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Jim Mora needs to get out of his comfort zone to succeed at UConn

There’s no easy path to glory with a football program in Storrs, so Mora will need to be comfortable with experimentation in order to succeed.

New UConn football coach Jim Mora, Jr. speaks to the crowd at the UConn women’s basketball game at the XL Center on Sunday, November 14, 2021.
New UConn football coach Jim Mora, Jr. speaks to the crowd at the UConn women’s basketball game at the XL Center on Sunday, November 14, 2021.
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn football’s decision to hire Jim Mora as head football coach is drawing polarized reactions.

To some, he’s a relatively big-name hire who had some success at UCLA, has experience program building, and has the opportunity to recruit well and make smart staffing decisions. He brings a very strong pedigree to a program looking for something.

To others, he’s mastered the art of presentation but lacks substance, a beneficiary of nepotism who washed out of his previous job because he couldn’t win with his own recruits.

The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle.

Mora has at least said all the right things since arriving in Storrs. He’s met with program boosters, faculty members, and even Governor Ned Lamont. He was animated in his introductory press conference.

“This was the job that I wanted,” Mora said, pounding the podium, “and there was no doubt or hesitation.”

Mora compared running a college program to an NFL team, a much more dubious comparison before recent years now that the new transfer rule has taken effect.

Mora said he wants to take advantage of — but not rely on — that transfer rule to beef out the roster, something that his predecessor failed to do.

He avoided another early misstep as he started to fill out his staff. Noel Mazzone and Lou Spanos, who took on interim roles after Randy Edsall was fired, were both coordinators at UCLA under Mora, who might have been tempted to keep both them on as offensive and defensive coordinators respectively. But the entire previous staff was relieved of their duties.

Mora’s choice for offensive coordinator, Nick Charlton, was head coach at Maine after one year as offensive coordinator there. Maine's offense wasn't anything super standout during his time there but had solid read-option and RPO concepts, and performed decently against FBS opponents.

The rest of Mora’s staff includes coaches who are popular with their players, like new defensive line coach Ryan Osborn from Michigan, or solid recruiters, like E.J. Barthel and Preston Pehrson.

John Marinelli, the tight ends coach, adds a different layer. His presence will strengthen UConn’s relationship with in-state high schools, and Mora has taken even more steps in that direction.

Mora has made phone calls to multiple state high school coaches and attended several rivalry games during Thanksgiving weekend, including Hand vs. Guilford and New London vs. Norwich Free Academy.

You never want to ignore in-state recruiting, and Mora is smart not to, but UConn still has a long way to go before the truly talented in-state recruits choose UConn. The state of Connecticut has produced ten four-star recruits in the past five years, and they've gone to the following schools: Michigan (3x), Stanford, Florida, Miami, Notre Dame, Clemson, Penn State, and Alabama.

At least in the short run, UConn could be better off focusing their efforts elsewhere to pick up diamonds in the rough in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, and Texas, like most G5 programs.

“When they’re little kids they should grow up passionate about playing for UConn, running around in the streets with UConn jerseys on. We have to recruit everywhere, but there are good players in this state and we should want them and they should want us,” Mora said.

It’s easy to say the right things in the intro press conference. Going out and doing it is a different thing.

With the state of the program as it exists right now, succeeding is a tall order. The Huskies finished in the bottom five in SP+ for the fourth consecutive year. They’ve gone over two calendar years without a win over a FBS team. There are currently a grand total of 10 upperclassmen on the roster, with some of them likely to transfer. Bringing in transfers could fill the gap, but you don’t want to rely on them for multiple years in a row (just ask Charlie Weis at Kansas.)

In his first few seasons at UCLA, Mora’s record was pretty much unimpeachable. Early on in his time at UCLA, the former NFL coach’s plan worked out, and he won a lot of games: 9-3 in his first year, then following up with two 10-win seasons and a Pac-12 South division title.

But when it came time to develop his own players and sustain the success, cracks started to show. When it came to rely on his own recruits, and string together consecutive good coordinator hires, expectations outpaced the amount of success his teams could sustain.

Mora’s success continued into 2015, when he went 8-5, but after being dominated physically by Nebraska in the Foster Farms Bowl, and after longtime friend and offensive coordinator Mazzone left for Texas A&M, Mora decided to replace his high-flying, up-tempo attack with a pro-style, ground and pound offense. This new scheme didn’t fit the roster which had been constructed with Mazzone’s offense in mind. It predictably failed, and they gave up on it midway through the season en route to a 4-8 record.

Mora recruited well at UCLA on the surface, ranking no worse than third in the conference in his five years at the program, but never made a huge jump over what former coach Rick Neuheisel did, and it was clear some of his success came as a result of the solid foundation established by his predecessor.

Mora seemed checked out in his final season and was fired on his birthday in 2017, before the final game of the season against Cal.

Mora is moving to a program at an entirely different point in its life cycle than UCLA, even at a fundamental level. UCLA may not be a powerhouse program, but they have a deep history and attachment to a stable, high-paying conference. At the time of Mora’s hire, they just needed an extra nudge to take them over the top. Mora wasn’t the man for that job, it turned out.

Compare that to UConn, a program that has scraped the bottom of FBS for three seasons now after experiencing some short-lived success. From Paul Pasqualoni to Bob Diaco to Edsall a second time, each coach over the past years has left the cupboard bare, then stripped the shelves, and the cycle is running once again, as transfers and de-commitments are stacking up.

Mora has come to save the day, in an area he’s never coached before, with less talent than he’s ever had, as a coach known as a ceiling raiser. It’s extremely far from the semi-stocked cupboard he walked into in sunny Los Angeles in 2012, and it’ll take flexibility and the right combination of transfers and player development to succeed.

Just this week, we’re seeing the Huskies host a large number of recruits on campus, both members of the class of 2022 and graduate transfers. It seems like Mora is wisely casting a wide net given the state of the roster.

There’s also the question of the defensive coordinator. After hiring almost his full staff in one fell swoop earlier this week, the defensive coordinator position remains unfilled. However, it seems unlikely that Mora would have hired a defensive line and linebackers coach without the new DC’s blessing, so it’s likely there is a handshake agreement with the man for the job, who is still tied down with postseason or NFL obligations.

He has said and done all the right things so far at UConn, but it’s far from guaranteed that Mora is the one to drag the Huskies out of the depths. It will be a significant uphill battle for a man in his second college coaching job, after having a completely different experience across the country that ended four years ago.