When the Pac-12's annual football media day kicked off in late July at Universal Studios, CA, media members were given the final results of the preseason Pac-12 media poll.
USC received 117 of the 123 first-place votes as the winner of the Pac-12 South and also received the most votes (103) as Pac-12 Champions.
USC was destined for the Pac-12 Championship, according to 117 Pac-12 media members. But two voters cast their votes for UCLA as the winner of the Pac-12 South.
Whoever they are, let us all applaud them. Who knew?
What happened at UCLA this year wasn't a miracle. It simply showcases how a fledgling program can overcome mediocrity with the right coach. And Jim L. Mora is that right coach.
Mora was met with some skepticism from long-time Bruin fans. The message boards were rife with dissertations on why he wasn't the right hire. His resume includes one year as a graduate assistant coach at Washington and four years as an NFL head coach—all ending in dismissals—at Atlanta and Seattle.
In a remarkable sense of irony, Mora was dismissed as the Seattle Seahawks' head coach in January 2010 and replaced by former USC head coach Pete Carroll.
Mora also had a reputation of being surly and curt with the media. While Mora did have an incident where he reportedly kicked out the media and his own Sports Information Director from a Bruins' practice this past September, he also has shown remarkable restraint.
This past week Mora was badgered by LA Times columnist T.J. Simers in a press conference, and Mora not only held his own, but gained a lot of respect from his former critics. The entire video is below, but to get a taste of how Mora handled a reporter with a clear agenda, watch up until the 6:00 mark.
That's Coach of the Year stuff right there.
So is this: going 9-3, beating both Nebraska and USC and earning a berth in the Pac-12 Championship game.
Under most circumstances, a team making a conference championship game doesn't automatically warrant serious COY consideration for its coach. Last year UCLA played in the Pac-12 Championship but only because the USC Trojans—who had the best record in the South—were not eligible for postseason play.
There was no backing in to the Pac-12 Championship this year. That the Bruins are the undisputed South champs shouldn't really surprise us, but it still does because there's always been something missing in UCLA football.
UCLA has always had talent. Former head coach Rick Neuheisel recruited very well, including signing redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley. What was missing from UCLA was intensity, physicality and proper execution of assignments.
In both of UCLA's 2012 spring and fall practices, the gauntlet had been laid down by first-year coach Mora and his staff. There would be no more skipping one practice a year, a UCLA football tradition that Neuheisel had condoned. It's a strange tradition because teams are limited by the NCAA in the number of practices they can hold, and if a team misses a practice, it can have dire consequences later on in the season—as a matter of point, UCLA went 6-8 in Neuheisel's final year at UCLA.
Skipping a practice and jumping over a wall to get off the field is juvenile at best, but more than anything else, it speaks volumes about a coach's commitment to a football program's discipline. Think Nick Saban would allow that?
According to an ESPN report, Mora said "My general feeling is that if they want to skip out on practice and jump over a wall, then they might as well keep going because they are not a part of what I want to be a part of."
Mora's no-nonsense approach was seen in practices. I watched as his players were gasping for breath doing sideline-to-sideline sprints. I'll be honest, I had never seen intense conditioning drills at UCLA during the Neuheisel era. Never.
What Mora did was get them in shape. What Mora also did was out-coach crosstown rival coach Lane Kiffin two weeks ago. Last year UCLA was spanked 50-0 by Kiffin's USC Trojans. This year, UCLA won convincingly in a 38-28 victory.
Perhaps it's time for the "gutty little Bruins" to drop the "gutty little." Just like they dropped the "over the wall."
This Friday, the UCLA Bruins play the Stanford Cardinal for the right to go to the Rose Bowl. The odds of the Bruins beating Stanford again this Friday—UCLA lost 35-17 to Stanford this last Saturday—are fairly low.
Then again, only two media members thought UCLA would win the Pac-12 South this past July.
UCLA, under Jim Mora, has already defied the odds, and that's why Mora should be getting a lot of consideration for Coach of the Year.
Last year, the UCLA Bruins played Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and lost 20-14. This year the Bruins are playing for a possible Rose Bowl or Alamo Bowl berth. The last time UCLA was in a position to go to the Rose Bowl was in 1997.
What a difference a year makes.
What a difference a coach makes.