Mora's balancing act for NFL advice

LOS ANGELES -- You're a head coach who signed a 17-year-old prodigy to come play football for you. You signed him after, and only after, you promised his family that you would look out for him. You took that kid, turned his baby fat into muscle and his brain into football software. That 17-year-old wannabe is now a 20-year-old star. He has helped you win. He has helped you earn that contract extension with the nice salary bump.

And now that franchise player is staring at the NFL, a lifelong dream so close he could fist-bump it. He sees the league. He sees the life. The agents, good and bad, are making lazy circles in the sky above, waiting to swoop. He's hearing a lot of people telling him what they want him to hear. But he is sitting in front of you, asking you what he should do, and you have a dilemma of your own.

If he stays, you contend for a conference championship and a playoff berth. If he stays, you're a top-10 team and the recruiting doors you couldn't break down with a battering ram magically unlock. If he stays, you win.

What is a head coach's responsibility? Is it to the player? Is it to the program? The answer is yes.

"It's a delicate balance," UCLA coach Jim Mora said.

The Bruins wind up their spring work Saturday at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., and, according to Mora, redshirt junior quarterback Brett Hundley has gotten even better over the past four weeks, which is saying something. Hundley already is being touted as one of the top quarterbacks for the 2015 NFL draft.

As a redshirt freshman in 2012, he set the school single-season record with 3,740 passing yards. Last season, he threw for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for 748 yards and another 11 TDs. Two months before he turns 21, he is 6-foot-3, 227 pounds. He is a leader, a force within the locker room and a sunshiny presence with the media, and he has started all 27 games over the past two seasons.

And in January, Hundley nearly declared his eligibility for the 2014 NFL draft.

When Hundley sat down to pick Mora's brain about what to do, the coach felt a pull on each side of the decision.

"It's hard to balance that responsibility," Mora said. "Because we do have a responsibility to these kids in many, many ways. And to their families. We make them promises. We're going to help them reach their dreams. We're going to help them develop into the men you envision them becoming. They are handing them off to us.

"For a guy like Brett or others who absolutely have that dream of playing in the NFL, and have the ability, you're balancing that vs. OK, we sure want him to stay at UCLA for another year, because that's really going to help us, because we have a responsibility to our fans, and to our donors and our alums and our administration and the people that pay us."

Mora had a hole card in his internal debate. He spent 25 years in the NFL as an assistant and head coach. He knows an NFL player when he sees one.

"Fortunately, in the case of Brett, to me those two responsibilities completely aligned," Mora said. "Because my responsibility to Brett was to try to be truthful to him. I told him, 'I don't think you're ready,' or, 'You can be more ready," I guess is the better way. That aligned with the responsibility to all those we serve, which is put the best football team on the field."

In the case of UCLA offensive guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, Mora came to a different conclusion. Su'a-Filo is 23 years old, physically and emotionally ready to make football his job.

"With X," as Mora referred to Su'a-Filo, "he took that Mormon mission, so he's two years older. If you're thinking about X, it's like it's time for [him] to go. You look at his position, we can fit a guy in there and be OK. The guy's not going to step in there and be Xavier Su'a-Filo right away, but we're going to be OK. And X was ready to go."

In the end, Mora said, the balance of responsibilities might be delicate, but the scale is tipped ever so slightly toward one side.

"Ultimately, you want what's best for the young man," Mora said. "That's ultimately what we're driven by because that's the personal aspect of it."

That is the best solution. It is the most equitable, too. And if Mora ever gave into the temptation to put himself and his program first ahead of what's best for his players, the next generation of recruits would know. If they didn't see it for themselves, UCLA's competitors would tell them. Funny how, if you do the right thing, it usually works out.