Analyzing the Mora Era

Jan. 8 -- By many measures, the last 3 years have been one of the most successful stretches in UCLA football history...

I was a student (for five glorious years) in the middle of the bleakest 13-year stretch for UCLA football in history. My time at UCLA coincided perfectly with Karl Dorrell’s tenure as head coach, which means I was treated, first-hand, to football so mediocre that it almost achieved its own sort of dubious superlative (e.g. UCLA’s 6-3 win over Illinois in 2003 may have been the most mediocre game of all time). Then, when Dorrell and I were both ushered out of UCLA ignominiously following the 2007 season, I plunked down for tickets for three straight seasons of the out-and-out bad football of the Rick Neuheisel era. Realizing after Neuheisel’s second 4-8 campaign in three years that I could no longer justify paying money to scream invective at a football field for four hours every Saturday in the fall, Tracy was kind enough to offer me a paying job at BRO for Neuheisel’s final year, which was really perfect, since muttering curses in a press box is infinitely better for your voice than screaming them in the stands, and you get free sandwiches that are only occasionally sopping wet.

All that preamble to say: I know bad football, and for a period of about 13 years, bad football was the UCLA way. I bring this up not because I want everyone to have flashbacks of gunfire and napalm when they go to bed tonight, but because I think it’s critical to keep in mind how much has changed and how quickly that change has occurred.

We’re now three years into Jim Mora’s time at UCLA, and his effect on the program has been massive. UCLA has won more games in the three years under Mora than it had won in the previous five years of Rickarl Dorrheisel. Mora is actually off to the winningest three-year start of any head coach in UCLA history (Tommy Prothro was better, barely, by winning percentage), and, based strictly on total number of wins, this three-year stretch is the best in UCLA history. The last time, before Mora, that UCLA won at least nine games for three straight years was never. The last time, before Mora, that UCLA beat USC by double digits three straight years was 1953 to 1955 (which encompassed UCLA’s lone national championship season). The last time, before Mora, that UCLA had at least a 72.5% winning percentage over a three-year period was 1986 to 1988, otherwise known as the Aikman years.

So, by some very reasonable tokens, this stretch under Mora is comparable to some of the best periods in UCLA football history (McNown’s final two years, the mid '50s when UCLA was a legitimate national title contender, Tommy Prothro’s first three seasons, and Terry Donahue’s run with Aikman in the late '80s). Now, everyone, context is important here:

When McNown and company put together consecutive 10-win seasons and a 20-game winning streak, UCLA had the upper hand in Los Angeles, and was on the crest of what would become an 8-game winning streak over USC.

When UCLA went 25-3 from 1952 to 1954, the Bruins had one of the all-time greats in Red Sanders at head coach.

When UCLA had back-to-back ten-win seasons under Terry Donahue in ’87 and ’88, the Bruins had already put together a decade of prominence in the Pac-10, with conference titles in 1982, 1983, and 1985.

When Mora took over at UCLA, on the other hand, the Bruins had gone 81-80 over the previous 13 years with zero conference titles, one dubious South division title, and zero finishes above third place in the conference. UCLA had bottomed out about as far as a program with UCLA’s tradition and recruiting base could. It was to the point that Tracy Pierson wrote this open letter to Mora upon his arrival, while sitting in a dark room swilling bottle after bottle of Kentucky firewater. Let that letter marinate for a second, because it’s a pretty good (if tongue-in-cheek) description and portrayal of the UCLA fan mindset and attitude at the time.

Then, in quick succession after being hired, Mora put together a good coaching staff from both a recruiting and coaching perspective, secured a top-15 class after Neuheisel’s recruiting had basically become dead in the water, installed college-proven offensive and defensive schemes, and made the somewhat ballsy decision to start a redshirt freshman named Brett Hundley at quarterback for his first year over two seniors in Richard Brehaut and Kevin Prince. UCLA won nine regular season games, won the Pac-12 South, and nearly won the Pac-12 but for a brutal 27-24 loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

In UCLA history, the only coach who inherited a similar situation and had a similar immediate effect was Tommy Prothro, who took over for Billy Barnes after he went 10-20 in the previous three years and promptly went 41-18 from 1965 to 1970. And, heck, given the unprecedented strength of the Pac-12 in the three years that Mora has been at UCLA, there might not be a close analog at all.

That first year was clearly successful, and then Mora followed it up with a truly elite 2013 class, ranked No. 3 in the country, that has fueled the last two years. UCLA, riding a wave of talented freshmen from the 2013 class, followed up the 2012 season with consecutive 10-3 seasons, this most recent season culminating with the best bowl win for UCLA (over the No. 11 Kansas State Wildcats) since beating either No. 12 Arkansas in the 1989 Cotton Bowl or No. 9 Iowa in the 1985 Rose Bowl.

Now just take a moment. Breathe this in for a second. Four years ago at this time, we were all wondering if UCLA would ever again be just somewhere north of an outright embarrassment in football. Four years later, we’re all debating whether we’re completely disappointed or just somewhat disappointed after a 10-3 season that ended with a win over the No. 11 team in the country in the most prestigious bowl that UCLA has been involved in since 1999. If you’re experiencing neck pain, it’s because the velocity of that paradigm shift likely caused whiplash.

Of course, UCLA hasn’t won a conference title under Mora, and the 2014 Bruins would clearly and properly be filed under “playoff pretenders” in some noxious hypothetical ESPN article that nonetheless probably exists somewhere. Given the hype going into this year, and the way that UCLA eked out some wins and suffered some rough losses, there are some valid criticisms; we’re not denying that in any way, and we’ve provided plenty of them. Rising expectations, and the criticisms that come with them, are, in a way, a sign of the improving health of the UCLA program, and should probably be seen as such.

But after just three years that have involved building a new UCLA football culture, putting his stamp on the foundational aspects of the program with the promise of a legitimate football facility, recruiting at a very high level, and winning more games than anyone would have reasonably hoped four years ago, those criticisms should probably come with this unspoken caveat: Jim Mora rescued the UCLA football program from irrelevance and, for better or worse, has returned to UCLA fans the gift of great expectations.

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