Jim Mora (USA Today)

Analysis: UCLA Head Coaching Job and Jim Mora

Nov. 23 -- There are plenty of very passionate opinions about the status of Jim Mora at UCLA. Here's a very inside perspective on the uniqueness of the UCLA head coaching position, and how Jim Mora figures in it...

There’s so much discussion about hiring head coaches at UCLA.

So, here is a ton of information for you all to consider when you’re ever contemplating UCLA hiring a new football or basketball coach. 

Coaching at UCLA is unique, and it’s not easy to find the right fit in a coach. 

It’s just not about whether the coach can coach. Of course, that’s a big part of it, but we’re going to assume that’s a given – that a coach would be on the list of candidates because there's a good indication he's a good coach.

But there are many unique factors at UCLA that should go into any coach hiring.

Here’s everything I’ve learned about why this is:

UCLA doesn’t have the finances to get an established Power 5, big-named coach. It not only doesn’t have the finances, but being a state school it’s constrained by the State of California.  So, even if it could afford to pay a head coach $6 million per year, it almost certainly couldn’t get it approved by the UC Board of Regents.  It’s probably the #1 constraint of UCLA athletics. You can’t cite other public schools like Michigan or North Carolina, because the UC system is completely different and unique, as is the budget for the state of California.  There are other facts and issues about UCLA, its relationship with the state of California, the UC Regents and its football coaching salaries, but that's another protracted discussion and one for people who know the subject better than I do.  Suffice it to say: It’s highly unlikely UCLA can pay $6 million per year for a head coach anytime soon. 

So, it’s a longshot you could make the financial fit at UCLA with coaches like Mark Dantonio or Gary Patterson. They both get paid quite a bit at their respective programs, which would translate to about $6 million/year with the upgrade to a Los Angeles standard of living and a raise. 

More than likely, when UCLA ever again looks for a football head coach, it’s going to find the lower P5 or mid-major up-and-comer.  So, when you are reconciled to that, there are so many other things to consider about coaching at UCLA. 

It’s pretty key that the coach is a good fit for Los Angeles, that he’s comfortable in Los Angeles, his family is comfortable in Los Angeles (this is what killed Chris Petersen coming to UCLA), and his assistant coaches and their families are comfortable.  It’s a pretty big shift in lifestyle from, say, Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Los Angeles. If a coach isn’t from L.A. or the west originally, or spent a good deal of time in the west, it’s culture shock, and many times it will be a drag on that coach when he’s at UCLA.  We’ve seen it with a few UCLA coaches – that the coach and his family just don’t acclimate well to L.A.  Think about how it would be if, say, you lose a few games, the fans get on your back, you’re getting some heat from donors and there’s some increased pressure to win, and every night you come home to your wife and your kids who don’t like being in Los Angeles. And you personally don’t like being in Los Angeles.  

Then, if you don’t have an experience dealing with UCLA, that will be a shock, and probably a vastly frustrating experience.  There’s the academics, with UCLA not making special academic favors for the football program, unlike most other elite programs at other schools – and probably unlike the program the coach just came from.  There’s the realization that you just can’t get as many recruits academically admitted like, say, USC.  Then there’s the UCLA culture that can be a little difficult to deal with.  Again, UCLA isn’t a place where the football program reigns supreme and gets everything it wants.  At UCLA, the football coach is going to be told no quite often.  There are coaches in the past who just conformed and settled. And then you could be a coach that will buck it, and try to change the UCLA culture, and you’ll probably end up more defeated and frustrated than you would feel successful.

And there’s the staff.  Being an assistant at UCLA is a unique experience.  Most assistants don’t live near campus, because of the real estate values.  And again, like with the head coach’s family, it will be a big adjustment for every assistant coach and his family if he’s not from the SoCal area.  Yeah, some might adjust, but the experience I’ve seen with UCLA assistant coaches and their families is that, if they’re not vastly successful (since winning tends to mask everything), it’s a constant wear on them while they’re at UCLA.  Sometimes, too, it’s about dealing with a different type of player at UCLA than, say, Michigan State, and a different set of problems that they might not actually have any experience in dealing with.  Put it all together, it’s why sometimes you get a sense that coaches at UCLA haven’t fully embraced UCLA, because, very simply, it’s not their style – and there can be some frustrating things about UCLA that lead to them resenting and not fully embracing it. 

