It has been more than 24 hours since UCLA announced the firing of head coach Jim Mora. Since the timing of the firing, with one week left in the regular season, caught many by surprise, it is a good time to take a step back and look at the situation from a sort of aerial view.
UCLA Football; The Day After
The Book On Mora
No one doubts Mora’s efforts with UCLA. Anyone who has watched practices, interviewed him, or talked with him in any capacity, knows he never dialed it in. He worked hard and believed in what he was doing every step of the way. That includes making dramatic staff overhauls nearly every year. At Pac 12 Media Days in July, he owned that last year’s offensive scheme was poor and the players were not ready for it. He did not blame assistants or anyone else on the offensive staff that he had fired. He said it was up to him to get coaches that could execute his vision.
Mora tended to be snarky with the media. He battled even within himself, what their role was in covering UCLA and how much access they needed or should have. That does not make him any different than many coaches across the country. But it was a drastic change from his predecessor, Rick Neuheisel, who treated the local reporters like allies in his public relations traveling caravan.
Historically, the traditional sports media in LA that covers UCLA has been passive, to put it mildly. This is a media town that focuses on the Lakers, Clippers, Kings, Dodgers and USC. If there is room left after the local high school football coverage, you get your column inches for UCLA. Local television sports is confined to five minutes per newscast to cover all there is, and so in-depth is something that does not make the cut.
Neuheisel embraced the dawning of the digital age. It meant entire sites and staffs dedicated to covering him, and his caravan. Mora would, from time to time, bristle that it meant more people with more access and more questions to answer. The Pac 12 is still growing in its ability to know how to use digital media outlets, so Mora was not alone. He did, however, grow to “use” a couple of sites to get information out that would favor his agenda with the school and athletic administration.
His tenacity had changed in the last year however. He went through a divorce last season. He suffered through a 4-8 season and the first winds carrying the howls for his job. His inner-program relationships were changing, and usually not for the better. He did not display the same “certainty” at Pac 12 Media Days that he had shown previously. That appeared to carry into the season as well. Having watched the replay of the USC game over and over in the span of 24 hours, one thing seems evident, if only in the rear-view mirror. He was not the same fiery Mora who has been known to go on the field to verbally accost Pac 12 refs. He was much more placid than was his norm over the years. People have been reading into that assumptions that we can never know, but it was an obvious moment in hindsight.
The Players Have Their Say
There are issues, internally, as to how UCLA handled the firing with the football players. A message went out to each of them with only 40 minutes notice of a team meeting. Since Sunday morning is generally off time for the team, many were not on campus. Some were with their parents. Some never made it back in time for the meeting where the team was told that Mora had been fired. Mora is believed to have called several of them directly, later in the day.
Bruin players took to social media Sunday to give their appreciation to Mora. This was not to be mistaken for a mass defiance in the wake of the firing. About two dozen players used social media for words of appreciation for Mora.
Freshman defensive end Jaelan Phillips:
“Coach Mora had more passion for the game of football than anyone I’ve ever seen, and he poured his life into it. I will forever be grateful to him for believing in me early, and giving me the opportunity to play here at UCLA. I wish you the best coach.”
Redshirt freshman tight end Caleb Wilson:
“Thankful for Coach Mora. Blessed me with a scholarship when no other head coach in the country would. Gave me the opportunity to show the country what I had.”
Perhaps no player took more time in expressing his feelings about Mora than wide receiver Jordan Lasley. He took an entire Instagram page to express his feelings, a portion of which is below:
“I can’t believe they did you like this. You were far more than my coach…….” “You became my family when you sat in my grandmother’s home eating her pastries and drinking coffee, and you told her that you would make sure that I would graduate with a degree towards my desired profession……” “I just want you to know that I only ever wanted to give 1,000% of me when it came to playing for you. I’ve always understood the pressure you’re under. I gave you my all because I felt like I owed it to you.”
Lasley’s words are perhaps made more compelling by the fact that Mora suspended him for three games for disciplinary reasons this season. Lasley came back to have a huge game against Arizona State two weeks ago and then the game of a lifetime against USC Saturday.
Interim head coach Jedd Fisch held his first practice Monday morning. UCLA has the regular season finale at home against Cal on Friday night. Both teams are 5-6 overall and trying to get to bowl eligibility, even with losing conference records. Fisch said, “Anybody would like to be the head football coach at an extremely prominent university.” But he said his mind is, “100% on trying to trying to get our seniors to 6-0 (at home) and to leave Coach Mora’s legacy and one that he was able to get five out of his six teams to bowl games.”
It is not clear whether the Cal game, and a potential bowl game, would be rehearsals for Fisch for the committee selecting the new head coach.
What is known is that contact was made right away with David Dunn, the agent for Chip Kelly. Dunn is a UCLA alum as are two partners at the Athletes First agency. Kelly had a meeting at his New Hampshire home with representatives from the Florida Gators Sunday. Dunn met with the UCLA group. Kelly is believed to be meeting with UCLA on Monday. He has had at least three interactions with the Florida already as the Gators fired Jim McElwain in late October.
A local media report also says there is interest in Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin. Many names and rumors will surface. UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero interviewed Sumlin for the job the last time it was open. He admittedly walked away unimpressed, and hired Mora instead.
There is no recent history of UCLA interviewing, and then landing the “big name” football coaches. The budget for this unknown. Influential booster Casey Wasserman, and some former players, have stepped up more than in past efforts to secure money for the Mora buyout and/or the new coach. The direction of the search is undefined, at least publicly.
What is defined is that big money programs like Florida, Tennessee and probably Nebraska are on the list of programs that are or will be, looking for head coaches. With the new NLI signing period in December, the firing of coaches before the season ends has gone from unthinkable to the norm. The calendar is compressed and moves get made accordingly. There is a lot of competition for coaches and not a lot of time before the recruiting trail comes full circle. UCLA is going to have to act in a way that historically is very un-UCLA.