Mora has his team playing with passion and enthusiasm
The UCLA football program had been an irrelevant entity for upwards of a decade.
Clearly accentuating mediocrity and disappointment, the program was a lifeless organism that displayed little in the way of excitement, or even optimism. Essentially, UCLA football had been held captive in the doldrums of pedestrianism.
Enter current head coach Jim Mora. He has effectively transformed UCLA into a legitimate football program.
Mora was coincidentally not even UCLA's first choice to take over for previous head man Rick Neuheisel. That title ultimately went to Boise State head coach Chris Petersen. There were even rumors that former UCLA greats Troy Aikman and Cade McNown were part of a pitch team trying to entice Petersen to come to Westwood.
When it was made clear that Petersen wouldn't leave Boise State, Mora, with his 25 years of NFL experience, was appointed head coach.
Both the fanbase and media had mixed reviews on Mora. His coaching lineage was impressive—as was his overall experience as a head coach. However, cynics were troubled by the fact that Mora had never coached on the collegiate level. In addition, there were some worries about how Mora's fiery and intense personality might not exactly mesh with UCLA's traditional athletic department.
Throughout the recent history of the program, there has been a habitual notion to hire a coach that has some tie to the university. Both Neuheisel and Karl Dorrell were former players at UCLA and played under famed head coach Terry Donahue.
In order to truly complete a "culture change," the Bruins had to go outside the UCLA realm and get someone that had no true connection to the institution. In that sense, credit is due to Athletic Director Dan Guerrero for making the hire in the first place.
Perhaps Mora's biggest task was changing around the perception about the program—both externally and, more importantly, internally.
The UCLA Football program has been stigmatized throughout the nation as being "soft"—from both mental and physical standpoints. Discipline within the program had been grossly lacking, and there was seemingly no seriousness about fielding a team that could win consistently.
In addition, accountability did not seem to be a prerequisite in order to be a member of the team. It was almost accepted that a 6-7 win season would be "okay" in the eyes of the athletic department. Steps needed to be taken in order to mold UCLA into a competitive football program both nationally and in the conference.
Spearheaded by Mora, steps were taken in order to make those things listed above happen. As the fulcrum for change, the former Seattle Seahawks coach put his proverbial stamp on the program immediately.
The four cornerstones of Mora's tenure aptly categorize what he's accomplished thus far: toughness, energy, accountability and discipline. These four sentiments have been preached throughout the program since the day Mora took over.
If existing members of the team weren't willing to live up to those expectations, it meant that they were sent packing. Within a month of Mora being on the job, he unceremoniously kicked three players off the team for violations of team rules. This was undoubtedly done in order to send a message to the rest of the team.
Perhaps best illustrating the lack of seriousness about the football program in years past was the "over-the-wall" tradition. In essence, this "tradition" (dating back to 1980) involves the team ditching practice by literally running off the field.
To be frank, no self-respecting football program subscribes to such a doctrine. A winning culture is something that needed to be implemented, and this example of defiance surely wasn't going to help in that regard. Mora was almost incredulous when he learned of this tradition and effectively eradicated it completely.
Showing his shrewdness, Mora compiled a staff that was perfect for the Pac-12. Not only did he load up on young, talented recruiters, but every single member of the staff (save for defensive coordinator Lou Spanos) had some sort of connection to either the state of California or the Pac-12 conference. But more than anything, each member of the staff was a "teacher" of the game of football.
Is UCLA on the way to national prominence?
Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm is regarded as one of the top recruiters in the nation. Defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin, wide receivers coach Eric Yarber and running backs coach Steve Broussard all have extensive recruiting ties throughout southern California.
Defensive coordinator Lou Spanos was a pupil under famed defensive mind Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh—bringing with him a cornucopia of football knowledge. Tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo was a former star at the University of Washington and brought with him recruiting ties to both the Pacific Northwest and the state of Hawaii. Also, linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich is considered to be one of the most popular—and intense—coaches on the staff.
Perhaps Mora's top two hires were offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi.
Mazzone is regarded as an offensive genius. He took a stale and stagnant offense from a year ago and turned it into a juggernaut this season. Alosi completely transformed a roster that was doughy and soft and turned it into one that was conditioned properly. It also marked the first time that UCLA had a conditioning coach solely for football.
The fall camp trip to San Bernardino was done for a multitude of reasons. For one thing, Mora attempted to take the team out of a comfortable situation and into one that presented the challenges of extreme heat and relative boredom.
In addition, Mora was trying to bring a sense of camaraderie within the team. San Bernardino doesn't present much in terms of entertainment or activity, so it naturally forced the players to spend time with each other. This was designed in part to create a collective, cohesive unit as opposed to a group of individuals trying to "get theirs."
Yes, UCLA went 9-4 this season, and competed very admirably in the Pac-12 Championship game against Stanford. The Bruins finished 20th nationally in total offense, and tailback Johnathan Franklin was second in the conference with 1,700 yards. Redshirt freshman Brett Hundley took full command of the offense and has the look of a potential Heisman Trophy candidate in upcoming years.
Anthony Barr—after switching to outside linebacker from the F-back position—led the conference in sacks with 13.5 on the season.
UCLA also defeated its crosstown rival Southern Cal for the first time since 2006. It marked only the second time in 14 years that the Bruins were able to master such a feat.
All of those things are noteworthy achievements. The Bruins were Pac-12 South Division champions and won the division outright. Both the offense and defense took major strides from a year ago, and this young team has the potential to be special in the future.
Just last year, the Bruins were a 6-8 squad with a fractured psyche. Fast-forward a season, and optimism is as high as it's been in over a decade.
Who deserves the credit for such a monumental turnaround?
It all rests with Mora.
From the day he took over as head coach, he's implemented various aspects that ultimately proved beneficial for his football team. These calculated measures varied from staff hirings, disciplinary measures, creating a buzz around the program and ultimately changing the culture completely.
Make no mistake about it, the culture has been changed. Discipline resonates throughout the program, and there's no question about the amount of respect the team has for Mora. He loves his players and would go to bat for them in a second.
The talent has always been there, but it's the processes that have been sorely lacking. This plan put into place perfectly married the existing talent of the program with the emotional support and football knowledge of the staff.
As a result, there's endless and unbridled optimism surrounding UCLA football at this point. Recent overtures by Auburn and Tennessee were rebuffed by Mora. He's committed to this program being the best that it can be.
The scary thing for Pac-12 opponents is that this is just the tip of the iceberg for the program under Mora. He is beginning to build depth for his team via recruiting; the conditioning program under Alosi will continue to make his players bigger, faster and stronger; and the appeal of the program's brand is rising in the eyes of recruits not just in California, but across the nation as well.
The trajectory of this program under Mora is sky high, and it doesn't seem as if it's coming back down to Earth anytime soon.