It was the hire that launched a thousand message board rants.
On the evening of Dec. 10, 2011, UCLA named Jim L. Mora its new head football coach.
The hire came after a 12-day search turned up “Thanks, but no thanks" responses from virtually all of the Bruins’ perceived top candidates. Chris Petersen decided to stay in Boise. Al Golden elected to risk potential NCAA sanctions in Miami over a rebuild in Los Angeles. Kevin Sumlin interviewed, but ultimately ended up at Texas A&M.
Instead, UCLA was “stuck” with Jim Mora, who was best known for being fired from two separate NFL head coaching stops, and as someone whose only experience at the college level came in one year as a graduate assistant at Washington. That was in 1984, by the way.
At the time, the move was seen as a disastrous hire, for a long-forgotten college football power. It came at an especially turbulent time, when cross-town rival USC was coming off a 10-win season despite heavy NCAA sanctions, and after the Trojans had laid a 50-0 beat down on the Bruins weeks earlier.
Less than two years later, it’s Mora who is getting the last laugh.
While USC spent the weekend firing its coach at LAX, it’s the Bruins who are on the verge of a Top 10 ranking entering Thursday night’s game at Utah (10 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1). This after Mora’s first year, which produced the second nine-win season at UCLA in the past 15 years.
Yes, these are high times in Westwood, and it’s thanks in large part to Mora and his staff. The coach seen as a last-ditch candidate when he was hired has turned things around at UCLA.
And it happened almost immediately.
“When Coach Mora walked in that first day, he wasn’t talking about six wins or even going to the Rose Bowl,” former UCLA running back and current Green Bay Packer Johnathan Franklin said. “He was talking about winning a national championship. About being the best program in college football.”
Those words were all it took for Franklin to buy in. The running back had considered leaving for the NFL following his junior year but decided to stick around after hearing Mora’s first locker-room speech. When Franklin did elect to stay, he quickly learned that Mora was ready to put his money where his mouth was.
As Franklin found out, playing for Jim Mora was hard. Really hard.
“That first spring,” Franklin said, pausing for emphasis. “Oh boy! That was the most physical spring I ever played. We hit every single chance we were allowed to. If you didn’t hit somebody, they were going to hit you. Coach made sure of that.”
That toughness continued through the spring and into summer camp, as the team was forced to practice in the desert of San Bernardino, where temperatures routinely went well over 100 degrees.
It created a football hell, only accentuated by a physical isolation as well. There were no TVs and cell phones weren’t allowed, meaning that the only interaction UCLA’s players had was with each other.
It was furthered by Mora’s decision to have players from all different background room and eat together. Freshmen sat with seniors. Defensive players shared dorm rooms with offensive ones.
A group of individuals became a team.
“All of a sudden that locker room was our locker room,” Franklin said. “Coach Mora established the tone, but we bought in.”
When the 2012 season began, the results were sudden and at times shocking. Franklin said that when he and his teammates took the field for their first few games, they had a sense of confidence due to the brutal spring and summer sessions.
For the first time in his career, Franklin felt that he was part of the physically and mentally superior team, regardless of who the Bruins lined up against.
It showed, as a program that had been labeled as “soft” for years had an edge to it. The change in culture was apparent not only to those in the locker room, but also those watching on TV. That included one of the school’s most prominent alums.
“Watching last year, I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is a tough, physical team,’” former Super Bowl winning quarterback and ex-Bruins great Troy Aikman said. “I couldn’t remember the last time I said that.”
Aikman’s relationship with Mora dates back to the coach’s two stints as an NFL head man, when the FOX broadcaster covered Mora’s teams from the booth. Even then, Aikman saw leadership qualities in Mora that he knew would one day make him a successful head coach, even if it didn’t happen immediately or at the professional level.
“He’s a confident guy, but he communicates well,” Aikman said. “He’s demanding, but he doesn’t alienate guys.”
Having the opportunity to play for Mora, Franklin saw his coach’s compassion up close and personal. While Mora is known in college football circles for his tough exterior, on the inside he’s a guy who, according to Franklin, cares about his players and more than just in the context of winning football games. Mora has proven that to his players, by practicing what he preaches off the field as well.
“He is a role model for what a man is,” Franklin said. “I look up to the way he treats his wife. I look up to the way he treats his kids. We know he wants us to be successful and not just in football.”
Never was that compassion on better display than with the tragic passing of walk-on wide receiver Nick Pasquale on Sept. 8. It was a sudden event that shook both the UCLA community and football program especially hard. Days after the incident, ex-UCLA linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo attended practice, where he said that Pasquale’s presence could still be felt.
“Yes he was a walk-on, but you could feel the impact he had on the team,” Ayanbadejo said.
“What he brought was energy, excitement. He was always early. He was great on the scout team. Coach Mora was able to recognize you need guys like that.”
And “recognize” is exactly what Mora did the next weekend, when UCLA returned to the Rose Bowl for their first home game after the tragedy.
Mora and the UCLA athletic department honored Pasquale’s family at halftime, but they also paid tribute to the fallen Bruin as well. UCLA broke the huddle on their first offensive play with 11 men, but then saw wide receiver Shaquelle Evans scamper to the sidelines before the snap. It left 10 men on the field, a tribute to the one they were missing.
“Wow,” Franklin said of his initial reaction to the gesture, which he watched from Green Bay. “It’s said, but respect Coach Mora and his staff. Nick would have been really thankful.”
It’s hard for Bruins fans not to feel optimistic with the trajectory of the program. With a win Thursday against Utah, the Bruins would be 4-0 and put themselves in an early position for a run at another Pac-12 South title. And while they’re not yet national championship contenders — win upcoming road games at Oregon and Stanford, and that would change — they have created quite a buzz around town and gotten people talking about the program that don’t normally do.
That includes plenty of ex-Bruins.
“I talk to a lot to my former teammates from college about how proud we are of them,” Aikman said. “It makes our experience as alums a bit more relevant.”
Ayanbadjo, who is currently spending his first fall back in Los Angeles after 14 straight as a professional, took things one step further.
“I’ve never been to a game,” he said. “I’ve never gotten to tailgate. I’m just excited to be around the program again.”
It’s a sentiment that many around Los Angeles share.
Both for the local team and the coach that most never wanted.
Aaron Torres is a show writer for Fox Sports Live and contributor to FoxSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.