Jim Mora’s tenure as UCLA head football coach lasted essentially six full seasons, though he will not finish out 2017 with news of his firing Sunday.
UCLA spent half of that run on a gradual decline that began on a beautiful November Saturday in 2014.
Few sites in college football are as breathtaking a day game at the Rose Bowl. The San Gabriel Mountains provide the ideal backdrop. On the day after Thanksgiving 2014,the mercury in Pasadena hit about 75 degrees by the midday kickoff.
On the most picturesque autumn day Southern California has to offer, the scene inside the Rose Bowl for the future of Jim Mora’s UCLA could not have been any more bleak.
First, some backstory: I had a front row seat for UCLA’s 2014 season, one that kicked off with more national hype for any Bruins team than I can remember in my lifetime. Desmond Howard and Lee Corso both picked UCLA to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff, among a host of other pundits across the nation.
Coming off a 10-win 2013 in Mora’s second season and returning a host of starters, the praise made sense. Jim Mora seemingly awoke one of the sport’s great sleeping giants, reaching a Pac-12 Championship Game in Year 1 and building on that in Year 2. Year 3 producing something truly special seemed the next logical step.
I covered the Pac-12 as a whole the previous season for Bleacher Report, but transitioned into a dual UCLA and USC beat in anticipation of a big season for both programs. It was the most immersed I had been in any one program since my college days.
The pressure of lofty preseason expectations seemed to get to UCLA, from my vantage point. The Bruins struggled with a bad Texas team early on, before getting blown out at home by Oregon in a game during which players and coaches alike lost their composure.
The enduring memory of that period, in which the team felt like it was left in a pressure cooker, was that of Jim Mora holding a screaming Jeff Ulbrich by the face.
Preceding the Oregon loss, UCLA fell to Utah in a nip-and-tuck contest one week earlier. Two Ls in the early half of October emptied the bandwagon quickly; my inference was that one of my editors at the time was hinting at pulling the plug on UCLA coverage altogether.
That season could have gone off the rails immediately, and understandably. I give Jim Mora and his staff a lot of credit for making necessary adjustments and bringing a calming influence that was lacking amid the early-season national championship talk.
The Bruins went on a tear after that Oregon game, winning five straight to get back into the Pac-12 championship hunt, with an outside chance of factoring into the Playoff discussion.
One of the better articles I produced that season, at least by my own assessment, was a long-read examination of how UCLA turned its season around. The final game in that winning streak arguably marked the high point not just of 2014, but the entire Mora era, with UCLA winning its third straight over USC in emphatic fashion.
Quarterback Brett Hundley quipped following that contest that if there was any doubt who “ran L.A.,” the Bruins “put a stomp” on the rivalry.
It was UCLA’s last win over USC to date.
If the 2014 win over USC was the apex of the Jim Mora era, his tenure ending with a loss to the Trojans seems fitting. But it was a long and challenging slide to that point between those two contests, and it began on that beautiful Friday after Thanksgiving.
What was easily the worst Stanford team of David Shaw’s run with the Cardinal visited the Rose Bowl, and the Bruins need only win to lock up a spot in the Pac-12 Championship.
When UCLA scored first on a Hundley pass to Thomas Duarte, the Bruins’ march to Santa Clara seemed to be on. And then it started.
Stanford’s offense had its way with UCLA’s defense, introducing wrinkles not shown yet on the season. One was the use of freshman wide receiver Christian McCaffrey more at running back.
A little more than a year later, I covered McCaffrey again in a game in Pasadena. He played OK.
The moment I — and seemingly, about 80,000 inside Rose Bowl Stadium that afternoon — realized the championship dream was over for UCLA came when Kevin Hogan found Devon Cajuste on a 37-yard touchdown strike just before halftime, increasing a 14-10 lead to two scores.
Much like the high and low points of the Mora era coming against USC, there was a symmetry in Stanford cracking the foundation. The Cardinal were UCLA’s white whale under Jim Mora, winning every game from 2012 through 2017.
The narrowly missed field-goal attempt in the 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game might sting the most for UCLA faithful, but the 2014 loss was the most impacting for the state of the program.
UCLA was a victim both of bad luck in the next three years, losing Myles Jack to a knee injury during a hot start in 2015, a season in which the Bruins could have and should have won the Pac-12 South. A late-night loss at home to Washington State that November might be the beginning of the end to some observers.
Josh Rosen’s injury in 2016 also doomed UCLA to a season much worse than it would have had otherwise. The Bruins looked like viable contenders in the division with him at quarterback before going down at Arizona State.
The adjustments Mora made in 2014 to right the ship seemed to allude the Bruins in the subsequent three years, too.
None of the above is to diminish or belittle Jim Mora’s time at UCLA. The outpouring of support from players both former and current on social media in the wake of his firing showed what he meant to his team.
Since Jim Mora been hired at UCLA:
Win or lose you helped change my life and other guys lives.
THANK YOU pic.twitter.com/HT6Ji7OEWq
— Takkarist McKinley (@Takk) November 19, 2017
Anecdotally, as a low-level media member, he treated me with respect at all times.
And, unquestionably, UCLA football is in a better place now than when he arrived almost six years ago. That beautiful November afternoon in 2014 will just linger forever as the missed opportunity that proved pivotal to the program’s direction.