It takes timing and investment to change the trajectory of a college football program. UCLA just delivered on both.
A sleeping-giant program known for being a bit sleepy in its decision-making and desire suddenly is wide-awake. By firing Jim Mora when it did, big buyout be damned, and swooping in to hire Chip Kelly days later, UCLA won this year's coaching carousel before it really started to spin.
UCLA sensed an opportunity with Kelly available and Florida closing in and went for it. Such administrative aggressiveness is required in a sport in which the money and stakes are bigger than ever, and in which every program aspiring for national success must ask itself: How bad do we want to win?
Until recently UCLA didn't have a strong answer. The school's substandard football facilities stuck out on an otherwise first-rate campus, an idyllic place where school and sports mixed well but football never seemed to be pushed to the front of the line. Rick Neuheisel was right when, after being fired as UCLA's coach, he told ESPN Radio that UCLA "takes a knife to a gunfight" in college football's arms race.
"I think every program across the country has to make a determination as to what their expectation level is and then finance that expectation level," Neuheisel said in 2011, "and in some places those numbers don't jibe."
UCLA made a larger commitment with Mora and in August opened the much-needed, painfully overdue $65 million Wasserman Football Center on campus. But the school's investment would truly be tested by its decision on Mora, who went 4-8 last year and led another underwhelming team despite an NFL-ready quarterback in Josh Rosen.
Even as UCLA couldn't stop the run -- a year after being unable to run the ball -- and the losses piled up, Mora didn't face the same heat as did other underachieving coaches. Many thought Mora's buyout, north of $12 million, would once again save him, especially at a California state school without SEC- or Big Ten-like revenue streams from its league or booster base.
But early Sunday, hours after the Bruins competed well against USC but lost their third straight to their rival, UCLA fired Mora. On his 56th birthday, no less. Harsh? Sure. Yet programs that aspire to be great can't wait around when opportunity knocks.
The Mora move surprised those in his camp as well as some around the UCLA program, accustomed to a more methodical approach. But UCLA had a plan: Bring Chip Kelly back to the Pac-12, a league he dominated in four seasons at Oregon. Kelly went 33-3 in Pac-12 play with the Ducks, winning three league titles, a Rose Bowl and a Fiesta Bowl and reaching the national title game in 2010. He joins a program that hasn't won the Pac-12 since 1998 and won a mostly down South Division just once under Mora despite plenty of NFL talent on the roster.
Pac-12 coaches joke that UCLA is usually the second-best-looking team in the league but fifth or sixth in the final standings. Kelly is exactly the type of coach to blend substance and style.
His Oregon teams featured several stars from the Los Angeles area such as Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas. While Kelly had to expand his recruiting reach to Texas and other areas because of Oregon's remote location, he should have an easier time finding exactly who he needs in UCLA's backyard.
Don't discount Kelly's celebrity, either, especially in a town that revolves around it. While USC was knocked for failing to hire a big name in its past two searches -- to be fair, there was no free-agent candidate quite like Kelly available for the Trojans -- UCLA will immediately attract more attention in a crowded media market with Kelly as its leader. USC always will have inherent advantages over UCLA, but with all due respect to coach Clay Helton, who has done well, Kelly gives the Bruins an edge in coaching.
A reminder: There are no sure things in coaching. Kelly's system was novel at Oregon and might be easier to curtail these days. The roster isn't in great shape to win in the short term. He's not a gung-ho recruiter, which could hurt in an extremely competitive region and received an 18-month show-cause order from the NCAA in June 2013. Kelly will be under the microscope on the trail, especially after the previous Bruins staff didn't have the cleanest reputation. But UCLA's mere actions here -- firing a coach who likely deserved it but had a huge buyout, aggressively pursuing and landing the top candidate in the cycle -- should get its fans excited.
The Chip Kelly move comes down to this: For the first time in recent memory, UCLA is going for it in football.
And that deserves an eight-clap.