Jim Mora models UCLA in the NFL way

UCLA coach Jim Mora says "There's really only one way I've ever done it, which is an NFL way." Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Jim Mora knows all college programs don't connect to the NFL in the same way.

As an NFL coach, Mora spent 25 years visiting college campuses to scout players. Certain schools had reputations as NFL pipelines. Certain schools just had a pro feel when he stopped by.

"You could tell by the structure of a place, the way they practiced, the way they dealt with you as a pro coach, their level of professionalism, what you were dealing with," Mora said.

The University of Miami exuded NFL when Mora dropped by.

"It was always fun to go there," he said, before adding, "It might have been just because they had a gazillion athletes."

UCLA doesn't have as many elite athletes as those superb Miami teams Mora used to visit, but the program is building stronger bonds with the NFL. The Bruins had three players drafted this spring, bringing their three-year total to 12, the program's best stretch since 2002-04. After failing to produce an NFL draft pick in 2012, UCLA had five in 2014, its highest total in 12 years. UCLA produced first-round picks after each of Mora's first two seasons as coach and could have more next spring in defensive lineman Kenny Clark and, if they choose to come out, linebacker Myles Jack and defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes.

The surge in draft picks is a nice selling point for UCLA, but the program's primary next-level link comes from Mora. His NFL roots shape the college program he oversees. Although Mora is nearly six years removed from his final stint in the NFL, as Seattle's head coach in 2009, he still models UCLA after what he experienced in the pros.

"There's really only one way I've ever done it, which is an NFL way," Mora said, "so I operate with that in mind, still being cognizant of the fact that I'm dealing with younger athletes. I try to teach them professional ways to do things."

He's not the first to blend the pro and college models, although more have struggled (Charlie Weis, Bill Callahan, Chan Gailey, Mike Sherman, Greg Robinson) than succeeded.

Nick Saban made Alabama the nation's preeminent college program, and NFL supplier, after a failed stint as Miami Dolphins coach. Saban also had success at both Michigan State and LSU following his time as an NFL coordinator. He often calls Alabama's program an "organization," a pro term, and the NFL influence is obvious to anyone exploring the massive Mal Moore Athletic Facility in Tuscaloosa. Alabama produced 16 first-round picks between 2010-14.

Mora isn't the first to take this route in Los Angeles. Pete Carroll spent 16 years as an NFL coach before guiding USC to college football's apex. Carroll had 56 Trojans players drafted during his nine-year tenure, including 14 in the first round and seven in the top 10.

Thirteen miles from Heritage Hall, Mora is trying to create a similar NFL connection at UCLA's idyllic campus in Westwood.

"It’s a real advantage for them to be in an environment that's operating at a professional level with professional coaches, because every kid that comes here on scholarship has that dream in their head, that, 'I want to go to the NFL,'" said Mora, 29-11 in three seasons at UCLA. "We know very few of them will, but you still want to afford them that opportunity and teach that."

It starts with the way UCLA practices. There are the usual college markings -- top-40 music playing, recruits walking in packs, fun competitions like the Oklahoma drill -- but the workouts are crisp and organized as players shuffle between two 80-yard fields (UCLA has a lot of NFL-like elements, but its facilities are certainly not one of them).

Team periods seem chaotic from a distance but actually are productive and prolific, as the Bruins simulate game tempo by running as many plays as they can. Linebacker Kenny Young calls Mora's sequence of practice periods "pro-style."

"We really practice like NFL teams practice," said offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, a New York Jets assistant from 2006-08. "We don't waste time. We don't have them out here a long time. When our guys leave and go to the next level, they've been exposed to that NFL style."

UCLA held 12 of 15 practices this spring in the morning, with eight workouts kicking off at 7 a.m. The timing allows assistants to meet with players later in the same day, rather than the following day.

"I love having them in the morning because [players are] fresh, they're alert, there's no clutter, they're there to play football," said defensive line coach Angus McClure, a UCLA assistant since 2007. "Any time you can meet with your players as soon as you can after practice -- in college football it's hard to do when you practice in the afternoon -- their recall is so much better.

"I think they remember twice as much."

"It's a real advantage for them to be in an environment that's operating at a professional level with professional coaches, because every kid that comes here on scholarship has that dream in their head, that, 'I want to go to the NFL.' We know very few of them will but you still want to afford them that opportunity and teach that."
UCLA coach Jim Mora

Mora's NFL approach is reflective in his staff, both in their backgrounds and in how he meticulously manages them. Three assistants -- Mazzone, Kennedy Polamalu and Eric Yarber -- coached in the NFL. Yarber and offensive line coach Adrian Klemm won Super Bowl rings as players. Strength coach Sal Alosi held posts with the Jets and the Falcons, working alongside Mora in Atlanta in 2006.

It doesn't hurt that Mora's father, Jim, an NFL head coach for 15 years, is often around the program.

"He's an old D-line guy, which is great for me," McClure said. "I love to hear what he has to say."

Staff meetings are built around details and clear communication, two elements Mora has brought to UCLA from his NFL days. Mora is also direct with players in meetings, telling them exactly how they'll be evaluated. He wants an environment that's "very professional" and "very demanding."

But he doesn't smother them.

"He treats us like men instead of like children," quarterback Jerry Neuheisel said. "He puts a lot of trust in us that we're going to do the right thing on and off the field, and he gives us a lot of leeway to basically patrol our own team."

UCLA's recent NFL draftees -- linebacker Anthony Barr, defensive ends Cassius Marsh and Datone Jones, running back Johnathan Franklin -- often tell Mora that they felt uniquely prepared for pre-draft events such as the Senior Bowl and the NFL scouting combine, as well as for their first pro minicamps and training camp.

Mora's NFL background and the program's recent spike in draft picks have bolstered recruiting. In February, UCLA signed the nation's No. 11 class, according to ESPN RecruitingNation -- its second top-15 class under Mora.

"Kids realize that if UCLA is coaching me, I have a great chance to go to the NFL," McClure said.

UCLA's pro model remains an evolution. The facilities lag well behind most major college programs, although upgrades are finally on the way.

Mora's goal is to have NFL coaches who visit UCLA feel the way he did walking into the U, or like others do at programs such as Alabama, LSU, Florida State and USC.

"We don't have the space like Alabama does," Neuheisel said. "You could build a million square-foot building [at other places] for what you can build a condo here. We might not have the facilities, but we have the same sort of mindset that they do, and that's way more important than having fancy TVs or ice tubs or toys.

"That's what any recruit would see walking in these hallways."