Despite loss, Bruins are a step ahead

UCLA came up short in its bid for the Rose Bowl on Friday night, but the Bruins this season served notice that they intend on being a contender for the "Granddaddy of Them All" for years to come.

Thanks to a coach, a captain, a camp and a quarterback, UCLA is a program on the rise.

The Bruins battled one of the nation's top teams to the bitter end before falling to No. 8 Stanford, 27-24, Friday in the Pac-12 championship game at Stanford Stadium, and in the process gained some credibility as a program that is on the road to relevance.

The beginning of that journey came when Jim Mora took over as coach just about a year ago. It got a boost when captain Johnathan Franklin decided to come back for his senior season, took a turn in the right direction during a grueling training camp in San Bernardino and nearly reached the finish line thanks to the better-than-expected performance of quarterback Brett Hundley.

That road has included many twists, turns, detours and bumps, but the Bruins have weathered it all and have escaped the clutches of mediocrity far sooner than anyone could have imagined.

This is the comeback team of the year in the conference and maybe in the country, coming within three points of a BCS bowl a year after its coach was fired and the Bruins became the first team to finish a season 6-8.

It's a young and raw group that had not experienced much success over the past few seasons, and it was led by a coach in his first year at the college level. It's a team hardly anybody believed could reach these heights this year, but they used the doubts as motivation and all they have done is win nine games for only the second time since 1998, defeated USC for only the second time since that same year and, more important, gained some national respect.

It's easily UCLA's best season in more than a decade, the seeds of which were planted one day last December when Mora, already hired by UCLA but refraining from coaching until after the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, told the team in no uncertain terms that he would demand dedication to getting better.

The Bruins have had a time-honored tradition of ditching a practice each year, and they continued it while preparing for their bowl game last season. When Mora caught word, he derided the tradition and vowed it would end on his watch.

It was the first step in Mora's plan to get UCLA back on track. A culture of mediocrity had permeated Westwood over the last decade, and Mora's No. 1 goal was to purge that. He instilled a sense of discipline and accountability during spring practice and then came up with the idea of taking his team to San Bernardino for training camp.

It was an idea some called crazy, with temperatures soaring well over 100 degrees on most days, but one that brought about a team unity that hadn't been seen over the past few seasons. The players bonded and began to care for one another in a way they hadn't before those three weeks in August.

During the season, Mora preached the idea that every game carried the utmost importance, and the players bought in. A Week 2 victory over Nebraska showed the Bruins might be on to something. Franklin, the star running back, put the team on his shoulders and had consecutive 200-yard games to begin the season.

He stayed mostly healthy throughout the season and rid himself of the fumble-itis that plagued him his first few seasons, becoming the clear leader on a team that started up to seven freshmen on offense at times and no fewer than five.

His emergence as a team-carrying type of player lightened the load on Hundley, the freshman quarterback who needed a few games to get his sea legs. He played solid for most of the season, then emerged as a big-time player when he directed a last minute-comeback at Arizona State.

His performance down the stretch as UCLA defeated USC and clinched the Pac-12 South Division let everyone know that the quarterback position, long a point of concern for UCLA, was in good hands for the foreseeable future.

But it all starts with Mora and his staff of assistant coaches. They made a defense-changing move by switching Anthony Barr from running back to linebacker and handed the keys to the offense to a freshman with unproven potential.

But most of all, they came in with no UCLA ties, no preconceived notions of how things should be run and did away with the "way it's always been done" attitude that had crippled the Bruins for more than a decade.

Mora showed irreverence for UCLA's rivalry with USC first by insulting them with comments about off-campus safety issues early in the season and then by acknowledging he has a friendship with USC coach Lane Kiffin. He then broke another UCLA tradition by beating the Trojans.

The Bruins will now head to either the Alamo Bowl or the Holiday Bowl. That's a major step up from the lower-tier bowls such as the Kraft Fight Hunger and Eagle Bank Bowls that UCLA has played in over the last few years.

But still, the Rose Bowl looms. Mora has said all along that his goal is to get Bruins to a point where they are regulars in the hunt for BCS bowls and the national championship.

They aren't quite there yet, but this season certainly has the Bruins a step closer to that perch, which is not something they could say before the coach, the captain, the camp and the quarterback turned things around.