- The money required for the Bruins' brass to make a coaching change right now indicates that UCLA is about to swing for the fences as it wades into the coaching carousel.
If some of this sounds an awful lot like the column I wrote when Butch Jones got fired at Tennessee, it’s because the broad strokes of Jim Mora’s tenure at UCLA resembled Jones’s time in Knoxville.
• Coach gets hired to close a talent gap and take advantage of an inefficient division.
• Coach initially closes talent gap and takes advantage of inefficient division.
• Even though program should be in position to peak, coach can’t seem to make it climb any higher.
• Staffing mistakes are made.
• Program winds up essentially back where it started but with better players.
There are some key differences. Mora’s predecessor Rick Neuheisel did not leave the smoking personnel crater that Derek Dooley left at Tennessee. Mora’s team actually won its inefficient division (in 2012). Mora also did sign that one transcendent talent at quarterback (Josh Rosen), but Mora coached him to a 16–13 record as a starter.
That last part is ultimately what got Mora fired Sunday. UCLA squandered three seasons with Rosen, the quarterback who should have helped the Bruins close a gap with USC that Mora initially narrowed and then allowed to widen again. Paying Mora’s $12 million buyout suggests some deep-pocketed folks wanted a change and convinced athletic director Dan Guerrero—who isn’t known for writing checks—to write some big ones. While Mora’s record may have faltered, he did help drive a practice facility upgrade that allowed UCLA to keep pace with the rest of the Pac-12. So the coach the Bruins hire owes Mora a debt of gratitude for that.
The decisiveness with which the Bruins made this move and the serious money committed to it suggests UCLA will aggressively pursue a splashy hire. Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly remains a coaching free agent. Could he come to Westwood and dominate the Pac-12 once again? Kelly will be at the top of the wish list, but he has other suitors. One of those suitors is Florida, which made its case to Kelly on Sunday night. He’s also getting bought out by two NFL teams and doesn’t have to coach at all. But UCLA seems an ideal fit for Kelly. He has won in the league before, and he despises a fishbowl environment. The coaches at most programs with fertile recruiting bases do live in a fishbowl, but UCLA’s coach does not. The Lakers, Dodgers, Rams, Chargers, Clippers and Angels routinely top UCLA football on the local priority list. So, of course, does USC football. That’s one of the issues the new coach must face head-on.
Mora arrived at UCLA as USC met the teeth of NCAA sanctions in the Reggie Bush case. The Bruins had a brief moment to balance the college football scales in the Southland. Mora’s team beat USC his first three years at UCLA, and it seemed with each passing National Signing Day that the Bruins were becoming a team that could stay atop the Pac-12 South even when USC got back to full strength. That didn’t happen, though. When USC beat UCLA on Saturday, that made it three in a row for the Trojans. The football monopoly in L.A. seemed very much alive. The next coach will have to accept that unless UCLA alters its admission standards for athletes, USC can get players into school that he can’t. Even though both sit in a recruit-rich area, USC’s pool is deeper. Still, those standards aren’t so high that UCLA can’t win. Even higher standards haven’t kept Stanford from competing for Pac-12 titles (and going 7-0 against Mora-coached UCLA teams).
Like Jones at Tennessee, Mora struggled with staff turnover. He did O.K. replacing defensive coordinator Lou Spanos (who left for the Tennessee Titans after the 2013 season) with Jeff Ulbrich. But Mora and his staff bungled how they handled Ulbrich’s departure to the Atlanta Falcons the following year. Not being truthful about Ulbrich leaving cost the Bruins linebacker Roquan Smith, who is currently Georgia’s best defensive player. In ’15, Mora replaced Ulbrich with longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, whose units were solid for two seasons before dropping to 110th in the nation in yards per play allowed this season. The bigger sin for Mora was replacing offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone (who left for Texas A&M following the 2016 season) with Kennedy Polamalu, who presided over a disaster last season. Jedd Fisch has done a fine job repairing that damage this season, but with the defense faltering, it didn’t matter.
Fisch will be UCLA’s interim coach for the season finale against Cal on Friday. If the Bruins win, he’ll be coaching them in a bowl game. Could he be the next permanent head coach? (Hiring the interim seems to have worked across town.) The answer is probably not. The way UCLA fired Mora suggests the Bruins are big name hunting. Kelly is the biggest, and he seems like the first option. Who might be next? Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was intrigued by UCLA before, and Sumlin and the Aggies would love nothing more than to avoid a public divorce. Why would UCLA want someone who is about to get fired from his current job? Because Sumlin, who likely would bring Mazzone back, has won 51 games since 2012 despite playing in one of college football’s toughest divisions. He has recruited well in the sport’s most cutthroat region. Sure, he only beat Alabama once, but guess what? Alabama doesn’t play in the Pac-12. No one close to Alabama does. Another possible option is Mike Leach, whose Washington State team can win the Pac-12 North by beating Washington on Saturday in the Apple Cup. Leach would not run a pro-style offense, but he’d bring a system that has won in Lubbock and Pullman. What wins in those places can win in L.A.
Of course, the offense that would really hum in the Rose Bowl (the stadium) is the offense that got Oregon to the Rose Bowl (the game) and beyond. Kelly feels like the obvious target. The Bruins have made a big, expensive move to open their job. Now can they complete phase two of the master plan?