PASADENA, Calif. -- At the podium, flanked by digital recorders and with dozens of cameras and eyes staring up at him, UCLA head coach Jim Mora is a cool customer. He’s a veteran coach with decades of experience from his time in the NFL. Despite the significance and magnitude of the moment, he wasn’t going to get wide-eyed … or at least let on that he was.
“It’s very special,” Mora said of his team’s 38-28 win over rival USC -- a game that locked up the Pac-12 South for the Bruins. “I don’t want to minimize it, but I also believe as the head football coach it’s important to keep an even keel as much as possible.”
Fast forward to about an hour and a half later -- this time flanked by his family outside the front gates of the Rose Bowl. Out of his Gatorade-soaked coaching gear and into a suit, he took a quiet moment under a dark and drizzly Southern California sky to soak in his first victory in the 82nd meeting of the two schools. No cameras, and only one digital recorder.
“It’s pure, it’s just pure emotion and it comes off of the kids,” Mora said. “They are so genuine and I just try to absorb it. In the locker room after the game, the way they were just dancing around and acting and the enthusiasm is so raw. It’s just awesome. They are so passionate because their time is limited. They are doing it because they love to do it. They aren’t getting paid yet. I just love the college game. I love the pageantry. I loved that both teams were in their home uniforms. I thought that was so awesome. I just got a kick out of watching their student body and our student body. It was just really, really cool.”
Mora’s hiring was met with a tepid response, at best. He was hard. And his players knew it. He had an NFL mentality that had been fostered since he first started in The League in 1985. When it was announced the team was going to spend part of preseason camp in San Bernardino in August, eyes rolled -- along with sweat beads.
“It wasn’t always easy,” said UCLA tight end Joseph Fauria. “There were up and downs. It was his idea to put us in San Bernardino in 120-degree weather. I didn’t like him the whole time. It was like ‘what are you doing to us?’ But we trusted him, because he’s our head coach. We didn’t have to like it. We just had to trust him. He’s been through it with us and he loves it here and I love him for being here and he’s going to keep doing it here.”
And Saturday night Mora helped orchestrate a defense that forced three USC turnovers en route to the win -- UCLA’s first over the Trojans since 2006. It’s a far cry from last year’s 50-0 stomping the now No. 17 Bruins (9-2, 6-2) suffered at the hands of the Trojans -- who had won 12 of the past 13 contests. Mora declined to comment on the “monopoly” that USC had held over Los Angeles football for more than a decade. Ever the head coach in front of the cameras, he continually stressed that this is just one win.
“I’ll just go back to following the routine,” Mora said.
“But this isn’t routine,” quipped a Los Angeles columnist in the news conference, hoping to get Mora to open up a bit more.
“Well, it is for me,” said Mora. “I’m 1-0 [in the rivalry].”
That drew a laugh.
Behind 171 rushing yards and two touchdowns from UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin and a 22-of-30 performance from redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley, the Bruins jumped on USC 24-0 in the first half. UCLA forced a pair of turnovers and turned both into touchdowns. The Bruins scored three touchdowns and a field goal on their first four possessions.
But the No. 18 Trojans (7-4, 5-4) battled back behind a pair of Matt Barkley touchdowns. He finished 20-of-38 for 301 yards with three scores and two interceptions. He was knocked out late in the fourth quarter and the extent of his injury wasn’t immediately known. He did talk to reporters briefly after the game, but his throwing arm (believed to be the source of the injury) was covered by a jacket.
Marqise Lee was his usual, outstanding self, catching nine balls for 158 yards with a touchdown.
The Trojans cut it to a field goal with 7:22 left in the game, but a 29-yard touchdown run from Franklin iced the game, sparked a Gatorade bath and propelled the Bruins into the conference title game for the second straight year. This time, there are no asterisks.
“It’s all coach,” said Hundley. “From Day 1, we bought into him. Yeah, it was hard. But it’s supposed to be hard. Look where we are now.”
And look at where Mora is. He’s 3-0 against the three other new head coaches in the conference -- Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham and Mike Leach -- and whether he wants to admit it, there is a sense that things are going to be changing in L.A. for the years to come.
“He gives the same message every day,” said UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “He’s tough. But he’s fair, and they love him. There is some tough love involved. But as a head coach, he’s off the charts.”