They say as a coach in football or in professional sports in general, you’re hired to get fired. Jim Mora has been through it before. He says it has taken him a little bit of time to rebound, get his bearings back and progress forward, but he’s always found a way to come out on the other side in a better place. He shares that one of the ways that he was able to focus when he was going through adversity in the past was to push boundaries physically through exercise or physical activity and just pushing himself to the limit like he would do in a competitive situation. Jim’s never ending quest is to help young kids find an avenue to success and create a great culture and environment for people to have success.
I am fired up because we have a great guest, Jim Mora Jr., Head Coach of the UCLA football team, also a head coach in the NFL. He’s got a 25-year pedigree coaching in the NFL and is now going to do his sixth year with the Bruins. I had a great conversation with Jim. We went through the early days growing up, what it was like to be with his dad, Jim Mora, Sr., and the different places that he moved around to. It’s a great interview.
Listen to the podcast here:
The Never Ending Quest For A Culture of Success with Jim Mora
What we’re going to be doing is offering podcasts that had been played in the past and putting them forward and getting updates on different people who have done amazing and incredible things. The first one out of the gate is my best buddy in the world, Jim Mora. Jim, how you doing?
I’m doing great. Thanks for having me back on.
We talked and at that time, we were going through the chronological order of how you got into football. I know you came from a football family. Your dad was a long-time Head Coach in the NFL for the Saints and the Colts. We talked about goal-setting, about drive, about motivation, and about how you’ve navigated. At that time, you’re the Head Coach of the UCLA Bruins. It’s amazing how things can change.
Because I’m not the Head Coach of the UCLA Bruins.
I was there the day that all that stuff went down and not a fun thing to go through. From your stand point, what was so disappointing about that?
It was disappointing on many, many levels. Number one, you have to look inward first before you start to blame others. I’ve done that. If you look at others to try to figure out what just happened to you, you make a mistake. What’s most disappointing is that I have not had the opportunity to complete the mission, and the mission was a never-ending quest to help young kids, young men find an avenue to success and along the way, win games and create a great culture and environment for people to have success. I love to compete, like you do. We’d love to set goals, we love to work hard to attain them, we love to push boundaries, we love to have standards that are higher than anyone could ever comprehend. To lose that ability to do those things for a certain point in time has been a real setback.
I’ve had a number of setbacks in my life. I call them traversing where they happen and then you got to zig, you got to zag, you got to figure your way out of it and it’s no fun. Every single one of these circumstances that’s happened to me, I’ve always found there was some bright light at the end of that tunnel, and there was some great lesson to be learned by that. I go back to my own situation six, seven years ago when I was going through a tough period with my relationship with my ex-wife. Even though she’s a good person, we just weren’t connecting the way that we needed to connect with. My bucket was so flipping empty, I need to do something about that. What came out of that was this goal to become the first NFL guy to climb the seven summits.
At the time, there was no podcast, there was no newsletter, there was no Facebook, and there wasn’t an opportunity to connect with you and Chris Long and the other guys to go back down to Tanzania and climb that mountain and raise all that money for the people in the Maasai Tribe. While I would have never wished this upon anybody, there’s been so many blessings that have come out of this. I see the same thing with you. You’ve got 25 years of NFL head coaching or NFL partially head coaching experience. The last six years as the head coach guy at UCLA, and there is so many people that can benefit from your knowledge and from your goal setting and motivation and what you’ve learned that you can give them. I see great things ahead for you.
I hope so. It’s all about attitude and perspective. You work to the place that you’re in now, but it’s a tough journey and it’s one you can’t give up on. There’s going to be some valleys and there’s going to be some peaks and then some days, there’s going to be many valleys and peaks and over long time, there’s going to be, hopefully, fewer valleys and peaks. It’s a process. I’ve been through it before as a Head Coach in the National Football League. I was fired twice. They say as a coach in football or in professional sports in general, you’re hired to get fired. I’ve been through it before and it has always taken me a little while to rebound, get my bearings back and then progress for, but I’ve always found a way to come out on the other side in a better place. In particular, this UCLA experience, for me, was an amazing six years.
The last two were difficult in terms of win-loss record, but I point to things that we did that were maybe more meaningful than the wins and losses on the field such as taking a graduation success rate. There was 59% when we got there and moving that needle to 86% when we left. Having 100% success rate with our student athletes getting a job when they were done playing football or sending the most players in the Pac-12 into the NFL of any team in the Pac-12 or having the highest grade-point average in the history of UCLA football. All those things, to me, were just indicators of success in the program and the culture. While I came out of an environment in the NFL where I was desperately disappointed that I got released from the Seattle Seahawks, I regroup, came into this UCLA job, and found a new mission. The same thing hopefully will happen again.
