When Jim Mora was hired as UCLA’s head football coach in the winter of 2011, well, to be blunt, it created just about the same buzz in Los Angeles as the release of a new Pauley Shore movie might: Essentially, it created no buzz at all.
For a program which had been living in the shadow of USC since the late 1990’s, the arrival of Mora- a man who had only coached one season in college his entire career, as a graduate assistant in 1984- was seen as a random shot in the dark, with little hope of success. The fact that UCLA’s administration settled on Mora only after swinging and missing on Chris Petersen and a number of other, seemingly “bigger” candidates didn’t help the school’s public image either.
But after all that off-season uncertainty, a funny thing happened. On their way to another mediocre coaching hire, the Bruins actually struck gold with Mora. In just a few short months Mora transformed the program from “afterthought in its own city” to a 9-4 club and Pac-12 South champion. Things might not have been perfect in Year 1 under Mora. But they were pretty damn close.
So what did Mora do to make magic in Westwood, and more importantly, what’s ahead for this program?
Let’s take a look, in the first installment of Crystal Ball Run’s new series, titled “Evaluating College Football’s First Year Coaches.”
What Went Right: For Mora “What Went Right” was just about everything actually, and it started in his earliest days on campus. Mora promised a tougher football team and began the process of molding the Bruins into exactly that with a grueling fall camp in the desert of San Bernardino. By the time UCLA returned for the start of the season, they were a completely different program, going from passive to aggressive, soft to hardened, and weak-minded to mentally strong under Mora’s watch.
Those changes showed immediately in a Week 2 win against Nebraska, and continued throughout the season as the wins and stats piled up. In the process, Johnathan Franklin rushed for over 1,000 yards and Brett Hundley became one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in college football.
By the time UCLA beat cross-town rival USC on November 17, two things had become abundantly clear: The football monopoly was over in Los Angeles. And a new Pac-12 South power had arrived.
What Went Wrong: As exciting as those first 10 games were, the season did end on a little bit of a bummer with three straight losses. In defense of the Bruins, getting knocked off by Stanford in both the regular season finale and Pac-12 title game was certainly understandable (especially since the Cardinal will likely start next season in the Top 5), even if a no-show against Baylor in the Holiday Bowl wasn’t. In that game, the Bruins defense put up an especially pathetic effort, giving up nearly 500 yards of total offense to the Bears.
More importantly that Holiday Bowl loss showed that as exciting as things are at UCLA, there is still plenty of work to be done.
Where Do Things Go From Here: After a 9-4 season, not surprisingly the buzz around this program is through the roof. The regular season success continued into recruiting, where the Bruins absolutely owned the 2013 cycle, bringing in the top class in the Pac-12 and one that is considered to be amongst the Top 10 of any program in the country. The fact that it came at the expense of the sliding USC Trojans certainly didn’t hurt either.
As for “What’s Next,” well, it’s hard not to see the Bruins entering 2013 as the Pac-12 South favorites. USC loses a slew of talented of players, Arizona and Arizona State aren’t quite “there” yet, Utah won’t be factor, and well… have you seen Colorado? Add in instability at Oregon and a revenge factor in terms of Stanford, and it’s very easy to see a scenario where the Bruins win the Pac-12 in Year 2 under Mora.
To quote the great philosopher Puff Daddy: The sky’s the limit. But the UCLA football program ain’t done jumpin’.
Jim Mora’s First Year Coaching Grade: A-
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