When last seen along a Seattle football sidelines, Jim Mora’s Seahawks were outscored 123-37 in their final four games of 2009 to make him the first and only one-year coach in franchise history. For a Bellevue native and longtime pro coach who had been sought not only by the Seahawks but fans of his alma mater, the University of Washington, it was an epic humiliation.
Just in case you wanted to know what is driving Mora Friday night in the Rose Bowl.
Not that he needs more motivation. Picking up the mail and walking the dog, Mora is intense. Give him a whistle and a clipboard, Mora goes volcano. Put him in the race for the Pac-12 South title, he goes nuclear.
Then layer in the agony of leaving his hometown a loser . . . well, it’s hard to calculate the megatons that would be ignited if the second-year UCLA coach loses to Washington Friday night. But if you have relatives in the blast radius from Santa Barbara to Tijuana, you might want to Facebook them a heads-up.
Mora still loves Seattle. Still loves UW. But he hates how he was last remembered. The man who directly fired him, Seahawks president Tod Leiweke, now works in the NHL in Florida, so there’s no payback there. And owner Paul Allen, who OK’d the change, well, there’s nothing much Mora can do that will affect him.
But knowing Mora, he burns to show he’s still a good coach. Especially after the end of the 2009 season, when he talked up plans for next season believing he was still the coach, while Leiweke was quietly negotiating to replace him with Pete Carroll not long before USC was sanctioned.
Beyond his lava-hot passion for showing the folks back home, getting this win also makes career sense for Mora. A fella never knows when a job opens up that he might like.
Such as Washington’s.
While there is no indication of any vacancy, as long as USC’s Ed Orgeron has the adjective “interim” in front of his coaching title, Steve Sarkisian and the Trojans will remain connected through the viscera of their history together.
Once the Apple Cup is over Nov. 29 and UCLA’s regular season ends against USC Nov. 30, the coaching circus commences. Given how the money and the stakes grow larger every year in the predatory world of college football, who knows what happens?
Sarkisian has three regular season games in which his 2013 season (6-3) could dazzle or fizzle. Same with Mora (7-2). Neither are in jeopardy of losing their jobs, but that isn’t the defining issue. It’s whether they become good enough to be courted by others.
For reasons beyond the virtues to the programs, each needs to beat the other in a game of well-matched teams to advance their own agendas. The subplots rarely get more intriguing.
Mora’s ties grew closer to UW in the time between his Seahawks firing and his hire by the Bruins in 2012 — to succeed Rick Neuheisel, the former Washington coach who was fired over a gambling scandal helped send the Huskies to the 0-12 depths.
Mora told reporters this week by teleconference that his interest in the college game was piqued by an odd circumstance that made for a re-embrace of his old school.
Mora tore up his knee skiing at Crystal Mountain. After surgery, UW athletics director Scott Woodward, whom he called “a good friend,” gave permission for Mora to use Washington’s training facilities for his rehab. Three hours a day, five days a week, Mora was around, for the first time since he was a graduate coaching assistant under Don James in 1984, the college scene.
“I got to know people over there,” he said. “I got a taste of what college athletics was like. I didn’t spend as much time around the football program as people tend to think. That’s been overstated a bit. I spent time around the athletes, all the athletes, not just football. It kind of gave me a hunger for football at this level. It wasn’t just about the X’s and O’s. Just having an impact on kids, hearing their fears and anxieties, goals and dreams.
“I’m really thankful that Scott opened the doors to me, and Sark was generous to let me be around. Sark has always been like that with me. He’s a good man.”
So it was the Huskies’ bosses who re-lit the flame for Mora, and for college, not the pro game where he had spent the previous 25 years. I always thought Mora would be a better college coach than a pro coach, because a pro coach has to manage “up” to executives and owners more than a college coach has to manage up to administrators, many of whom are often intimidated by strong-willed money-makers.
Mora is more about impulse than diplomacy. He once said famously on a KJR radio show that Washington was his “dream job.” But he said it while he was coaching the Atlanta Falcons, who fired him after the season because they didn’t get that Mora was trying to be funny.
Who would have imagined that scenario?
Who would have imagined that Seahawks GM Tim Ruskell would make Mora the successor-in-waiting assistant to Mike Holmgren? Or that upon Holmgren’s departure, Mora would last a single year? Or that Pete Carroll would be brought in to succeed Mora? Or that Neuheisel would be rehired within the same conference that helped banish him from Montlake? Or that the disgraced Mora would replaced the disgraced Neuheisel? Or that Carroll would have the Seahawks on the cusp of the Super Bowl?
When it comes to football coaching, pro or college, best to never assume anything.