Jim Mora and UConn football are looking to write a comeback story together

AP Photo/Pat Eaton-Robb

STORRS, Conn. -- Jim Mora lives in a stately old building set upon three acres on a hill above campus at the University of Connecticut.

He loves the location, the connection to the campus community and the six-minute walk of a commute. But there's a spooky soundtrack of doors that open at night, ominous shadows and unexplained noises.

"I'm convinced it's haunted," he said with a chuckle in his office recently.

There are colliding metaphors for Mora's haunted new haunt -- the task of bringing UConn football back from the dead and the 60-year-old Mora embracing the presence of new ghosts while trying to exorcise a few of his own.

"I just warn everyone who stays that it's haunted," Mora said with a laugh, "but they're good ghosts."

When taking over a program that went 1-11 last year, lacks a conference affiliation and last appeared in a bowl in 2016, the ability to find positive among the haunted is a necessary personality trait.

With UConn playing at defending Mountain West champion Utah State in Week 0, the football world will see a familiar face in a new place Saturday.

Mora's return to UConn has been cast as one of the sport's most unexpected unions -- a collision of a program that needed an adrenaline shot and a coach who wanted another shot. Can he resurrect UConn football and his own coaching career along the way?

Mora wanted to prove he could build a winner after getting fired at UCLA -- he says unjustly -- in 2017. UConn needed credibility after the Randy Edsall encore coaching tenure was a complete flop. UConn won just six total games after Edsall took over in 2017, and he departed last September.

"I wanted another chance. I was at the point, if it didn't happen, I was OK with it. I was happy in Sun Valley," Mora said of his residence in Idaho. "There was an itch that I had that I really felt like I needed this opportunity. It's what I love to do, it's what I'm passionate about. I love being able to affect these kids. I'm at the point in my life where it's really, truly not about me."

Mora has lived a compelling football life. He's the son of longtime NFL coach Jim Mora, played college football at Washington and authored a generally successful coaching career that included NFL head-coaching stints in Atlanta and Seattle. Mora has done everything from coach Michael Vick in Atlanta to work for or with, by his count, 41 different members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Everyone from Bill Walsh to Junior Seau and Jerry Rice to Terrell Owens.

Mora hadn't coached since 2017, spent three seasons as an ESPN analyst (2018-2020) and had been living in Sun Valley where his hobby offered apt training for his new job.

Prior to getting hired by UConn in November, Mora said he logged 450,000 vertical feet of hiking and mountain biking in 2021 while helping a friend train for scaling Mt. Everest. The transition became a fitting one.

"The challenge of going uphill and taking over a program like this," Mora said. "It inspires me and breathes life into me."

It's clear Mora is energized by the challenge in front of him. Since arriving in mid-November, UConn has brought in 40 new scholarship players, meaning nearly half of the 82 scholarship players weren't on the team last year. Mora's new chapter, in many ways, is indicative of the next generation of how college football rosters are built.

A needed talent infusion and a strong, young staff -- most of the coaches are in their 30s -- have created enough momentum that Mora is already worried about keeping the staff together.

"It's more about the emotional side of things and the energy around the program that comes from the coaches and the players, it's fun to see," UConn athletic director David Benedict said. "What you have to come away with, whether at practice or in the building, is that these guys are having fun. That part has been really rewarding. That wasn't present the last couple years."

Mora raves about former Maine head coach Nick Charlton running the offense. The defense was under former UConn interim Lou Spanos, but he took a personal leave of absence, which the school announced last week. It's uncertain who will call the defense, but Mora's history is on that side of the ball.

Part of what haunts Mora from his time at UCLA is that he said he wrestled with a constant tension. He lived nearly an hour from campus in Manhattan Beach, and he found himself choosing between channeling his time and energy between his four kids or with his players and staff.

"I always felt like I was in conflict," he said, "trying to feel like how to split my time and not feel like I was cheating one or the other and not feeling guilty."

Mora's youngest, Trey, is a sophomore at Colorado. When Mora moved him in last year, Trey told his dad: "It's time for you to coach again."

Mora joked with him that it wasn't that easy. But with one kid in college and three having graduated, the conflict has eased. (Mora filed for divorce from his former wife in 2016 while at UCLA and married his current wife, Kathy, in July).

"There's no conflict now," Mora said. "I can put so much more into the kids in this program, which I love. That's what I love about college football compared to the pros. You have so much more impact on the people that are in the program, specifically the players."

Mora does admit there's a sour taste in his mouth from his firing at UCLA. He led the Bruins to five bowl seasons in six years, including a pair of 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014. He's quick to point out that UCLA won just 10 games in the three years after he left. (UCLA won eight games last season.)

"I didn't like the way it ended at UCLA. I should not have been fired. And I will tell you this, the last four years bear that out," Mora said.

He added: "I shouldn't have been fired. You can write that. I should not have been fired. What did they win, [18] games in the four years since I've been fired?

"So yeah, I do have a chip on my shoulder. Did I want another chance? Sure."

Perhaps the most enthusiasm Mora showed during a recent visit to his office came with the upside of UConn. The Huskies have always had high-end facilities for a Group of 5 program, and Mora prefers UConn's setup over the Wasserman Football Center facility he helped build at UCLA.

He mentions better practice fields, a cafeteria for the players and better overall logistics. "I would say this is a better facility, I'd take it over UCLA's," he said. "The parking facility is better here and there's no traffic. I'd take it 10 times out of 10 times over UCLA's."

The bones of the program are solid, outside the awkward stadium location 25 miles from campus. The roster still needs work, but Mora pointed this spring to Penn State transfer quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson and linebacker Jackson Mitchell (113 tackles in 2021) as linchpin pieces who could help the Huskies develop an identity in the coach's first year.

Mora lauded Charlton's ability to adapt his system to the personnel and game plan, noting that UConn needs to figure out ways to hang in games and win them in the fourth quarter.

After that tough opener at Utah State, the schedule includes plenty of challenges -- Syracuse, at Michigan, at NC State, Fresno State and Boston College among them.

As Mora works to overhaul the roster, the notion of UConn's place in the FBS football universe remains vexing. The Huskies aren't in a conference, which shrouds the definition of success in ambiguity. "It's really a tough question. I think about it a lot," Mora said.

What can UConn become? That depends on the first steps back to relevancy under Mora. When Benedict called around about Mora last fall, former UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero complimented Mora's ability to connect with players and recruits.

So far, Mora's living up that scouting report. And by doing so, has built the foundation on which he and the Huskies can come back.

"There wasn't any question about whether or not he could coach," Benedict said. "Obviously, he understands football. ... Seeing that play out with the kids on the team and from a recruiting standpoint, how he relates to current kids. The level of effort he puts into recruiting.

"He's exceeded any expectation I could have had coming in."