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UCLA ends the Jim Mora era

UCLA loses a winnable game against USC on Saturday and fires Jim Mora on Sunday, ending what was once a very successful run that had since gone stale.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Washington
Jim Mora was relieved of his duties as UCLA football coach on Sunday after a 46-30 record in nearly 6 seasons in Westwood.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The last game of Jim Mora era at UCLA was a fitting end to his tenure.

UCLA battled USC to a near draw on Saturday, but red zone profligacy and poor special teams cost the Bruins in a 28-23 defeat at the Coliseum. It was a sloppy and testy game between a team that plays down to its opponents (USC) and a team that fails to get out of its own way (UCLA).

With at 20 NFL teams in attendance, Josh Rosen was fantastic under the bright lights, finishing 32-52 for 421 yards and three touchdowns to Jordan Lasley. Lasley himself had a spectacular game, finishing with 10 catches for 204 yards alongside the three scores. He roasted USC’s secondary all night and even had this awesome catch.

Rosen largely outplayed Sam Darnold and looked the more polished NFL draft prospect. His only blemish was a poor decision on an interception in the end zone by Marvel Tell. In a sense, it encapsulated the Rosen-Darnold divide: Rosen played better to a man, but Darnold and his team got the win.

Rosen will likely end his UCLA career without a win against USC, and in like so many games in his UCLA career, he was hurt by the foibles of those around him, and many are now left to wonder what could have been in his time in Westwood.

On Saturday, special teams cost the Bruins, as they have done so for the last three seasons. They missed two field goals and were fooled on a trick punt return in the first quarter. As the coverage drifted left, everyone forgot the punt actually sailed right, and USC returned the kick for a touchdown unimpeded.

(Here’s how you do it)

It turned out to be the difference in a one score game in what was Jim Mora’s last game in charge of UCLA. He was fired in the late hours of Saturday evening.

And so the Jim Mora era ends fittingly with another close loss in a winnable game. Mora finished his 5.85 seasons in Westwood with a 46-30 record, though the Bruins are just 17-19 since 2015 and have currently lost 10 straight road games. Josh Rosen’s time at UCLA feels like a huge missed opportunity after 3 remarkable seasons with Brett Hundley and company where UCLA won 29 games and were a missed field goal away from a Pac-12 championship.

A change was needed. Mora was ultimately done in by an inability to develop an offensive line to protect his star quarterbacks and a disastrous hire of Kennedy Polamalu in 2016 as offensive coordinator, in which the Bruins finished dead last nationally in rushing. The hire of Tom Bradley at defensive coordinator in 2015 now looks iffy too, as UCLA is dead last nationally this season in stopping the run. UCLA’s special teams have also been awful since Jeff Ulbrich left Westwood to take a job with the Atlanta Falcons in 2015.

In short, as was put so eloquently by Bruin Report Online’s David Woods, you can’t be the literal worst at two different things and expect to win.

Though a change was needed, Jim Mora did far more good for UCLA than bad. He turned a moribund program that was leveled by Rick Neuheisel and won 9 games and the Pac-12 South in 2012 and was a field goal from a Pac-12 title. He followed 2012 up with ten-win seasons in 2013 and 2014 and was building something special with Josh Rosen coming in 2015.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. But Mora’s influence in Westwood will be felt by his predecessor right away. He’s done enough to ensure that whoever takes over in 2018 won’t be overseeing a rebuild - there is talent here to win now. His work to turn the culture around immediately and actually win games with the talent that comes to UCLA won’t be forgotten. He led the charge in getting the brand new Wasserman Football Center built on campus, and he was highly respected in the UCLA community and raised money for numerous charitable causes.

He is a good man who was adored by his players. He was more known for his squabbles with the media and his declaration that “spread offenses don’t win” in college football, but Jim Mora should be remembered fondly by Bruin fans. He lent UCLA real credibility as a viable football program that can continue to grow and compete with the big boys. Ultimately, he wasn’t enough to get them over the hump, but Mora unquestionably left UCLA in a better state than when he found it.

What is shocking about the abrupt end to Jim Mora’s tenure is its timing and proactivity. It seemed very UCLA-like to give him another season to save his job were he to win 6 games and go to a bowl game, especially after battling USC to a draw.

But now Jedd Fisch will get at least one game to prove himself as the interim when Cal comes to the Rose Bowl on Friday. Were the Bruins to win, he would coach the team in its bowl game as well.

