Jim Mora has lived a charmed football life. He’s the son of a longtime NFL coach, held marquee head coaching jobs in college and the NFL, and even worked as a football commentator for multiple networks.
Since being fired at UCLA in 2017, Mora has yearned to return to coaching. That gilded football path took an unexpected turn when the University of Connecticut hired Mora as its head coach on Thursday morning.
UConn is 1-8 this season, nearly 3,000 miles from Mora’s last coaching job and operates as one of the few independent FBS programs in the sport. For anyone asking why Mora, 59, would take on one of the more challenging jobs in college football, he offers an answer that doubles as a prediction.
“I can’t wait for the day that people say to me, instead of, ‘Why would you go to UConn?’ they say, ‘I understand why you went to UConn,'" Mora said.
Mora had plenty of time to vet the job and UConn athletic director David Benedict had plenty of time to vet Mora. Benedict spent nearly three-and-a-half days interviewing Mora at the coach's townhouse in Idaho this week. That came after more than four hours of Zoom conversations. In all, they spent nearly 45 hours getting to know each other and discussing the job.
In an interview with Yahoo Sports, Mora said that comfort and potential partnership went a long way toward him taking the job.
“For me, it’s a great fit,” Mora said, his voice bounding with enthusiasm. “It’s a chance to do what I love to do with a school that’s a national brand. It’s a chance to do what I love to do at a university that prides itself on athletic and academic excellence.”
Mora agreed to a five-year deal, which will pay him $1.5 million in the first year.
In his last job at UCLA, Mora went 46-30 and reached four bowl games. UCLA since that time has gone 15-25 and not reached a bowl. “I think I deserved another chance,” Mora said. “Now I get another chance to show I deserved another chance.”
One of the most notable aspects of Mora’s hiring nationally, other than the relative surprise where he returned, comes from the trend that it perpetuates. Mora will get a five-week sprint until signing day that will allow him to evaluate the team, recruit high school players, work the transfer portal and build a staff.
UConn is the third job to already fill in this cycle, as Georgia Southern has already hired Clay Helton and Texas Tech has brought on Joey McGuire. The competitive advantage of starting more than a month before signing day was a key theme in those hires.
Mora and Benedict are headed to Clemson for UConn’s game there this weekend, which will begin Mora’s process of familiarizing himself with the team. (He said he has already studied them extensively on film.)
“It gives me an opportunity to recruit like crazy,” Mora said. “A chance to go make some connections with coaches with Connecticut and the surrounding area and to evaluate the players we are recruiting. I don’t have to be preparing for a game. All my focus can be on recruiting. It gives us a chance to be very deliberate on how we go about hiring a staff.”
Mora spent more than two decades as an NFL assistant and four total seasons as an NFL head coach in Atlanta and Seattle. His time at UCLA included one Pac-12 South title and coaching first-round NFL draft picks Josh Rosen, Kolton Miller, Takkarist McKinley, Anthony Barr and Datone Jones. (Injury kept Myles Jack out of the first round.)
Overall, Mora brings 10 years of head coaching experience. Four years away from the game, including three with ESPN, has given him time to reflect on his leadership style and potential evolutions.
“Probably a little more patience,” Mora said of what he’s learned. “Absolutely zero loss of passion, intensity, focus, expectations and standards. But I’ve realized maybe there’s a better way of going about those things. You always learn. If you don’t learn from your failure, you’re doing yourself a disservice. The last few years, I’ve had a chance to evaluate … how I want to be as a person, coach and father going forward.”
Mora said he spent 36 weekends in Bristol, Connecticut, during his time at ESPN. That gave him some experience in the state. He spent two summers in Philadelphia growing up when his father, Jim Mora, coached the USFL's Philadelphia Stars.
He said his oldest son lives in New York now and his youngest is off to college. It offered him the perfect opportunity to return to his passion.
“The coast is clear and I don’t have to disrupt anyone’s life,” Mora said. “My family has made a lot of sacrifices for me. Having those years to be there for them was pretty dang impactful. I come into this job with great energy and passion and focus.”
Mora stressed that the bond he and Benedict forged through the hiring process was “unprecedented” in his time in coaching. Benedict laid out a vision and connected him with donors, athletic officials and government officials to reiterate the support he’d be given. Benedict told Yahoo Sports he was “brutally honest” with Mora about “the challenge and the opportunity.”
Mora spoke by phone to Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont two days ago. And Lamont came away impressed by Mora's commitment to be involved in the community off the field.
UConn hasn’t had a winning season since 2010, when it went 8-5 and lost to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Mora described the pace to get back to winning seasons at UConn this way: “We’re going to be deliberate and patient, but move with urgency.”
He added: “I understand that it’s a process, and we’re going to have to measure success a little bit different early on. Our ultimate goals are never going to change.”