So, as I said above, you have to find an up-and-comer head coach who also, somehow, would be a great candidate to navigate and overcome all of this.  The best fit is someone from Los Angeles, or at least from the west, and ideally someone remotely familiar with running a football program with a higher standard of academics. 

Then, consider there is a potential fit issue in terms of the coach’s temperament or baggage. It’s one reason why Mike Leach wasn’t ever seriously considered for UCLA football or Gregg Marshall for UCLA basketball.  I’m not saying this is the right thing to do; in fact, I think I’m more against how conservative UCLA is in its criteria for temperament and baggage, and it actually has been way off in their vetting in some cases in the past anyway.  I’m just pointing out that it’s absolutely a criteria that could preclude some seemingly qualified coaches from the job. 

Also falling under the "temperament" category is whether they have the big-city, major-media market chops.  There are plenty of good coaches out there in both basketball and football, but many just don't have the temperament to hold up under the L.A. spotlight.  Take long-time Gonzaga basketball coach Mark Few; it's always been a question, if he came to UCLA, would he and his staff, who are used to a small-town environment, be able to cope with the intense scrutiny they'd be under in Los Angeles and UCLA.  

And remember, if it’s a not-completely-proven up-and-comer, he’s probably a promising young coach that has had success at his present program.  But it’s a bit unknown if that will translate to P5 Pac-12 football.  So there’s some considerable risk, moreso than with a more proven coach, that he’ll even be successful at UCLA with his system and style.

And if you do find the right guy who is successful and can fit all or most these criteria, if he’s from somewhere else, say Texas or the Midwest, more than likely he’s using UCLA as a stepping stone to one of the bigger and best coaching jobs in his hometown region.  If he were successful enough at UCLA to get such a job, then you’d be happy with the success he created at UCLA, of course. But it’s something else to consider -- that the young up-and-comer who is originally from somewhere else and has success at UCLA wouldn’t think of UCLA as his destination coaching job and there would be more of a likelihood you’d be going through another coaching search in three years.    

So, given all of that, you’re already limiting your coaching candidate pool.   Now, I’m not saying UCLA wouldn’t ever hire someone without west coast ties, or without experience in a university with tougher academics.  But they are definitely boxes to be checked, and the more you check the more likely the coach will have success at UCLA.   But so many fans just snap their fingers and think so many potential coaches could be successful at UCLA, and I’m just trying to give you a dose of what I know goes into finding a coach for UCLA football or basketball – or should.  I’ve seen seven coaches get hired at UCLA in football and basketball; I’ve watched the process, and I’ve seen what’s worked and what hasn’t, so I think I know this stuff really well.

Ben Howland was, actually, the perfect fit.  He was from SoCal, grew up idolizing UCLA basketball. His parents lived in Santa Barbara.  Before he was hired, when he was a candidate for the job, he told a coach I knew off the record that he would crawl on his hands and knees back to Los Angeles to coach UCLA.  So, yeah, very motivated and willing to obviously embrace UCLA. He had worked as an assistant at UCSB, so he knew the UC system and was familiar with a higher level of academics.  He had success at a number of programs, including a high-major, and was more than an up-and-comer, having won the award for national coach of the year, and UCLA was his destination coaching job.  And there were little things, too -- for instance, when Howland took the job, he didn’t need advice on where to live, so he wouldn’t blame anyone else if he ended up not liking the location. There are many little things like that that add up. 

Howland was, though, extremely rare.  I’m not saying you need to check all the same boxes, but at least a few of the boxes Howland checked are vital to optimize your chance of getting a successful coach at UCLA. 

And you could make the case that, even with all the boxes checked on Howland, it being a slam-dunk hire, and Howland having a good degree of success at UCLA, it still didn’t ultimately turn out well.

