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RENTON, Wash. – He stood atop the snowy summit of Mt. Rainier and took a few deep breaths, exalting in the triumph of an exhausting climb. Then, after a brief period of reflection, Seattle Seahawks coach Jim Mora reverted to the restless state that drives him – and his players – to push ahead on a perpetual basis.
Even at 14,441 feet above sea level, Mora had no patience for a comedown.
Here's how Mora, part of a high-profile climbing group last month that included NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, decompressed after descending the highest peak in the Cascades: He woke up at 5:30 the next morning and flew with his wife and their four children to Telluride, Colo., where they checked into a mountain resort for some much needed R&R.
For Mora, 47, his afternoon of repose lasted about five minutes. As he recalled Monday afternoon following a training camp practice at the 'Hawks' resplendent new training facility, "I told my wife [Shannon], 'I need to do something to get my blood flowing.' She said, 'Why don't you just rest?' But I don't sit around on vacation. The resort was at 9,500 feet, and I went out with my brother [Mike] and hiked to 13,000. I think I felt more exhausted in Telluride than I did on Rainier."
Now it's time to find out if the Seahawks, coming off a horrendous 4-12 season that ended a run of four consecutive NFC West titles, can consume enough espresso shots to keep up with their new boss.
However the post-Mike Holmgren era plays out in Seattle, rest assured it won't be subtle. Mora, who led the Atlanta Falcons to the 2004 NFC championship game in his first stint as an NFL head coach, swears he's more "measured" this time around. However, all evidence suggests he's approaching his new gig like the human embodiment of a Pearl Jam guitar solo.
Mora was 26-22 in his three seasons with the Falcons.
(Otto Greule Jr./Getty)
Thanks to one of the NFL's more awkward arrangements in recent memory, Mora was forced to sublimate his personality last season, as Holmgren, who guided the Seahawks to their lone Super Bowl appearance following the '05 season, completed what amounted to a victory lap on three flat tires.
In February of 2008 the Seahawks announced that Holmgren, who had informed the team he would step down following the season, would be succeeded by Mora, his assistant head coach and defensive backs coach. Despite Holmgren's lame-duck status and strained relationship with general manager Tim Ruskell – and the tension that mounted amid the team's first losing campaign since 2002 – numerous players and team officials say the two coaches managed to keep the chain of command clearly defined and avoided clashing privately and publicly.
"I stayed in my lane, just like I was supposed to," Mora says. "I'm sure if I'd opened that door, it could've become a bad situation, but there was no way I was going to do that. There was too much respect in this building for Mike Holmgren for that to happen."
Yet human nature suggests that some disenchanted Seahawks were looking to Mora to provide hope for a brighter future. Such was the case with halfback Julius Jones(notes), a 2008 free-agent signee who grew increasingly frustrated with his role and was benched in favor of Maurice Morris(notes) for four of the last five games. Jones admits that Mora was the authority figure who kept him from detonating.
"There were times when I was angry and I felt like going a little bit crazy," Jones says. "I didn't feel like I was wanted here. But Coach Mora talked to me and made me feel like I was wanted. By no means did he step on anyone's toes; he was just being positive. It was a tense situation, but he really kept me sane."
As orchestrated as the coaching transition was, it was not a completely smooth one – at least not from Mora's perspective. For the first seven months after Holmgren's departure, Mora says, he was uncomfortable around his players and often wondered how his words were being digested.
"I was nervous at first," Mora says. "In Atlanta, I always felt confident in what I wanted to say and not worrying about how it would be taken, but this was different – I'd been here, and now I was speaking to them in a new role. I'd talk to them and then ask myself, 'Was that a good meeting? Did I say the right things?' I'd think, 'Yeah, I did, but I didn't say it with my typical passion or conviction.' I didn't really get over that until training camp."
Camp Mora, predictably, has been up-tempo and high energy, a welcome jolt for a group that had grown used to Holmgren's detached leadership style. Mora walks around with a whistle that he isn't shy about using and, when displeased by a player's technique or missed assignment, barks out the requisite corrections. Though the man doesn't drink caffeine, a Starbucks endorsement seems inevitable.
"There's never a dull moment, on or off the field," middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu(notes) says. "You've got a head coach breathing down your neck – 'Snap your hips – that's not good enough!' – and you can tell he loves every minute of it. It's been a good change. It was a shock when they announced a new head coach before it was actually in place for him to take over, but I think they chose the right man for the job."
Mora swears there's nowhere else he'd rather be – including across town at the University of Washington. He winces at the question, and for good reason: Mora's potential return to his alma mater is a sensitive subject that has directly impacted his career arc.
Late in the 2006 season, his third with the Falcons, Mora did a phone interview with college roommate and former NFL quarterback Hugh Millen on Seattle's KJR-AM. Asked by Millen if he'd ever consider coming back to coach at U-Dub, where Tyrone Willingham was struggling in his second season, Mora answered enthusiastically, describing the Huskies gig as his "dream job" and saying he'd jump at the chance to take it – even if it were offered while the Falcons were competing in the playoffs.
Mora later claimed he was joking, but Falcons owner Arthur Blank was not amused. After Atlanta lost a pivotal game to the Dallas Cowboys and missed the playoffs, Mora was fired, eventually regrouping by joining Holmgren's staff.
The intrigue began anew last Oct. 28 when it was announced that Willingham would be dismissed at the end of the '08 season. There were rumors that Mora, despite his arrangement with the Seahawks, was being recruited to coach the Huskies, and some fans even showed up outside his house with signs exhorting him to take the job.
Mora says he was flattered but never even considered the possibility. "There is no other job for me," he insists. "There's nothing else. I used to sell hot dogs at the Kingdome, and now I'm back coaching the NFL team I grew up rooting for? That just doesn't happen very often. I'm very blessed to be here, and I plan to do everything I can to cherish that opportunity and to protect it. It's not like I can screw this up and go somewhere better. This is it."
If Mora fails, it won't be because he took a passive approach.
"I've matured during these two years, and I'm much more measured than I was the first time," Mora says. "But don't mistake measured for soft. I'm never gonna lose that edge.
"When you watch our team, it'll be high-energy, high-octane, aggressive, flying around, fast and furious football. That's my personality, too. That's how I want them playing. We've got a group of guys that'll give that – we've just got to keep demanding it."
Guiding the Seahawks to the NFL's summit is the goal, and whether Mora achieves it, you can bet he'll keep the blood flowing, each and every day.