UConn hires former NFL, UCLA coach Jim Mora as next head football coach

Photo of Mike Anthony
Jim Mora, shown at 2015 Pac-12 Football Media Days, is the new UConn football coach.

Jim Mora, shown at 2015 Pac-12 Football Media Days, is the new UConn football coach.

Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press

The next UConn football coach has been watching the program closely from afar in recent months.

Jim Mora lives in Ketchum, Idaho, near Sun Valley and its famous resorts. He’s spent considerable time the past four years fly fishing, mountain biking, hiking, skiing and focusing on fatherhood, all important parts of a catch-your-breath segment that his football life hadn’t previously allowed.

Rejuvenated, he’s taking on one of the most challenging jobs in America: fixing UConn football.

Mora was announced Thursday morning as the Huskies’ coach, the culmination of a process that began with Randy Edsall’s early-September resignation. With his youngest child having left home for college this past summer, Mora quickly grew eager to return to the sport.

“When the transition was made from Randy, I was immediately interested — immediately,” said Mora, who was previously a head coach with the Atlanta Falcons, the Seattle Seahawks and at UCLA. “I have a burning desire to coach football. It’s what I do, it’s who I am, it’s really what our family is all about.”

Head coach Jim Mora of the UCLA Bruins congratulates quarterback Josh Rosen #3 after Rosen scored on a eighth yard rushing touchdown against the Arizona Wildcats during the thrid quarter of the college football game at Arizona Stadium.

Head coach Jim Mora of the UCLA Bruins congratulates quarterback Josh Rosen #3 after Rosen scored on a eighth yard rushing touchdown against the Arizona Wildcats during the thrid quarter of the college football game at Arizona Stadium.

Christian Petersen / Getty Images

Mora, who turns 60 next week, has agreed to a five-year contract through the 2026 season that begins with a salary of $1.5 million in 2022, increases by $100,000 annually and includes performance incentives of up to $200,000 a year.

He will take over a damaged program with a dwindling fan base and a 10-47 record since 2016. UConn initially lost its way as a member of the American Athletic Conference in 2013-2019 and is looking for stability as an independent program.

“I’m not going to worry about what was,” Mora said. “I’m going to worry about what can be. I love football and I love coaching football and I love coaching men and I love connecting with the community. I thrive on it. It motivates me. They’re going to see that. They’re going to feel it. And it’s genuine. We’ll win. We’ll win. It will come. But they’re going to see steady progress.”

Max Reiss, Gov. Ned Lamont’s communications director, said Thursday morning that the governor spoke with Mora earlier this week.

“The governor was very impressed,” Reiss said. “The governor definitely supports a strong football program at UConn because it helps bring a further sense of community, partnership and belonging, the same way a strong basketball program does. He’s a strong coach, a national name and that helps the university.”

Reiss noted that a better football team likely translates into more applications for admission and a higher-achieving student population.

Athletic director David Benedict finalized Mora’s hiring this week at Mora’s Idaho home, at the base of Bald Mountain.

“We weren’t going to find anybody who had more experience or bring the level of leadership and diversity in experiences that he’s had as an assistant coach in the NFL, a head coach in the NFL and a head coach at UCLA,” Benedict said. “He brings a profile that we certainly hope will excite the kids on our roster, recruits and kids in the transfer portal.”

Benedict continues to explore possibilities for conference membership in this latest iteration of realignment. Mora said the future of the program in that regard was part of their discussion this week but said, “I’m going to let the expert, David, deal with that. My job is to come in and coach the football team and I know he’ll make the best decision for the university and for the football team.”

Mora’s first official day as head coach will be Nov. 28 but he will get to work almost immediately, serving as a hands-off assistant coach for the rest of the season. Interim coach Lou Spanos, who worked as Mora’s defensive coordinator at UCLA in 2012-13, and the rest of staff will remain in charge of game-planning and coaching.

“What’s most important is the people who have been involved with this program and have worked so hard have the opportunity to finish this off without distractions,” Mora said. “It’s equally important that I get a chance to start evaluating things. I’m going to let the coaches do their jobs and the players enjoy these last three weeks, but I’ll be around.”

Benedict, who is staying at Mora’s home, traveled to Idaho Sunday and plans to remain there until he and Mora meet the Huskies in South Carolina later this week ahead of Saturday’s game at Clemson.

“When I got a chance to speak to 10 or 11 people affiliated with the university and with the state, it really hit home with me how important it is to that state, to the people in that state, that the football team have success,” Mora said. “UConn is a national brand, well known to everybody. That comes mostly because of the success of the women’s basketball team and the men’s basketball team, but I know there’s a competitive excellence that runs throughout that athletic department. And I think the football team can become competitive and garner the respect of not only that region but the nation.”