So, you could find a coach that checks all the boxes and still ultimately wasn’t a successful hire, even though it was a successful hire at the time. On the other hand, you could find a coach that as a candidate doesn’t check many of the boxes but ends up being very successful at UCLA. He could be successful just because he’s a good coach and, really, that’s the most critical criteria to success on the field. But all of these “boxes” are factors and indicators that 1) contribute to whether the coach himself would take the job (read: Chris Petersen) and 2) contribute to his success at UCLA. Whether a potentially great coach can attract potentially great assistants to UCLA, for instance, does absolutely affect the head coach’s job performance.  You’re delusional if you think an unhappy wife doesn’t affect a coach’s job performance.  So, while there are probably up-and-comers out there who don’t check many boxes in terms of pure fit that would be successful at UCLA, it’s tough to determine that purely based on on-field coaching performance, and it would make it tough for them to rise to the top of the candidate list.  You’d have to throw out many of these criteria, and doing that would be, and has proven to be, foolish.

So, I’ve painted a picture of how unique it is to find a good fit for a successful coach at UCLA.  And there are so many other factors, too, that I’m not even including here, but you get the wide brush strokes.

UCLA is a unique place.  It’s not a job in the Midwest, where you can find an up-and-coming coach anywhere in the Midwest that would fit the lifestyle, academics and culture pretty easily.   There just generally isn’t a big candidate pool.  Interestingly, there is a bigger candidate pool for UCLA basketball, since there are more D-1 basketball programs in the west, so many more coaches out here with experience coaching in the west. UCLA hoops, too, is a bigger name than UCLA football and more of a destination job, etc.  It’s much easier, say, for UCLA to find a good basketball coach with west-coast or SoCal ties and motivated to coach basketball at UCLA.  But there are still a good set of criteria for basketball that UCLA hasn’t always satisfied in its basketball coaching search.  In fact, in my time doing this, UCLA hasn’t yet found a good long-term fit for its head basketball coaching job. 

Plus, a basketball coach is a different job entirely than football coach.  A college basketball coach actually does most of the coaching on the staff. In football, the coaching and schemes come mostly from the coordinators and assistants.  In basketball, you need a guy who is really a good coach. In football, you mostly need a guy who is a good CEO type and can hire a staff of assistants who are good coaches. 

So, this has all been generalities, but many of you who are talking about finding a new head football coach after this season should consider everything I’ve laid out above – and then consider another possible scenario specifically for UCLA football.

The UCLA program could start from scratch, and face all of the challenges of finding a new head coach that would fit at UCLA.

Or, right now, where the program stands, it has a unique opportunity moving ahead with Jim Mora. 

I’m going to lay out the things for you to consider.  At this point, please attempt to let go of your fan angst you have toward Mora right now, given the last two seasons and all of the issues fans have harped on.  Look at it objectively and realistically from this point forward without the baggage, because right now it’s the fans who have the angst-baggage about Mora, not the university or the program.  There probably is a little bit of angst from recruits, too, but it's probably nothing good recruiting couldn't overcome. 

This is what you should consider:  What if, next year, you have Mora and a considerably upgraded staff?

Consider some of the following things on why retaining Mora could be the best way forward for UCLA football. And these are things other than the very expensive buy-out of Mora’s contract. 

-- Mora is, at this point, a good fit at UCLA.

Mora is definitely comfortable in Los Angeles, and was a good fit for the lifestyle from the beginning. So that’s a box definitely checked.

If you want a coach who’s experienced in navigating the UCLA culture – the academics, the “no” culture, the unique fan base and everything else – Mora could teach a class in it.  Among the head coaches I’ve covered, he’s easily been the most successful in navigating it, and it’s not close.  I think it’s a stretch to think that any coach would be able to have a handle on UCLA, its culture, Los Angeles, etc. like Mora does.  Again, I can’t emphasize enough how important this factor is to a coach being successful at UCLA.  At UCLA, among the coaches I’ve covered, Lavin, Dorrell, Neuheisel and Alford have failed to successfully navigate the UCLA culture. The two coaches who have had some degree of success doing it have been Howland and Mora, and it’s not entirely coincidental that they’ve had the most success on the field among this list.

-- Mora is a very good CEO-type coach.  He’s a good face of the program. I’d give him a straight A on this in his first three years.  With the press and to the public, this year we’ve seen the Mora of the first three years more often than the Mora of last season.  He’s good with donors, but admittedly will have some fences to mend on that front from last season when some relationships went a bit sour.  His grasp of the CEO-type role overall is very good, and better than any coach I’ve seen at UCLA.  Even given the setback from last year, it’s clear Mora can be very good at fulfilling the CEO role.

