As Washington opens its coaching search, one name already at the top of the list is UCLA coach Jim Mora for all of the obvious reasons.
He went to school there. He owns a house there. His dad coached there. When he talks about himself, he says he’s from Seattle.
Oh yeah, he happens to be a pretty good coach who knows the Pac-12 and can recruit Washington and California -- two of the league’s vital arteries. See: Jack, Myles and Vanderdoes, Eddie, for examples.
Seattle fans will clamor for Mora, which they should, especially after he’s led UCLA to an 18-8 record in two seasons and a 9-1 mark in the South Division. And now that Steve Sarkisian is at USC, it’s worth noting that Mora is 2-0 against the Trojans.
But it’s not Washington that holds the cards in this situation. It’s UCLA.
If the Bruins truly want to be a major player in college football, this is the moment of truth. It’s go time. This is big-boy football and the Bruins are at a major crossroads. It’s time to decide if they want to consistently be a top 10 football program, or a basketball school that plays football.
A few years down the road we could be talking about UCLA winning a Pac-12 championship. Or we could be talking about their fourth straight loss to the Sark-led Trojans. These next few days will likely provide the telltale moment we look back on and say, “That’s when it all changed.”
You need only hear Mora’s impassioned speech about the Bruins following Saturday’s win at USC to know he wants to stay in Westwood.
I’ll tell you what -- it’s nice to have it now for two years in a row. It tells you what’s going on at UCLA. It’s an exciting time at UCLA. It’s an exciting time to be a UCLA Bruin. You want to play for a fun, tough, hard-nosed football team that can go and win games everywhere, come to UCLA. There is something growing there that is pretty special. And to come in here on a Saturday night like this and get a win, it tells you where this program is headed.
But every coach has a price. And knowing Mora, I’m guessing his price is more money for his assistants and better facilities. Fundraising has already begun for a football-only facility, but keeping assistants happy will be a key bargaining chip.
Mora is competitive to the point of obsessive. He doesn’t just want to win Pac-12 titles. He wants to win national championships. And he believes he can do it at UCLA. This isn’t breaking any off-the-record codes. He’s told me that numerous times over the last two years -- just as he’s told it to many other reporters and columnists and boosters and anyone else who will listen.
Texas A&M made a preemptive strike against Kevin Sumlin leaving for USC by extending him through 2019, giving him a reported $5 million per year and time to play and recruit to Kyle Field, which is undergoing a $450-million renovation.
It would behoove UCLA to do the same for Mora, who is under contract through 2017. And quickly. Because Washington isn’t going to wait. Nor should it.
If the Husky brass hasn’t started courting Mora already, it will soon. They’ll offer him more money than he’s making now (which I’m guessing isn’t a major priority). But more importantly, they’ll offer beautifully renovated Husky Stadium and more money to whomever he wants to bring with him.
“The search for Steve’s successor has already begun," said Washington athletic director Scott Woodward in a statement. "I will work hard in the coming days to find the absolute best fit for the University of Washington but I will not comment on or speculate about the process. We have tremendous tradition, fan base and a world-class institution, and I am confident we will find the right man. We will compete for Pac-12 and national championships and we will do so with class, integrity, sportsmanship and a commitment to our student-athletes. That promise is at the forefront of my mind as I embark on finding our next football coach."
UCLA needs to show Mora a higher level of commitment to winning, or else he’ll go somewhere else that will.
UCLA’s powerbrokers have to know this. They have to see the progress that has been made since Mora took over for a team that lost 50-0 to USC in 2011 and had to petition just to make a bowl game. They have to see that the Bruins are now one of the scariest teams in the Pac-12 with a veteran coaching staff with oodles of NFL experience.
Mora has leverage right now. And he’s going to use every bit of that leverage to keep what he’s built moving in the right direction. That, or he'll be sending #woof tweets in the very near future.
Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall Saturday night. Coaches chitchat. Scuttlebutt swirls. Perhaps he knew USC was going to give the job to Sarkisian and his name would be floated as the Washington coach. And maybe, just maybe, his impassioned speech wasn’t just for the recruits. But for the administrators and boosters who sign the checks. And if that's the case, well-played, sir.
The last thing Mora wants to do is look his players in the eyes and say he’s leaving for Washington. And he will look them in the eyes. He is building something special. And it’s up to UCLA’s decision-makers to keep it on track. Because if they don’t, Mora-to-Washington might be more than just speculation. It could quickly become a reality.