December 10, 2011
UCLA has hired nine new coaches since 1957, when Harry R. "Red" Sanders retired on the heels of the best decade in school history: Four consecutive top-10 finishes, three consecutive Pacific Coast Conference championships, two Rose Bowls and, in 1954, the Bruins' only perfect season. Today, they're expected to appoint a tenth: Jim L. Mora, fresh from the set of the NFL Network. When he arrives, it will be as the first outsider in charge of the program in more than 50 years.
Of all the unsavory streaks associated with UCLA football, that one may be the most stunning, and the most revealing. Since coming within a hurricane delay of a national title shot in 1998, the Bruins have dropped 12 of 13 to USC and landed in the final polls just once. They've also fired three head coaches, all of whom were either Bruin-born as players (Karl Dorrell was a part of three Rose Bowl teams from 1982-85, two of which included his future successor, Rick Neuheisel) or Bruin-bred as assistants (Bob Toledo was promoted from offensive coordinator to replace Terry Donahue in 1996). So were the previous six head coaches before them, a lineage dating back to Sanders. The result, as the Los Angeles Times' Chris Dufresne argued earlier this week, is arguably the most insular culture in college football this side of Penn State.
Keepers of the flame may prefer to think of it as loyalty, patience or "consistency," but even that facade has been penetrated by a decade of consistent mediocrity: In nine years under Dorrell and Neuheisel, the Bruins finished at or within a game of .500 six times. At one point, from 2001-04, they finished 4-4 in conference play four years in a row, and — following a brief step forward in 2005 — proceeded to go 5-4 in each of Dorrell's last two seasons. This season, Neuheisel's fourth? A giant leap to 5-5, capped by the most lopsided loss on either side of the USC-UCLA series since the early days of the Great Depression. Two consecutive administrations have been defined mainly by their persistent failures against the Trojans and their inability to maintain a healthy quarterback, and the search for their successor was defined by one target after another repeating "thanks, but no thanks."
Even Mora, an NFL journeyman who's never held a full-time college job, has a tenuous connection: His dad spent a season at UCLA in 1974, as an assistant under Dick Vermeil. Still, by any standard, the younger Mora is as close to a departure from the family as the Bruins have come in as long as anyone can remember — which may be the best thing he has going for him, actually.
His only experience on campus since graduating from Washington in 1983 is one season as a graduate assistant at his alma mater in 1984. The guy hasn't been on a recruiting trip in more than 25 years. Since getting dumped after one season as head coach of the Seattle Seahawks in 2009, he hasn't coached at all. To the most consistently mediocre program in the nation, he brings a career head coaching record of 31 wins and 33 losses, most of the wins coming as a direct result of coaching Michael Vick in his prime in Atlanta. Former NFL bosses have a notoriously awful track record in college jobs. The fan base is… well, "underwhelmed" would be putting it mildly.
Amid that otherwise perfect storm of lethargy, at least there's some relatively fresh blood in a program about to keel over from hemophilia. The big picture is still grim — Mora was (at best) the fourth choice for the job, recruiting remains in the tank and the gap in the crosstown rivalry looks as entrenched as ever. No one at UCLA is going to be putting any chest-thumping ads in the local paper anytime soon. But in a sheltered environment where nothing ever changes, maybe an unfamiliar face can awaken the sleeping giant.