ball looks to have issues. Can a potential new staff solve those issues going forward?

I don't profess to know the answers to those questions at this exact moment, but they underline just how critical this offseason is to Jim Mora if he wants to prove this year was an aberration rather than part of a trend.

9. When the clock finally, mercifully struck 0:00, the celebration from the Trojan faithful was much less muted than it normally was. Perhaps this had something to do with the empty stadium, but I'm inclined to believe that up until the moment the game ended, USC fans could not bring themselves to believe that the Bruins were, in fact, as bad as their record would lead you to believe. Perhaps the 10th anniversary of 13-9 was enough to spook them, I'll never know.

What I do know is that the usual celebratory mood didn't exist in the way it had even a year before. I didn't receive nearly as many floating messages from my USC friends; instead, there just questions: “"How did this happen?” and “"Do you think anything changes after this?”

I wish I had answers for them. Both UCLA and USC fans will tell you the Crosstown Rivalry is more fun when both teams are competitive and so, for one side to drop the ball so spectacularly is baffling to the other. And all we as fans are stuck with is hope that things can get better.