There’s no question that our good buddy, Hugh Millen, quarterback for the Huskies and long-time in the NFL, we both agree that your personality might be better suited for college kids and impact those guys so much in a deeper way.
You have the ability to shape lives. The concrete hasn’t hardened on who these young people are. Wherein in the NFL, they’re a little bit more into being men and the family and at this point, when they’re high schoolers or just new in college, you can help shape who they’re going to become.
Another UCLA great, Jerry Robinson, when I did a podcast with him, the first thing that came out of his mouth as I said, “Jerry, how are you doing?” He goes, “Every day, I wake up with an attitude of gratitude.” It depends on what lens you want to look through. You’ve had an amazing life. You’ve been able to coach some incredible athletes and been around and in some of the most crazy games with finishes that have been exhilarating. I know that path is still ahead for you. Something else that happened that not a lot of people know about is this double jeopardy for you. I see you emerging out in a positive way, but you’re up skiing. It was the one time that you left me behind. We weren’t there, and you blew your knee out and not just like blow it but seriously did an amazing damage to it.
It’s called the tibial plateau fracture, so I have a plate and eight screws in there. For me, being active, one of the ways that I was able to refocus when I was going through adversity in the past was to push boundaries physically through exercise or activity or you do climbing or hiking or skiing and just pushing myself to the limit, like I would do in a competitive situation. You called it double jeopardy and it is. You’re not having that outlet. It’s been hard, but now I’m coming back from that. Then you go through a divorce. It’s been a challenging year. I don’t know if I wake up with an attitude of gratitude every day, but they’re becoming more frequent.
It’s still part of the process and you wouldn’t be human, it wouldn’t be real if you said you woke up every single day after going through some of this different stuff and you just bounce up and you’re hard charging. At the same time, I know you’re a goal-setter and I know you’ve got a lot of pearls of wisdom that you impart on other people. The whole key, a lot of times, is try to bring that back to yourself. If you were to give somebody else a pep talk, but now you’re going to turn that around for yourself, what would that be?
I’ve given a gazillion pep talks and I keep notes and pictures and all kinds of things on my phone that I go back and revisit or I send to other people depending on the situation. It’s a great one for anyone that’s experiencing some sort of success to realize, and this is not my quote but someone else’s, “Success is not owned, it is leased, and rent is due every day.” To me, that means that you may have success and experiencing some success, but you need to keep your eye on the prize. You need to keep your nose to the grindstone. That doesn’t mean you don’t look up and look what’s going on around you, but you have to be concentrating on the task at hand or you can lose focus and lose your path.
I have so many different sayings that I love. Here’s another one, “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” I have one here that I love talking about team, “Attitude reflects leadership.” I could go on and on. I have a million things and one that I’ve always lived by, it comes from John Gordon, who’s a tremendous author and a very good friend of mine, “We all have an inner scoreboard that we keep track of how we are doing and nobody else has privy to that scoreboard except for us.” We know if we’re living the life that we intend to live or if we are sacrificing our standards and so always keeping track of your inner scoreboard. “Exceptional success requires exceptional circumstances.” You can say, “That’s getting a break,” but sometimes exceptional circumstances mean going through some tough times, like we have, or I am or you have or anyone in the audience has.
John Gordon is coming up on the pod. He’s got a book out.
He’s an amazing guy, he’s a good friend of mine. The Energy Bus. He’s got about eight books out and you are going to absolutely love him and he’s got a great story. He’s been through some things that he’ll talk to you about. I can tell you from personal experience that you definitely want to tune in for that one because it’s going to be epic.
This was all about Finding Your Summit Rewind and part of that is getting caught up with people who’ve been on the pod before. You’ve had huge success and you’ve also had a few bumps.
With success comes bumps. I have another saying here, “If the road you’re traveling has no bumps, it’s not going anywhere,” or something like that. If the path is easy, it’s probably not leading you anywhere that is going to be rewarding. There’s going to be bumps in the road that leads to success.
Nothing that was ever achieved with greatness has come easy. It takes hardship and discipline and in many times, there’s uncertainty on the other side of that. Even though you want to become the top guy, your path may or may not lead to coaching again. I think that’d be a mistake, but I do know that you will affect others in a big time way into the future.
The name of this podcast is called Finding Your Summit Rewind. We wanted to get quickly caught up with you Jim. Now, let’s go to the rest of the episode.
