LOS ANGELES – Jim Mora’s tenure at UCLA began with three years of enormous promise. It ended with the school abruptly firing the coach late in his sixth season – and on his birthday, no less.
UCLA dismissed Mora on Sunday with one game left in the regular season. Athletic director Dan Guerrero announced the shocking move one day after rival Southern California’s 28-23 victory over the Bruins (5-6, 3-5 Pac-12), who have lost six of nine while going winless on the road this season.
Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch will coach the Bruins in their regular-season home finale against California on Friday night.
UCLA must pay more than $12 million to buy out the remainder of Mora’s contract, which runs through 2021. The school announced that Mora’s contract will be “honored by UCLA Athletics, exclusively using department-generated funds.”
The extraordinary buyout indicates the depth of frustration in Westwood with Mora, whose program has declined precipitously since 2015. The Bruins even fired Mora on his 56th birthday.
“Jim helped re-establish our football program, and was instrumental in so many ways in moving the program forward,” Guerrero said in a statement. “While his first four seasons at UCLA were very successful, the past two seasons have not met expectations.”
Mora went 46-30 in his first significant collegiate coaching job, but the Bruins are on the brink of their second consecutive losing season despite a roster filled with elite recruits led by quarterback Josh Rosen.
Mora issued a warm statement through the school, thanking Guerrero for the opportunity.
“Coaching student-athletes at UCLA has been the most rewarding experience of my career, and I know the future is bright for the program,” Mora said. “Most importantly, I want to thank the student-athletes that I’ve had the privilege to work with. You’ve been an inspiration to me, and I’ll carry great memories of our times together the rest of my life.”
Guerrero said his coaching search will be aided by wealthy Bruins booster Casey Wasserman and Hall of Famer and former UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman. UCLA opened the lavish Wasserman Football Center earlier this year, providing top-notch training facilities for the program.
Mora won at least eight games in each of his first four seasons, giving the Bruins four straight winning seasons for the first time since 1988 under Terry Donahue. But UCLA finished 4-8 last year with one of the nation’s worst offenses, and its record hasn’t improved significantly this season despite getting a full season from Rosen, who missed the second half of 2016 with a shoulder injury.
UCLA still could become bowl-eligible with a season-ending victory over the Golden Bears (5-6) under Fisch, who joined the program from Michigan this season and immediately rebuilt the Bruins’ offense into a solid unit. The Bruins haven’t lost at the Rose Bowl all season, going 5-0.
The Bruins won 10 games in Mora’s second and third seasons, tying the modest school record for victories in a season. Mora, the former coach of the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks, was the widespread subject of NFL speculation at the time, but he repeatedly vowed to stay with the Bruins.
UCLA is 17-19 since 2015 with Rosen in the program, including 10-16 in the Pac-12. The Bruins won just 10 of Mora’s last 27 games.
Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly is likely to be a top target for the Bruins, who had an incompetent offense last season before Fisch fixed it this fall. The defense has let down the Bruins this season, with particularly awful run defense under veteran coordinator Tom Bradley and Mora, a longtime defensive coach.
The Bruins are third-worst among the Power Five conference with 37.6 points allowed per game, and second-worst in the FBS with 288.7 yards rushing allowed per game. UCLA is tied for 110th in the FBS with just 11 takeaways in 11 games.
UCLA outgained USC 421-264 in the rivals’ crosstown showdown on Saturday night, but Trojans coach Clay Helton improved to 3-0 against Mora. The Bruins played solidly against the 11th-ranked Trojans, putting up a much better effort than in previous weeks on the road.
“It’s been a tough season,” Mora said after the game. “We’ve had to overcome tremendous (adversity) on defense in terms of personnel. They will continue to fight back. The next guy will step up.”
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