by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

The pitch count for athletic directors is usually a bit different than it is for baseball batters. In the latter, it’s three strikes and you’re out. In the former, when it comes to hiring football coaches, it’s usually two strikes and you’re gone. Rare indeed is the AD at a big-time program who gets another chance at selecting a football coach after missing the mark on two choices in a row.

Unless we’re talking about UCLA, that is.

Indeed, Bruin AD Dan Guerrero got another (and we assume a last) chance to redeem prior mistakes in football coaching hires when entrusted to select the successor to Rick Neuheisel, the former UCLA QB and darling of a select (but misguided) group of boosters and alums who believed Slick Rick was the right choice after the 2007 season to succeed Karl Dorrell, Guerrero’s first blown gridiron coaching hire.

Unfortunately for Guerrero and Bruin supporters, however, the Neuheisel hire backfired alarmingly. Despite a couple of crescendos in a four-season span, and some admitted bad luck on the injury front, the UCLA program descended into further irrelevance under Neusy, to the point where his continuing employment was deemed impossible after a humiliating 50-0 loss to crosstown rival Southern Cal in the final regular-season game of the 2011 season.

Amazingly, we still run into the occasional Neuheisel backer who believes Slick Rick got a raw deal. After all, didn’t UCLA represent the new Southern half of the Pac-12 in the first-ever conference title game last December? That’s true, but the Bruins were also 30-point underdogs at Oregon for that game, and only advanced to the league final because USC was on probation and ineligible for postseason play. The watered-down South half of the loop was mostly a disaster last season, with Arizona State collapsing down the stretch (prompting HC Dennis Erickson’s ouster), Utah blowing a chance to advance to the title game when upset by doormat Colorado in the finale, and Arizona so disheveled that it canned its coach, Mike Stoops, before the season was complete.

It was the same Arizona team that humiliated UCLA, 48-12, just as the same Utah team that lost to Colroado still managed to blow out the Bruins, 31-6. That UCLA somehow careened into the conference title game hardly justified Neuhseisel, 21-28 in four seasons on the job, another stay of execution.

Last year's team (with Neuheisel dismissed on November 28, but allowed to coach in the Pac-12 title loss to Oregon) finished 6-8 after an unsightly loss to illinois in the Kraft Bowl in San Francisco, becoming the first bowl team to finish two games under .500 since North Texas in 2001.

Which brings us to Guerrero, who, after swinging and missing wildly with a pair of UCLA’s favorite sons in Dorrell (whose record was superior to Neuheisel’s) and Slick Rick, decided to look outside of the Bruin box for a successor, eventually landing upon former Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks HC Jim L. Mora.

On the surface, Mora would seem a curious hire, given his failures in the NFL and disconnect from the college game, where he had not worked since serving as a grad assistant for Don James at alma mater Washington in the mid ‘80s. Geurrero also broke the mold by hiring a coach without direct UCLA connections; Mora’s only past brush with the Bruins was through his dad, former NFL Saints HC Jim E. Mora, who had a short stint on Dick Vermeil’s accomplished Westwood staff (which also included Terry Donahue, Rich Brooks, Dick Tomey, Rod Dowhower, Lynn Stiles, and Carl Peterson) in 1974.

Mora, who took the Falcons to the playoffs and NFC ttle game in his first year in charge (2004),was dismissed by owner Arthur Blank two years later but quickly resurfaced with the Seahawks, where he was hired by Mike Holmgren as the assistant HC and also named as the coach-in-waiting for Seattle. The “waiting” ended after the 2008 season when Holmgren resigned and Mora was elevated, but his stint lasted only one season (in which the Hawks finsihed 5-11) before the opportunity arose for the Seahawks to heist Pete Carroll away from Southern Cal. Mora was thus canned with three years and $12 million to go on his contract.

That Mora would be replaced by Carroll in Seattle is ironic, because some Pac-12 observers believe that parallels between Carroll and Mora’s careers proved an important selling point for Guerrero in making the hire last December. The parallels, of course, are a bit dubious; Carroll was also fired from two NFL jobs (New England and NY Jets), lasting just one season in one of those assignments. One has to wonder if Guerrero might have had Dave Wannstedt on the speed-dial had he not been able to sew up Mora.

Still, early reports from Westwood are mostly positive, with various Pac-12 sources suggesting that bringing in an “outsider” such as Mora was probably the best thing that could have happened to a UCLA program that had gone stale and has assumed an apparently-permanent second-tier status in L.A. to crosstown Southern Cal. Which, despite reports from the mostly-shallow journalistic sources in the region, was never an absolute distinction between the programs, especially in the ‘90s when the Bruins once ran off eight straight wins over the hated Men of Troy. The aforementioned Donahue, who retired after the 1995 season, even concluded his coaching career with a winning record (10-9-1) vs. crosstown SC.

Mora also quickly fortified his staff with numerous respected recruiting whizzes, including assistants Steve Broussard (a former star RB at Washington State and ex-Cougar assistant, via Arizona State), Demitrice Martin (via Washington), Eric Yarber (via the NFL Tampa Bay Bucs, previously at Arizona State), and Adrian Klemm (via SMU). Sal Alosi, with almost a decade of NFL experience and on Mora’s Atlanta staff, is a high-profile addition as a strength and conditioning coach (areas in which the Bruins definitely need help).