We are here with my best friend, Jim Mora. Jim, I have to say I’m cheating just a little bit from the standpoint of a lot of the people I will be interviewing going forward. I don’t know the answers to a lot of their questions but what I’ll try to do is I wanted to go back. You’re a guy of high achievement and I wanted to go through your path. I think a lot of people know you as a coach but they don’t know your roots from growing up. You grew up in a football family. Your dad was a head coach, Jim Mora, who coached for the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts. Tell us what it was like growing up. You didn’t just grow up in Seattle?
My dad was a coach, so my entire life has really just been about one thing and that’s football. That’s very simplistic because there are a lot of other things that are involved with being involved with football, but I would say that every meal that I’ve ever had, every piece of clothing I’ve ever bought, has been paid for by football. My dad started his career at Occidental College, moved from there to Stanford, then University of Colorado, UCLA, University of Washington. Then he went to the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. Then he went to the Philadelphia Stars, the United States Football League, the New Orleans Saints and finished his career with the Indianapolis Colts. Those are a lot of moves for a young guy.
Every time your dad would come home and there’s a new thing coming up, what was that like? Were you in shock? Were you like, “Dad, I don’t want to leave?”Kids like stability as you know.
Every move was different. I can remember when I was six years old and my dad was at Occidental. Being on the bus with him, going to games, that was really fun. The move to Stanford was nothing because my brothers and I were young and it didn’t really affect us. The move to Colorado was exciting because I was at an age where I understood that we were moving. It was difficult. I remember the first day of school not wanting to go to school. After that, every move became a little bit more difficult. As you get older, you want to have some roots and you’re establishing friendships and they’re deeper and more meaningful. To have to pull up roots and those relationships change, it can become very difficult. I was lucky though in that, at age twelve, I settled in Seattle and really never left. My dad moved on but I stayed there, went to the University of Washington and then started my own career from there. My youngest brother, Stephen, as a matter of fact, bore the brunt of more moves than I did.
When you talk about Colorado, you’re talking about the University of Colorado in Boulder. I’ve been with you a number of times now to play the Buffaloes. When you were starting, you were seven or eight years old when you were there?
I moved there when I was seven and lived in Table Mesa. That’s when I started to play football.
I played on the 89ers, so I think it was eight or nine years old.
We lived on Judson Street, so I was part of the Judson Jaguars. We used to play on Saturday mornings and you had your own pants but you didn’t have your own shoulder pads or helmets. There’d be a series of games. In the 8:00 game, they’d wear the pads and then for the 9:00 game, the 8:00 kids would take their shoulder pads, jerseys and helmets off and throw them on the ground. The 9:00 kids would come and put them on. By 10:00, you’re wearing pads that are pretty well beat up for the day but you’re just throwing on a pair of shoulder pads, a Jersey and finding a helmet that fits. We didn’t have mouth guards in those days. We were just going out and playing ball and it was awesome.
Your mom must have taken a majority of the brunt? I’ve been around you and I play college football myself in the NFL. From the head coach or assistant coaches, that’s just a very demanding occupation. You’ve got two other brothers, too, so it’s just not you.
My mom, Connie, she’s always been the anchor. My dad is a great dad. You played for him, so you know how he is. My mom, she was just the stability in the family and she worked. She sold real estate. She never missed a game. She drove us to practice. There was a dinner waiting for us on the table when we got home. When we got home from school, there was a PB&J waiting for us. Yet, she still managed to get us to all the CU games. I remember taking off my pads and throwing them down, running to the car, hopping into the car and heading over to Folsom Field to watch the Buffaloes play, or run at home to watch the Buffaloes on TV, or meeting them at the airport on a Saturday night after a win or sometimes a loss. She was the stability. She was amazing and she still is.
Your dad gets a job at the University of Washington, right?
Yes. We went to UCLA for a year. That was a really hard move, actually. I was eleven or twelve. What happens is that you’re in Boulder, Colorado and you wear a certain type of clothes, you talk a certain way, and you have a certain group of friends, then all of a sudden you’re uprooted and you move to Los Angeles California. You don’t know what 501 jeans are, you don’t know the surf lingo, and your haircut is different, so that’s startling and that’s when I first started to notice it. We were there for a year, then we moved to Seattle. You go to Seattle and you’d show up in your 501 jeans with your surfer dude haircut and everyone’s wearing swabbies and you get there and you feel awkward for a while. My mom was great about helping us assimilate into the culture that we were moving to.