Mora has long been a household name, at least a Sunday afternoon living room name, for his 25 years on NFL sidelines, including stints as coach of the Falcons (2004-06) and Seahawks (2009). His most recent experience, and only college experience, was at UCLA in 2012-17.

He was 31-33 in the NFL, coaching Michael Vick’s 2004 Falcons to the NFC Championship game. Mora was 46-30 with UCLA — 29-11 his first three seasons, 17-19 his final three. Thirty UCLA players were drafted into the NFL during his time there, the most of any Pac-12 program in that span.

Now Mora will become the 32nd coach in UConn history. He will begin recruiting immediately and assemble as staff over time. The early signing period is Dec. 15-17.

“High school coaches in the state of Connecticut are so important to our success,” Mora said. “That can’t be ignored. It’s going to be really important to me to really start to develop those relationships in a sincere way. Any high school player in the state of Connecticut that is good enough to play at the University of Connecticut should be playing at the University of Connecticut. They should not be leaving the state to go play elsewhere. We need to dominate the state of Connecticut and attack that region, the Northeast.”

Mora also plans to make use of the transfer portal.

“It’s changed the landscape of college football and it has allowed teams to get better quickly,” he said. “You can have great recruiting classes but they’re still young players. 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.”

The Huskies are 1-8 this season. Attendance has dropped dramatically since UConn peaked with a Fiesta Bowl appearance under Edsall on New Year’s Day 2011 and fizzled since under Paul Pasqualoni, Bob Diaco and most dramatically under Edsall upon his return.

“There’s work to be done and that’s OK,” Mora said. “I love that part of it. It’s going to be a challenge. The team has struggled. But when I’ve watched the team play I’ve seen a bunch of young men that are still playing hard. To me, that speaks to their character and I think you start with that.

“It’s going to take a lot of hard work. It’s going to take a lot of positive energy. It’s going to take a high standard every day that’s not compromised. It’s going to take realistic expectations in how we measure success, because there is a process here to getting back to where we want to get to. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s going to be a consistent and constant effort to make progress on a daily basis. I’m convinced we’ll do that.”

Mora’s father, also Jim, was coach of the New Orleans Saints in 1986-1996 and Indianapolis Colts in 1998-2001, becoming one of the more vibrant personalities in the NFL. Mora, a father of four, was raised in the Seattle area and played at the University of Washington, where he was a linebacker in 1980-83 and a graduate assistant in 1984. He was later an NFL assistant with the Chargers, Saints, 49ers and Seahawks.

Spanos, who was hoping to land UConn the job, is 1-6 since taking over for Edsall. In his time with Mora at UCLA, the Bruins reached two bowl games and finished with records of 9-5 and 10-3. Noel Mazzone, hired by UConn in September as an offensive analyst, was UCLA offensive coordinator under Mora in 2012-2015.

Mora said there’s no difference between the NFL and college football once the ball is kicked. But in college, “It’s critically important that you serve as a great role model and mentor, that you’re someone [players] can trust. NFL guys don’t need you off the field, at all. College players, I believe they do. You’re there for them and for their family. It’s much more personal. It’s much more rewarding. I’ve been asked many times if I’d rather coach in the NFL or college and I can tell you with 100 percent certainty I would rather coach in college than the NFL. I learned that about myself, that I really love college football and I really love being around a university.”

Mora, who settled in the Sun Valley area after being fired by UCLA, said he never considered retiring.

“But I did take these last few years and capitalize on the opportunity to spend time with my family,” he said. “My son had actually said, ‘Hey, Dad, if you can not coach, it would be great because I don’t want to move and I don’t want you to move.’ And then he went to college and all four of my kids were like, ‘Dad, it’s time for you to go again.’ It gets me a little emotional even talking about it, because it means so much to me. So I never entertained retiring, and I don’t know that I ever will entertain retiring. They’re going to have to sweep me out the door. I have too much to give the game.”

Mora visited the UConn campus in in 2019 and toured the football facilities before serving as a color commentator for UConn’s 56-10 loss to Navy at Rentschler Field in 2019. He negotiated his UConn contract without an agent.

“Now that my kids are all out of the house and the runway is clear, I can dive in 100 percent without any regret at any time for the time commitment I’m putting into the program and the community and the university,” he said. “That fires me up. I’ll feel like I’m never cheating anybody, because I don’t want to cheat anybody — being the people I work for, or my family.”

mike.anthony@hearstmediact.com; @ManthonyHearst