Standing out in a city of 10 million can be difficult, especially when pitted against stiff competition. Anyone trying to make a name for himself or herself in Los Angeles can attest, and UCLA football is no different.
The Bruins are in the midst of a renaissance under second-year head coach Jim Mora. His team’s 41-21 rout of Nebraska in Week 3 sent a message that resonated throughout the college football world.
The steps for transmitting the same call amid the bustle of Los Angeles are simple. Following them isn’t, but UCLA is on the right path.
Los Angeles loves a winner. Whether it’s the price of Lakers tickets when the team is successful, or the shade of Dodger blue Yaisel Puig has painted the city, Angelenos’ embrace of winning teams is undeniable.
The same is true for college football. A common joke recited during the mid-to-late 2000s was that Los Angeles needed no NFL franchise—not with the success of USC. There was indeed truth to this notion; who needs the pros when there’s already elite football being played in the city?
Anyone who experienced the Coliseum on an autumn Saturday during the Pete Carroll era, particularly when Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Co. operated there, know the atmosphere Los Angeles football is capable of producing. It was indeed on par with that of the NFL.
At UCLA, the current architects come from such backgrounds.
“This is an excellent staff,” Mora said on Tuesday’s teleconference call. “Heck, there’s six Super Bowl rings on this staff. There’s men [who] know how to do it on the highest level and win on the highest level.”
Mora did not walk into a bare cupboard by any stretch of the imagination. Rick Neuheisel’s recruiting classes were consistently ranked among the conference’s best. But Mora and his staff tapped into how best to maximize the players’ potential.
“There was a level of trust,” Mora said. “The things we asked them to do paid dividends for them individually and as a team. When that happens, and they can trust you, they buy in. If you’re honest with them and don’t lie to them, they’re going to buy in.”
Last year’s nine wins and Pac-12 South championship were certainly a start, but taking that next step into the highest stratosphere of Los Angeles sports means winning at the highest level.
The Nebraska win was big. Consecutive road trips to Stanford and Oregon next month are blockbusters. Taking on the current standard bearers of the Pac-12 will measure just how ready UCLA is for the limelight.
And of course, the crosstown rivalry really needs no context to explain its importance. Last year’s 38-28 win over USC erased some of the bad memories of the losses of years past. Gone are the days of 50-0 blowouts and superfluous timeout fights.
“[Beating USC] means a lot: No. 1, to our kids, who are in [the locker room] celebrating right now. You can feel the emotion. No. 2, I think it means a lot to our university, our student body and our alumni,” Mora told reporters in his postgame press conference last November.
Both schools playing at high level works wonders for the series, and college football in the city as a whole. Neither is conceding an inch to the other to that end, but every great Hollywood tale needs a strong hero and villain—which will differ depending on with whom one speaks.
Los Angeles loves stars. The greatest of the great are immortalized with single-name status: Kobe. Magic. Fernando.
They have a long way to go to become simply "Barr" or "Brett," but linebacker Anthony Barr and quarterback Brett Hundley are among the best plying their trades in the college game this season.
Mora gushed over Barr’s playmaking ability Tuesday, one day after the outside linebacker was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week. Nebraska’s best efforts to avoid Barr’s side of the field resulted in a 10-tackle, two forced fumbles day.
“This guy is really, really, really special. He is something else,” Mora said. “He doesn’t take plays off.”
Hundley’s continued maturation into one of the most elite quarterbacks in the nation has earned him Heisman Trophy and NFL draft buzz. Mora emphasizes Hundley’s room for improvement—a terrifying thought for opposing defenses, because the redshirt sophomore is already one of the most difficult to defend, dual-threat quarterbacks playing.
Both stardom and success in Los Angeles can be fleeting, and the ultimate test to becoming a mainstay there is maintaining a high level. While only the future knows what is in store for UCLA football, Mora and his staff are still crafting the framework for a consistently winning program.
As good as the recruiting classes Mora inherited were, his two National Signing Days since taking over have raised the stakes. Rivals.com ranked the Bruins 2012 class No. 13 in the nation. The 2013 class was No. 8.
The next crop of stars are already wearing blue-and-gold, learning from the current leaders. It’s apparent in the play of true freshman Myles Jack, who emulates Barr. Asiantii Woulard should assume the offense from Hundley, and what better player for which to be an understudy?
What Mora is building at UCLA commands attention, and soon enough, not even the omnipresent buzz of Los Angeles can distract from it.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.
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