Three of the four coaching openings in the Pac-12 have now been filled, with the announcement that UCLA has hired Jim Mora Jr. to replace Rick Neuheisel.
Mora, who was also in the running to replace Dennis Erickson at Arizona St., received a 5 year, $12 million deal from the Bruins, not to mention something less than love from some of the local media.
The biggest valid* reasons for reservations about Mora, 50, are his sub-.500 career coaching record, 32-34 in 3 years as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons and one at the helm of the Seattle Seahawks, and his lack of experience at the college level. Other than one year as a graduate assistant to Don James at Washington, his alma mater, all of Mora's other 21 years of coaching were as an assistant in the NFL.
Which can be significant, especially given the crucial element of recruiting at the college level has no real equivalent in the pro game, and Mora has described recruiting as a "necessary evil", not something he "enjoys".
And upgrading the talent level at UCLA is going to be an absolute necessity if lofty expectations in and around Westwood are going to be met in the face of the escalating level of competition in the Pac-12, after Arizona filled their opening by bringing in Rich Rodriguez, and Washington St. landed "pirate" Mike Leach, both of whom have the ability to roll out scoring machines that could eclipse even what Oregon has been able to do.
* delusional notions that UCLA actually could have attracted high profile coaches already employed at BCS-automatic qualifier and certain other top-10 programs and the idea that the Bruins are otherwise ready to make a run at the Rose Bowl every year are not grounds to dismiss a coach with Mora's experience.
The hire qualifies as a good one for UCLA on grounds other than the fact that no one else with any experience at a high level actually wanted the job.
Mora is a west-coast guy, and stayed in Seattle after being the odd-man out between the Mike Holmgren and Pete Carroll eras with the Seahawks. He's spent enough time in the area, not to mention being a candidate for the Washington job when Steve Sarkisian was hired, to have a better grasp of the situation at UCLA, as well as up and down the conference, than most folks in most of the country do. At the same time, he has seen things from the point of view from elsewhere. He can bring in fresh thinking without falling victim to not recognizing current local reality.
"As someone who has been around the game of football my entire life, I have always held the UCLA job in the highest esteem," Mora said. "Given its location and its tradition, UCLA is truly a sleeping giant, and I realize that an opportunity of this magnitude doesn't present itself more than once in a career, so I jumped at the chance to be a Bruin."
Despite a reputation for not being the most media savvy person, the reality is that he does have experience in the media, and he brings a host of experience at a whole different level, the NFL. Despite what many in the big business of NCAA football would like to believe, even in the LA market, the NFL is on a whole different level, and every local detail is a national story. Mora will do just fine with the size of the stage.
In order to compete in LA, against a USC program that despite scholarship limitations and the wishes of others across the conference, isn't going away, and across the conference, and the diversity of challenges it can pose, UCLA will need someone who can put a system in place, and that means putting a program in place that can put that system in place.
One of the key elements in Neuheisel's disappointing performance (getting the Bruins into the conference championship game and a bowl game with what he had to work with isn't exactly a failure, just not a resounding success) was his inability to get a staff together and get results from them, despite some high profile assistants like Norm Chow.
Mora will bring a renewed emphasis on defense, and a more stable approach to running the program. It probably won't produce a BCS bowl in his first year, which will doubtless further infuriate a frustrated Bruin N/nation, but it should make UCLA a tougher stop on the schedule in the long run.
The fact that he brings an approach and background significantly different than the other new hires so far, and the cultures of the existing programs in the conference, will force everyone else to "up their game", if for no other reason than a different set of variables will need to be considered.
And he won't be deluded into thinking inferior facilities and a lack of proper support from the University as a whole aren't that big of a problem, or be unable to communicate that message back to the administration.
Whether the rest of the institution and its community can deal with that reality will have far more to do with whether Mora succeeds of not than what he does on the practice field or on game day.