Noel Mazzone, who recently coordinated progressive, spread-it-out attacks at Arizona State after a stint with the NFL Jets, was enlisted as the new o.c., while Lou Spanos, with 17 years of NFL experience (most recently on Mike Shanahan’s Redskins staff), is the new defensive coordinator.

Still, a generation has been reared in the region without knowledge of UCLA as a football power, which was a recurring theme in Westwood throughout wide swaths of the ‘50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Local youth could be excused for overlooking the Bruins, who have not factored in the national picture since the 2001 season, a campaign that ultimately ended in disappointment for Dorrell predecessor Bob Toledo. Who, in retrospect, almost looks Knute Rockne-like compared to the two Guerrero-picked coaches (Dorrell and Neuheisel) who succeeded him.

Mora quickly put his stamp on the program when spouting indignation at a couple of long-standing Bruin traditions, including an “over the wall (ditch) day” when preparing for a bowl game. Such indiscretions, Mora growled, are not to be tolerated in his regime.

We would also expect Mora to draw a line in regard to crosstown SC and not allow the Trojans to wear the home red uniforms in the annual crosstown showdown, this year to be played on the Bruins’ home field at the Rose Bowl. Neuhseisel drew some criticism when allowing SC and then-coach Carroll to set the parameters for that development back in 2008, but we expect Mora to instead follow the lead of Alabama’s Nick Saban, who rejected a request from then-Tennessee (and now USC) HC Lane Kiffin for the Vols to wear their home orange jerseys for the game vs. the Crimson Tide at Tuscaloosa in 2009, much as the schools had done when Doug Dickey’s and Bear Bryant’s teams squared off in the ‘60s.

Leapfrogging the Trojans, however, will require more than forcing the Trojans to wear their road whites when they invade the Rose Bowl on November 17. By that time we should at least have an idea if Mora has been able to turn the UCLA program in the right direction.

Spring work provided the first look at Mazzone’s new offense which, as advertised, was spreading the ball all around the field, a sharp departure from the Nevada-influenced “Pistol” looks of the past two seasons. Although it remains to be seen who will be taking the snaps in the fall, some believe it is only a matter of time before quick-footed RS frosh Brett Hundley, considered the gem of Neuheisel’s last recruiting class in 2011, becomes the starter ahead of holdovers Kevin Prince (right) and Richard Brehaut. None, however, look to be an easy fit in Mazzone’s spread-the-field offense that’s better suited to a Case Keenum-type QB.

Elements of the Pistol will still be included in the new UCLA offensive package, however, and RB Johnathan Franklin (976 YR LY) figures to get plenty of work. Among many lineup switches, Mora and staff have moved S Dalton Hilliard to RB, where he was a decorated prep with breakaway ability. Plaxico Burress-sized 6'5 wideout Nelson Rosario (65 catches LY) has exhausted his eligibility, but ex-Notre Dame transfers TE Joe Fauria (39 receptions in ‘11) and WR Shaq Evans (19 catches LY) provide experienced targets and figure to post better numbers in the Mazzone offense if they can stay healthy.

Mora and Mazzone also are hoping for upgrades along an offensive line that hasn’t featured one NFL draftee since 1999. That might change with mammoth 310-lb. OT Xavier Su’a-Filo, back from a two-year LDS mission after starting all 13 games as a frosh in 2009. There is also some urgency attached to the PK situation which deteriorated a year ago after near-automatic Kai Forbath graduated after the 2010 campaign. Last year’s PK Kip Smith has transferred to Colorado State, with RS soph Joe Roberts the only PK on the roster during spring drills.

Meanwhile, d.c Spanos obviously has his hands full with a defense that allowed 31.4 ppg a year ago and lacked impact performers, a fact painfully underlined in the many blowout losses suffered in 2011. To that end, Mora and Spanos decided to move Y-back Anthony Barr from offense to a defense and an OLB spot in Spanos’ new 3-4 looks. The hope is that Barr could emerge into a force as did long-ago LB Jerry Robinson, who also moved from offense to defense when Donahue took over in 1976 and emerged as an All-American LB.

Spanos is relatively comfy with a veteran back eight featuring experience at in the secondary (CB Andrew Abbott potential honors candidates along with LBs Patrick Larimore and Jordan Zumwalt), but an upgraded pass rush must emerge after the Bruins ranked 112th nationally in sacks a year ago. In that regard, it is hoped that 6-5, 295-lb. true frosh DE Ellis McCarthy will make an immediate impact. Another newcomer, CB Ishmael Adams, is a dual-threat performer who could be called upon for additional duty as a RB, where he also excelled as a prep.

Summary...The hiring of Mora represents another roll of the dice by Guerrero. But this is no quick-fix operation in Westwood, where the football culture has descended into mediocrity, which was never accepted in the old days at UCLA when AD J.D. Morgan ruled with an iron fist. For all of the X’s and O’s and promised changes that Mora brings to the table, it’s re-establishing a winning mindset that will be the toughest task in Westwood. A favorable schedule, along with expected offensive upgrades, ought to be able to help get Mora’s first team at least into a minor bowl, but Bruin supporters should be looking for underlying indicators of progress that could result in a return to prominence in two or three years. The first clue likely comes on the stop end, where a display of more backbone from Spanos’ 3-4 defense would be an early sign that the long climb back has commenced.


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