Mora doesn't like 'change' but he's done just that for UCLA
NOV 19, 2013 3:18p ET
Under Mora's direction, UCLA quickly became a Pac-12 power and appears on track to reach the elusive sustained success many previous coaches could not.
"There's been a big change," Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley said. "I think there was a time when the players were like 'Alright, we're tired of being underdogs, we're tired of being thought of as UCLA team that's soft and can't play in big games.'"
Hundley, in his third season at UCLA, perfectly highlights the change in thinking since Mora took over following Rick Neuheisel's dismissal. The No. 14 Bruins, who host No. 17 Arizona State in a crucial Pac-12 South tilt Saturday, no longer are willing to play second fiddle to USC in Los Angeles and see no reason they cannot be a West Coast power for years to come.
But, again, Mora prefers not to call it "change."
"Because I never want to disparage what anyone's done before me," Mora said. "All coaches deserve that respect. We all work very hard. Sometimes success just eludes you for whatever reason."
While the definition of success varies from year to year and place to place, it's fair to say it mostly eluded Mora's immediate predecessors.
In four seasons before Mora took over, Neuheisel went 21-30, with a 7-6 record and EagleBank Bowl win in 2009 serving as the tenure's highlight. Oddly enough, UCLA winning the South title in the first year of the Pac-12 was part of a lowlight, as the Bruins backed into the title game with a 6-6 record before becoming the first ever bowl-eligible team to lose eight games.
Karl Dorrell had a little more success before Neuheisel, finishing 35-28 in five seasons but finished above .500 just twice and was 1-5 in bowl games, winning only the 2005 Sun Bowl.
Bob Toledo may be the only truly successful coach at UCLA since Terry Donahue's 20-season tenure that included three Rose Bowl victories. Toledo, UCLA's coach from 1996-2002, went 50-32 and led the Bruins to their last Rose Bowl appearance in 1998 but could not keep UCLA a consistent contender.
That's where Mora hopes to be different.
"What we wanted to do is create a culture that we thought was important to create long-term success," Mora said. "That's what we're really working to do."
Two seasons is undoubtedly a small sample size. It can't be said definitively right now if Mora has UCLA on track for sustained success, but he's making believers out of Bruins past and present.
"Coach Mora and his staff have done a tremendous job," former UCLA running back Maurice Jones-Drew said. "What they've done is change the mindset there and that was something, when I got to UCLA, we had to do as well."
Jones-Drew, currently with the Jacksonville Jaguars, played at UCLA under Dorrell from 2003-05 and is friends with some current Bruins after going back to school last offseason. Through those relationships and his own following of his alma mater, he's been impressed by how quickly the mindset changed under Mora.
"It's tough to do that, but the way coach Mora did it in a year and a half or two years is phenomenal," Jones-Drew said. "Hopefully, he can continue to stay there, get on the right track and get us to the promised land."
What's more important is the belief Mora has inspired in current players, many of whom were recruited to UCLA by Neuheisel, including Hundley. Those players, Mora said, are first and foremost what have enabled him to lead UCLA to a 17-7 record since he arrived.
"We've just had a lot of buy in, Mora said. "It's some talented guys that are really serious about being a good football team. It sounds really simple, but I think it is really simple. When you get good players and they work hard and they trust in what you're telling them and they try to do the best they can every day I think you have a chance to be a good football team."
Hundley, who remains close with Neuheisel, said it's hard to pinpoint the biggest difference in UCLA under Mora from a coaching standpoint. He can, however, define an unmistakable change in thinking.
Players were tired of outside perceptions of UCLA after the 6-8 season, tired of being seen as not quite good enough. Upon Mora's arrival, the thinking began to change.
"That was a time where we were like 'You know what, let's put everything like that behind, we're not going to worry about any of that,'" Hundley said. "When we made that switch, I think that's what really turned the tables for us as a team."
Mora would be the first to admit the Bruins have not yet arrived as consistent contenders. They many have won the Pac-12 South in 2012, but they lost to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game and Baylor in the Holiday Bowl. This season, they have lost to Stanford and Oregon, the Pac-12's elite.
At the Rose Bowl on Saturday, UCLA will try to snap ASU's five-game winning streak and in the process keep its own Pac-12 South hopes alive. With a win, the Sun Devils would clinch the division. UCLA must beat ASU and USC the following week for a third straight title.
ASU coach Todd Graham is trying to do in year two of his tenure what Mora did in year one. Graham says he doesn't know Mora much beyond a few conference meetings but has a great deal of respect for what the UCLA coach has accomplished with already with the Bruins.
"Just being real honest with you, I am very, very impressed," Graham said. "You can tell that their guys play really hard, and that means they're doing a great job inspiring and coaching them.
"That's the thing that sticks out to me when you watch his team play, much like what we're trying to do."
Graham's mission is much the same as Mora's: Consistently win the South, the Pac-12 and major bowl games. The two will likely run into each other plenty and could very well be dealing soon with Arizona and a resurgent USC.
Keeping UCLA at the front of that pack is the challenge Mora now faces. He's changed the mindset, his staff is cleaning up on the recruiting trail and he has already guaranteed a better two-season start than the past six UCLA coaches.
Having such quick success and keeping it going, Mora says, starts with "good football players that are committed to creating a good team and a good team environment." That appears to be the difference at UCLA under Mora.
"It's not really as complicated as you might think," Mora said. "It's just an attitude."