Fisch seems like an unlikely candidate, though hiring him full-time would presumably find favor with the players. UCLA has aggressively pursued Chip Kelly, Oregon’s former head coach who ran rampant over the Pac-12 but fizzled out in the NFL with the Eagles and 49ers. It appears Florida has already offered Kelly, and he is now comparing the two jobs.

Kelly installed a dominant zone-rushing scheme that tore the Pac-12 to shreds and nearly won Oregon a national title. The relative anonymity of being the head coach at UCLA in Los Angeles, the fertile recruiting ground of LA and his familiarity with the West Coast all make UCLA an appealing destination for Kelly.

Plus, there’s no Nick Saban to contend with in the Pac-12 either.

But Florida has larger coffers and a proven history of supporting its football program. Plus, Kelly has been out of college since 2012, and will he be able to change the way the game has by 2018? His tenures with the Eagles and 49ers flamed out under the weight of a boring and predictable offense.

Chip Kelly is the splash hire that UCLA has never made, and the timing’s never been better to bring UCLA football up the next rung on the ladder. But like in all coaching hires, success is far from a guarantee.

So who’s a viable candidate if Kelly doesn’t come? It’s hard to say off the rip.

The search committee of UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, senior associate athletic Josh Rebholz, booster mega-agent Casey Wasserman and Troy Aikman will have a lot of work to do to compete in the open market against programs like Florida, Tennessee and Nebraska who have deeper pockets and more football resources.

Of current or former head coaches, there are no immediate fits in terms of familiarity with California or UCLA. Jim McElwain, formerly of Florida, is a West coast native from Montana who did well at Colorado State, but he recently failed spectacularly. The Mountain West is not teeming with any young up-and-comers either, with two of its most successful coaches, San Diego State’s Rocky Long and Fresno State’s Jeff Tedford, being Pac-12 retreads themselves. Boise State head coach and alumnus Bryan Harsin has no incentive to leave the home comforts of Boise.

LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda went to school at Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, but why would UCLA hire a first-time head coach after pursuing Chip Kelly so aggressively? Dino Babers was a UCLA assistant under Karl Dorrell, but his rebuild at Syracuse has been slow and without much result so far.

Kevin Sumlin could be looking for an escape hatch out of Texas A&M, but he just hired the offensive coordinator that UCLA couldn’t wait to see leave in 2016. UCLA fans also watched his team blow a 38 point lead to their Bruins up close and personal. Dan Mullen never seems settled at Mississippi State, but why would he take a pay cut to leave the SEC and go where he’s never been before?

Scott Frost is the hot name from the Power 5 by way of his wizardry at Central Florida, but Nebraska will come calling when it fires Mike Riley. Could the former Cornhusker quarterback spurn a homecoming to Lincoln for Los Angeles?

Kyle Whittingham has long been at odds with the Utah administration idespite winning over 100 games in 14 years and overseeing their transition into the Power 5. But he’s never won the Pac-12 South and has churned through offensive coordinators season after season. Mike Leach is weird and abrasive, but the pirate ship on the Palouse keeps sailing, and the athletic director who hired him left for Nebraska this season. Is there enough room in LA for a pirate to swing a sword?

Can Dan Guerrero atone for the sins of hiring Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel with a good hire before he presumably retires in 2019? If their pursuit of Chip Kelly is any indication, UCLA will spend if needed to hire the coach they want.

But deep skepticism is warranted - after all, this is the administration that hired Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel back to back.

For now, UCLA has at least one game left in 2017, against Cal on Black Friday. UCLA has lost its last 4 games after playing USC in recent seasons, and Sunday’s news will certainly affect preparations. But at home, where UCLA is 5-0, and with a bowl bid on the line, one hopes UCLA will come out firing to play for their fired coach. Pac-12 teams are also 0-4 this season when playing on the road on a Friday night like Cal will be doing.

It’s also Josh Rosen’s likely last home game for UCLA, and it is so bizarre how inconsequential it seems given just how special Rosen has been in Westwood. If this is the end, let’s hope he goes out with a performance fitting of the top pick in the NFL draft come April.

Right now, UCLA is without a head coach but in a good place. It’s better off than when it was back in 2011, and the right head coach can win right away with an overhaul of the defense, returning production at the skill position, and incoming prized quarterback recruit Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

The ground work has been laid by Jim Mora. While he couldn’t complete the project, the next architect will have plenty of tools at his disposal to build a contender in Westwood.