-- Mora is a players’ coach.  It’s almost completely accepted within the program that the players consider Mora a father figure.  They know he’d do anything for them, that his loyalty toward his players is what he values above everything.  Despite people saying he’s “checked out,” he’s never been checked out in being there and being supportive for his players.  In my experience of doing this, I haven’t seen a UCLA coach who is more well-liked by his players than Mora. And in my knowledge of programs from other schools, both football and basketball, I know the admiration the players have for Mora is very rare. You can’t under-estimate what this element – being a good players’ coach – means to a program. It’s the glue that keeps it together.   When Howland’s program started losing, he had alienated so many players that he didn’t have the support within the program to keep everything afloat.

-- Internally, Mora runs a very tight, responsible and accountable program. When UCLA fans say they want a program run with integrity, this is it.  There have been few scandals during Mora’s five years.  The academic performance and graduation rate of the program is the best it’s ever been. It’s probably the cleanest five years UCLA football has been off the field.   Discipline is strict.  There is a high degree of organization, unlike programs of other UCLA coaches, with the program being very detail-oriented and run more like an NFL team.  Mora knows how to run and organize a Power 5 program at a high level.

-- Is Mora now feeling he wants to be at UCLA long-term? From what I’m hearing, yes.  I think there was a considerable part of him that wanted to return to the NFL in his first four years.  But I think given the developments on the field, and some off the field, some personal issues, and everything he’s been through and fought for at UCLA, he’s now dug in to being at UCLA.  Heck, he’s given $500,000 of his own money to the Wasserman Football Facility.  I think, in a way, that’s why fans lately have been seeing a Mora that is more comfortable as the UCLA coach.   I can’t see into the future on this subject; I can’t say that, if Mora puts together a couple of high-level seasons, wins the Pac-12, etc., he wouldn’t jump to the NFL.  And I know this has been a sticking point for many fans, that they feel Mora doesn’t ultimately want to be at UCLA, and that offends them. But from everything I’ve heard, even from sources that over the last couple of years said Mora wanted to leave for the NFL, they are now saying he’s committed to being at UCLA.  Of course, the contrary response would be that, given the last two seasons, he doesn’t have any other job offers, and that’s fair.  But know this: It would be rare today if UCLA were to bring in a coach that was then successful at UCLA that wanted to stay at UCLA long-term (mostly because of some of the criteria I laid out above).  If they would, most of the time it’s because they are alumni – but we all know being a UCLA alumni should absolutely not be the primary thing that gets you on a UCLA coaching candidate list.  The dream candidate, of course, is a UCLA alumni that is a vastly successful college coach, but that describes no one on the planet.

Given all of these factors, of Mora being able to fulfill many of the roles of UCLA’s football head coach at a very rare high level, going from this point forward, consider whether it would be better for the UCLA football program to have Mora with a revamped and considerably boosted staff, or taking on all of the risks of a new, young, up-and-comer that could possibly not check many of the boxes I laid out above. 

Of course, this is absolutely contingent on a considerable staff upgrade.  That can't be reiterated enough. 

I know there will be many of you that still say option B. That’s fine. I know sometimes in people’s minds it’s just easier to reject all of the complications and nuances and start fresh.  I’m not necessarily trying to convince you otherwise, just presenting all of the factors for your edification.

I know many of you will say this is spin, and I’m a shill.  But this is absolutely the truth of the situation.  I haven’t gotten this deep into it previously because, first, we do have a policy on this site not to discuss coaching changes during the season. But I think the current situation with the football program required it.  And secondly, so many fans here are so pissed off they’re only seeing red, want to accuse me of being a shill, and don’t want to hear facts and truth from me if it’s counter to their agenda, so every time I thought to write this I didn’t because of the expected backlash.

But this is the way it is. This is a factual, objective representation of the situation, and it creates a very unique situation and potential opportunity for the UCLA football program. 

 

If you’re going to respond to this, please show me some respect and don’t question my motives or psycho-analyze me, because any response that accuses me of anything besides presenting the facts and the truth to BRO readers is just absolutely wrong and off-base.  


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