Brentson Buckner and his San Francisco 49ers teammates used to call Jim L. Mora “The angry Opie Cunningham.”
“He looked like Opie (from the Andy Griffith Show) and Richie off of Happy Days,” said Buckner, who was a 49ers defensive tackle from 1998-2000 and is now the defensive line coach for the Cardinals. “It was funny because when you meet him he’s so mild-mannered, but boy, he could get mad.
“It wasn’t a degrading mad where he’s yelling and screaming at you. He’d make his point by saying, ‘I know you can do better,’ so you took that from him because he wasn’t just browbeating you and leaving you hanging.”
After 25 years in the NFL, including five as San Francisco’s defensive coordinator, Mora had no idea how his coaching approach would play at UCLA when he became the head coach in 2012. Given the Bruins’ recent history prior to his hiring, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Westwood complaining about the results.
UCLA reached the nine-win plateau just once in the dozen seasons before Mora arrived. In his three completed seasons, they’ve won, nine, 10 and 10 games, they’ve captured a Pac-12 South Division title, finished second in the division twice and currently own a No. 7 national ranking with a 4-0 record after Saturday’s 56-30 shellacking of Arizona in Tucson.
“UCLA is very, very well coached,” said Arizona State coach Todd Graham, whose team faces the Bruins on Saturday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. “These guys have been at the top of the conference. In my opinion, offensively, they’ve been one of the toughest to defend.”
Mora admits he flew into Los Angeles a bit blinded by his NFL experience. He spent one year as a graduate assistant at Washington the season after he graduated, but it barely left a mark on his memory or style.
“I don’t know that I ever put any expectations (on the UCLA job) because this is all so new for me; this is such a new environment being from the NFL and not necessarily knowing how college players were going to react to what my philosophies were,” he said. “I didn’t have any timeline. You come into a new situation and what you want to try to do is instill a culture that you believe gives you a chance to have success and have sustained success. It’s a gradual build that really never stops.”
Mora had the inherent advantages of tradition and a fertile recruiting ground in southern California to aid him, but that meant little to his predecessors Rick Neuheisel, Karl Dorrell and Bob Toledo, who went a combined 69-65 in conference play.
Instead of focusing solely on California’s reputed skill and talent, however, Mora brought a defensive coach’s mentality to his recruiting efforts.
“To his credit, he came in with a plan and he’s executing the plan,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “Jim came in thinking ‘we need to get tougher; we’re going to be a tough team.’
“They’ve recruited that way, they’ve played that way and at the end of the day, that’s why I think they’ve been successful.”
Buckner believes the NFL pedigree has paid huge dividends for Mora at UCLA, from the knowledge he absorbed from his father and the many coaches with whom he worked, down to the street cred he carries whenever he walks in a room.
“Kids dream about playing on Sundays, so they feel that, ‘if I go play for a coach that has coached on Sunday, he can help me get there. He can develop me to get there,'” Buckner said. “Throw in some good looking uniforms and a guy that’s got some pro coaching ability and you’re going to get a pretty good recruiting class.”
Mora isn’t getting ahead of himself. The Bruins have raced to fast starts before, only to fall short of their major bowl aspirations. But with Oregon and Stanford possibly taking a step back this season, there may be opportunity for the Bruins in the first year of the College Football Playoff.
“I’ve been very pleased — not satisfied but pleased with the way things have gone so far,” Mora said. “I think we’re on the right path. I think we have a long ways to go, but I think we’re all finally heading in the same direction in terms of our expectations from player to coach, and coach to player and as a program.”