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January 25, 2012
Mora, the former Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks head coach, hasn't worked in the college ranks since a one-year stint as a graduate assistant at Washington in 1984. But recruits aren't holding that against him.
They instead consider his NFL-heavy background a plus.
"I knew he had a lot of experience in the NFL," said Elk Grove (Calif.) Consumnes Oaks cornerback Marcus Rios, a four-star prospect who committed to UCLA last month. "That was the first thing that attracted me. Whatever his goals were at UCLA, I knew they were going to be good. I knew he was going to push his players. He'd succeeded at working with the top athletes in the NFL, so I knew the program was going to turn around.''
UCLA has verbal commitments from one five-star recruit and five four-star prospects. Four of those six players chose the Bruins after Mora's arrival.
Of course, recent history shows that a Pac-12 coach doesn't need much college experience to have success on the field and on the recruiting trail. When UCLA made the surprising decision to choose Mora over a proven college coach, the Bruins took a page out of their archrival's playbook.
Pete Carroll was best known for his head coaching stints with the NFL's New York Jets (1994) and New England Patriots (1997-99) when he took over USC's program in 2001. Carroll signed the nation's top recruiting class for three straight years (2004-06) while helping make USC one of the most feared programs in the land.
But even though Carroll had spent nearly two decades away from college before arriving at USC, he still had much more NCAA experience than Mora has now. Carroll worked in the college ranks from 1974-83 at Pacific, Arkansas, Iowa State, Ohio State and N.C. State.
[ Y! Sports Radio: Rick Kimbrel of BruinBlitz.com joins David Nuno ]
Mora's one year of college coaching experience came literally more than half a lifetime ago. Mora, a former Washington linebacker and defensive back, was 22 and just out of college when he worked for the Huskies as a graduate assistant. He now is 50 years old.
Yet few prospects seem worried about his lack of a college coaching background. They prefer to discuss his 26 years of NFL training.
"I haven't found it to be a hindrance," said Mora, who posted a combined 32-34 record in four seasons with the Falcons (2004-06) and Seahawks (2009). "As a matter of fact, I've found it to be probably something that's been a real positive for us. A lot of these kids we end up recruiting have aspirations to play at the next level. When I sit in front of them, they see a guy who certainly understands what it takes to get to that next level.''
Mora isn't a total newcomer to college football. He learned to appreciate the college game as a child while his father, also named Jim Mora, worked as an assistant at Stanford, Colorado, UCLA and Washington. Before beginning his NFL head coaching career with the New Orleans Saints in 1986, the elder Mora spent most of the 1960s and 1970s at various colleges.
Even as he followed his father to the NFL, Mora's enthusiasm for the college game never waned. It occasionally even got him in trouble.
The Washington alum was fired by the Atlanta Falcons one month after declaring in a radio interview that his dream job was to coach at his alma mater, even though Tyrone Willingham was already occupying that position at the time. Mora later insisted he was joking.
When the Seattle Seahawks ousted him after the 2009 season, Mora began pondering a return to college. Mora said he spent the next two years researching college football and even received some advice from Washington coach Steve Sarkisian and athletic director Scott Woodward.
"I essentially grew up around college campuses," Mora said. "When I left Seattle and was able to spend a lot of time around college campuses, I realized there was something I'd been missing that I didn't even realize I was missing. That was the opportunity to work with younger athletes who were very impressionable and who I could impact on and off the field.''
Mora often emphasizes that off-field impact during his conversations with recruits and their families.
"It's not all about football," Mora said. "It's about helping these kids grow into the men their parents envisioned them being. That's what we're all about.''
The makeup of Mora's staff addresses his own lack of college experience. Although defensive coordinator Lou Spanos and strength coach Sal Alosi primarily have pro backgrounds, the majority of Mora's assistants come from other college programs.
[ More UCLA: BruinBlitz.com ]
Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, who arrived from SMU, was the only assistant coach who didn't work at a major-conference school or Notre Dame to get selected by Rivals.com as one of the nation's top 25 recruiters last year. Running backs coach Steve Broussard is a former all-Pac-10 running back who most recently worked at Arizona State and Washington State.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone held the same position at Arizona State last season. Mazzone's arrival helped persuade three-star quarterback recruit TJ Millweard to switch his verbal commitment from Arizona State to UCLA. Defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin coached Washington's secondary in 2011 and also has a reputation as a strong recruiter.
"The thing Mora's done that's really intelligent is that no recruits really know him, but he's surrounded himself with assistants from across the country that everybody knows," Adam Gorney, the West Coast recruiting analyst for Rivals.com said. "These are assistants they've already built relationships with. These kids have probably never met Mora before. If they have met him, it's their first time. But they've known these assistants for a year.''
This staff has done an impressive job of flipping recruits who had been committed elsewhere.
Millweard followed Mazzone from Arizona State to UCLA. Rios switched from Boise State to UCLA, though he admitted he was leaning toward making that move even before UCLA fired former coach Rick Neuheisel.
Murrieta (Calif.) Vista Murrieta defensive end Jeremy Castro, a four-star recruit, continued the trend last weekend by switching his commitment from Oregon to UCLA. The biggest surprise came last week from Monrovia (Calif.) defensive tackle Ellis McCarthy, a five-star prospect and the nation's No. 21 overall recruit.
Nobody was shocked when McCarthy backed off his verbal commitment to California after Washington hired away Golden Bears assistant and prized recruiter Tosh Lupoi. But conventional wisdom suggested McCarthy would switch to USC. He instead picked UCLA, though USC continues to pursue him.
UCLA's late surge is surprising even its own commitments.
"I am surprised because UCLA - I know they're not really an underdog - but for the past couple of years they haven't really had great seasons," Rios said. "I figured we were going to attract more recruits and stuff, but I didn't know it was going to turn out like this.''
When USC got placed on four years' probation in the summer of 2010, UCLA figured to emerge as one of the biggest benefactors. UCLA instead signed just three four-star prospects last year and ranked 45th in the Rivals.com recruiting rankings.
This year, there's more of a logjam at the top of the Pac-12 recruiting rankings. As of Tuesday afternoon, California was 15th nationally, Stanford 16th, USC 17th, UCLA 18th and Oregon 19th.
UCLA won't start competing with USC again on the field unless it starts winning more recruiting battles with its rival.
Mora welcomes the test.
"Recruiting's been fun,'' Mora said. "It's been an opportunity to learn and grow. It's been a challenge. And at this point in my life, it's something I really relish.''