UConn football announced the hiring of its new head coach on Thursday. Nobody predicted it would be Jim Mora when the job became open, but the former UCLA and Atlanta Falcons coach will be the program’s 32nd head coach.
Mora had success at the beginning of his tenure with the Bruins, with two 10-win seasons and a Pac-12 Championship game appearance, but was dismissed in his sixth year as his team was headed for a second consecutive losing season. His announcement did not draw rave reviews from the broader college football community.
Mora, whose father is a legendary coach in his own right, spent the past four years as a TV analyst. He’s going to join UConn this week, having recently flown to South Carolina to meet the Huskies for the Clemson game. This will allow him to get off to a fast start in a way most other new coaches don’t get to.
Given UConn’s non-power five status, talent is always going to be a concern. Any school in UConn’s situation should be doing whatever it can to bring in the best possible players. However, former head coach Randy Edsall did not recruit much from the transfer portal, even as dozens of upperclassmen chose to transfer out during his tenure.
This left the Huskies constantly trying to make things work with underclassmen dominating the depth chart, a process Edsall initiated with the roster that was not in bad shape.
Mora had a chance to share his philosophy in his first press conference as UConn’s incoming coach. He said he wanted to emphasize keeping in-state and nearby talent home and that transfers would also be part of the mix.
“[The transfer portal] has changed the landscape of college football and it has allowed teams to get better quickly,” he told Mike Anthony of Hearst. “I think the portal gives you a chance to get some players that have some experience, obviously are a little bit more mature. … I just think you have to make sure that you attack it with a real strategy and you don’t become a team of mercenaries, that you use it to your advantage where you can.”
Another large issue that the last three coaches had was a lack of on-field innovation, or maximizing the outcomes with the talent on hand. Even when Edsall had offensive coordinators with a modern approach, they didn’t stick around for long. After that, the offense was stale and struggled to stay on the field, undue pressure on a defense.
As recently as 2017, Mora was on record as saying that spread offenses have never won a national title. This comment was viewed as problematically incorrect at the time, though Mora tried to correct himself after.
More recently, Mora seems to have changed his tune.
“I think football changes every year,” he said. “We’re always studying and trying to learn a better way to do things and a quicker way to score points. The most important thing that you can do is take the athletes on your football team and put them in a position to have success and keep them out of positions where they’re going to fail.
“We’re going to hire a great offensive coordinator that’s progressive and his thought process is not stubborn in the way that he approaches the game and is intent on putting our players in the best position to have success and score points.”
That man may already be on staff. Noel Mazzone, who was hired as an offensive analyst in September, has been responsible for some of the improved offense since Edsall’s departure, was Mora’s offensive coordinator at UCLA from 2012-2015. Interim head coach Lou Spanos, by the way, was defensive coordinator on that UCLA staff.
Was this the right person for the job?
Many of the names discussed for the UConn vacancy, such as those from the FCS level, or power five coordinators with ties to the program like Joe Moorhead or Todd Orlando, simply may not have had as much interest as UConn would have liked. Mora, who turns 60 next week and has been out of coaching for four years, may seem like a weird choice at first glance. But he has a decent resume and seems to want to be here.
“Talking to people in the community that are important to UConn football and listening to what they have to say and their passion for this program, I tell you what. It grabbed me. It convinced me beyond any doubt that this is the right place for me and that this is the right time and there’s no hesitation about just diving in head-first,” Mora said.
Athletic Director David Benedict seems to have preferred Mora’s genuine interest and his high points as an NFL and college head coach over the challenges that may come from being out of coaching for four years and having no ties to the area.
Benedict visited Mora at his home in Idaho for several days to get to know this candidate better, before deciding to hammer out the contract and come up with a plan for the football program. This hire was under the radar, and maybe not a perfect fit, but reportedly Mora felt Benedict was brutally honest about the pros and cons of the job.
He knows what he’s getting into, wants to be here, and came at a good price. If Jim Mora can put a good staff together and bring in slightly better talent than his predecessors while updating the on-field philosophy, UConn football should at least get out of the Bottom 10, and maybe even get decent.
Despite their understandable hesitations, UConn fans have reason to be cautiously optimistic, at least until the start of next season.