It’s not the Huskies he hates. The UCLA coach quietly rages at how he left his hometown — fired after a single season as Seahawks head coach. This is not a simple business trip.
In an industry rife with incendiary personalities, I always thought the hyper-passionate Jim Mora would be the first football coach to spontaneously combust. Wrapped tightly in a gasoline suit, he would ask for a match. If his UCLA Bruins should happen to lose to Washington Saturday at Husky Stadium, be prepared to summon the fireboat.
“This is a business trip,” Mora told reporters Tuesday on the weekly Pac-12 Conference coaches call, summoning all the harrumph he could muster. “I’m going to go up there, I’m going to spend the time with my team that I would on any road trip and I’m going to get on the plane and come home after the game.”
Just another game. Riiight.
As if he hadn’t stared at the stadium every time he and his dad drove from their Bellevue home west across the 520 bridge. As if going to school in Montlake and playing for the Huskies didn’t matter. As if learning under the master, Don James, had been forgotten. As if marrying a UW cheerleader didn’t count.
Even though he spent 25 years coaching around the NFL, Mora was, and is, as Seattle as it gets. So much so that his passion for the hometown eight years ago helped cost him his first NFL head coaching job.
In one of this burg’s legendary sports-media tempests, Mora, in his third year as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, said during an interview in December 2006 on KJR with Dave Mahler and Hugh Millen — Mora’s college roommate and longtime friend — that he would leap at the chance to take the Washington job.
“Well, I really have a lot of respect for Ty (Willingham, then-coach) and I know he’ll do a great job,” said Mora, answering a question. “But if he ever decides to move on, and get in the NFL, or, you know, go back to Notre Dame or whatever . . . if that job’s open, you’ll find me at the friggin’ head of the line, with my résumé in hand, ready to take that job.”
Later on, he was asked if he would do it if the Falcons were coming off a Super Bowl victory. He said: “I don’t care if we’re in the middle of a playoff run, I’m packing my stuff and coming back to Seattle.”
Despite his claim that he was kidding and after a public apology, the Falcons owner and much of Atlanta were dismayed at the astonishing reverie. Three weeks later at season’s end, Mora was fired.
Mora never did get his dream job. But his desire for a win and potential immolation over a loss Saturday has little to do with the Huskies.
He and UW coach Chris Petersen have barely met, so there’s nothing personal going on with the guy who owns Mora’s dream job. Mora speaks fondly of UW athletics director Scott Woodward and former coach Steve Sarkisian, who both offered UW facilities to him in 2011 as he rehabbed from knee surgery following a skiing accident at Crystal Mountain. The dreary rehab nevertheless reconnected him with the world of college athletics, and created a path to the UCLA job.
And the Huskies did him a great favor. When Sarkisian left for USC, Woodward immediately got in touch with Mora about the vacancy. Mora parlayed the interest into a six-year contract extension after a single season in Westwood.
No, Mora is quite happy with the Huskies. His agitation stems from the way he left his hometown — on a metaphorical gurney after one season as Seahawks head coach.
In 2009, after a 5-11 record in his first season as Mike Holmgren’s successor, Mora was fired by then-CEO Tod Leiweke. Aghast at a four-game losing streak that ended the season, which included a listless, 24-7 home defeat to 1-12 Tampa, Leiweke feared Mora had lost the team and was losing fans.
Mora was hand-picked by GM Tim Ruskell, who was in the Atlanta front office when Mora took the Falcons to the NFC Championship in his first year. But Ruskell’s personnel blunders in Seattle prompted Leiweke to fire Ruskell in early December, leaving Mora bereft of his front-office patron.
So the Seahawks were headless in football until Leiweke stunned the sports world in early January 2010 by poaching Pete Carroll from USC. Mora was unemployed, although the $16 million guaranteed by Seahawks owner Paul Allen made him comfortable, as well as quiet.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t seethed since. Almost no one seethes like Mora, so it’s a fair bet that he’s not taking his first game back in Seattle since that unceremonious departure as just another business trip.
In his hometown, the prideful Mora, who earlier was sought nearly simultaneously by the Seahawks and Huskies for head coaching vacancies, suddenly was seen as a loser. But he found validation in the UCLA job, not to mention an emotional outlet.
USC beat its crosstown rival five consecutive times until Mora took over for the fired Rick Neuheisel after the 2011 season. The Bruins since are 2-0, including 35-14 last season. After that game, Mora, the man of the megaton impulse, shouted to his players outside the locker room: “We own LA!”
Even with a win Saturday, Mora can’t own Seattle. But he can get back his dignity.
If he loses? Make way for the fireboat.