A little more than a year after he was fired as coach of the Seattle Seahawks and reincarnated as a TV analyst, Jim L. Mora went skiing on Crystal Mountain.
It was there on the alpine slopes in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest that Mora tore up his knee, to use his words. Months of rehabilitation were required.
And not just to fix his knee, either. That rehab might be one of the biggest reasons Mora is now the coach at UCLA, where he led the Bruins to the Pac-12 South Division championship in his first season and has them in prime position to contend for that title again in Year 2.
Mora will coach against the University of Washington, his alma mater, for the first time Friday. And if you can believe it, the UW might deserve as much credit as anyone for sparking Mora’s desire to coach at the college level.
Shortly after he was injured, Mora received a call from UW athletic director Scott Woodward, who invited Mora, a walk-on linebacker and defensive back for the Huskies in the early 1980s, to rehab with UW’s training staff and use its facilities.
Three hours each day, five days a week, for six months — beginning in spring of 2011 — Mora worked to get his knee back to full strength. But he got something else out of those sessions.
“It was mostly just being around all the athletes — not just football, but all the athletes — (that) gave me a real hunger for this level,” said Mora, who had coached exclusively in the NFL, save for a graduate assistant position at UW in 1984. “It wasn’t necessarily about the X’s and O’s; it was just the relationships and having an impact on those kids, and just seeing what they were going through and what their fears were, and their anxieties and their goals and their dreams.”
UW coach Steve Sarkisian said that having Mora around was mutually beneficial, because “I think as much as he was probably assessing how we do things here, I was picking his brain as well.”
Mora said he wasn’t around the football program as much as some assume, though Sarkisian, a friend, did invite him to attend a couple of meetings and watch practice every now and then.
It’s not an overstatement to say those six months were instrumental in sparking Mora’s interest in becoming a college head coach for the first time. He’d barely considered it before.
“Not really,” Mora said. “I may have thought about it, but I think that really crystallized it for me. … It just was a different environment than I’d been around for the last 25 years of my life, and I really enjoyed it. I looked forward to going over there. I didn’t necessarily look forward to the treatment, but I looked forward to going over there.”
Of course, it’s no surprise that Mora’s coaching career once again linked back to his alma mater. His name has a way of surfacing in connection to UW, whether it’s his own doing or not.
Sometimes, it is.
His now-infamous radio spot with KJR-AM in December of 2006, Mora said, is perhaps the “one major regret” of his life.
Mora, then coach of the Atlanta Falcons, raved on-air about how much he’d like to coach the Huskies, going so far as to say he’d be the first to send his résumé if the position ever opened, even if Atlanta were in the middle of a playoff run.
Given that he was a sitting head coach of an NFL team — and that the UW job was occupied by Tyrone Willingham, who had just completed his second season on a five-year contract — the comments were not well-received in Atlanta.
“I was joking” said Mora, whose father, Jim E., was a UW assistant before becoming coach of the Colts and Saints. “I wasn’t in any way, shape or form serious. But when I look back on how I said what I said, it makes perfect sense to me why people read into it.”
That interview wound up contributing to Mora’s firing at the end of that season. It wore on him. He rattles off the damage like a man who has spent considerable time thinking about it.
“It affected a lot of people,” Mora said. “I got fired, my family had to move, all our assistant coaches had to move.”
Due in part to that interview — and, too, his ties as a former player — many Huskies fans clamored for Mora to be hired when Willingham was fired in 2008. But Mora had moved on to an assistant job with the Seahawks, and was named coach-in-waiting once Mike Holmgren retired, a position that made it nearly impossible for him to leave.
Plus, Mora said, “they (the UW) have never approached me.”
“I never considered that job, nor was I considered for that job,” he said. “I think they’ve got the right man there in Steve Sarkisian.”
With UW’s help, Mora seems to have found the right fit for himself, too.