Now you go to Interlake High School, which is on the East Side. I grew up on the West Side and Jim went to high school and grew up on the East Side. Now you’re going to Interlake and you ended up playing with some future Huskies like Chris O’Connor, Tom Flick, Steve Pelluer and a lot of really good players. I remember you guys were playing in a playoff game and it was down in Memorial Stadium. I went down there and you were playing fullback or running back.
I played running back. I played defensive safety. I was a long snapper.
Your dad, at this point, had gone on to the Seattle Seahawks, right?
Yes. What was tough for me is that I had always wanted to go back to the University of Colorado. In those days, it was different than now. They didn’t really offer you a scholarship until you were a senior. After my senior year, I was preparing to take a trip. They had asked me to come on an official visit to the University of Colorado. The night before I was supposed to leave, they called and cancelled it. It devastated me because that’s where I wanted to go. I had a couple of small schools that I could have gone to. What happened was in my senior year in high school, I hurt my knee and I didn’t get to play most of the year. I hurt my ACL. I didn’t have to have surgery but I sprained and this is about six games. I really didn’t get to play much and I just fell off the radar. I ended up walking on at Washington.
There’s another buddy of ours that we’re close with, Hugh Millen. It was interesting because all three of us took different paths. I was very fortunate to get a scholarship at UW. You walked on UW. Hugh Millen went down to Santa Rosa JC, ended up coming back, walking on and earned a scholarship. You earned a scholarship. We all ended up in the same place. Sometimes the path isn’t always exactly straightforward for everybody.
There are many different paths to success. It’s about your willingness to continue to walk the path. There’s this great saying about success and reaching it. My dad gave it to me a long time ago. I keep it in my wallet. It’s about, “The search for success is never ending.” The gist and the punch line is, “Does the road wind uphill? Yes, to the very end.”You’re always on a mission to succeed. If you ever feel like you’ve gotten there, that’s when you start to experience failure. We all have different paths to success. The important thing is our will to get there. Our willingness to work, commit, sacrifice, invest, overcome hardship, disappointment. I had many disappointments in my life, as did you. Yet, somehow we found it within ourselves to just continue to take the next step towards our goals. We weren’t going to be deterred.
What you’re talking about is the journey. I know in my case, people who saw me catching the winning touchdown against Michigan or another team, they would say, “You’re so lucky.”They had no idea of the hardship that we went through in grinding down in that weight room and running the stairs and all those types of things. It just makes you a better person in the long run. It’s also great for you, you’re in this great position now as a head coach, to impart that knowledge and that wisdom upon guys, especially now where there is so much more immediate gratification that these guys expect, right?
Yeah. Every day, I have an opportunity to go back into my life and pull something out of it, and use it as an example for the players that I coach now at UCLA. It’s not always about football, but it’s about life and life experiences. It’s always great when a young kid can hear a 55-year-old guy like myself who now they think is very successful, saying, “I do understand,” and then have an example of why I understand, saying, “I get it. That’s one thing, but here’s what happened to me in college. I was a walk-on and it was tough. I remember this one practice where Coach James was yelling at me and I lost it and I started to cry, so I understand where you’re coming from.” That’s just one example but there are many. That helps me now in what I’m doing with these young men that I deal with every day.
Let’s go back to a story where your dad is coaching for the University of Washington in 1977 and in1978, technically the same 1977 season. They go to the Rose Bowl and Warren Moon is the quarterback, and I think you got to be the ball boy or something?
I was a ball boy that year. When they played in the Rose Bowl, my brother, Michael, and I were ball boys in the Rose Bowl.
It’s so ironic now that you’re the head coach at UCLA and your home field is the Rose Bowl.
I’ve been able to be a ball boy in the Rose Bowl, play in the Rose Bowl, and now I coach in the Rose Bowl stadium, but we want to win a Rose Bowl. I don’t think that there are many people who could say that they were a ball boy for a winning Rose Bowl team, played on a winning Rose Bowl team, and coached a winning Rose Bowl team. That’s a pretty significant goal for me.
I remember the only time, considering how far I went in the NFL, that I ever got hurt was when you ran out and you tackled me and you broke my foot.
I don’t think that’s the way the story goes. I had you covered like a blanket. As we both went for the ball, I knocked it away and you stumbled because you were very un-athletic, and I landed on your ankle and broke it. That’s how I see the story.
That’s really interesting because two people are seeing the same incident in very different ways. It was interesting because it forged our relationship at that point. We spent the next four or five years together playing on the team. It was fun because winning is fun and that’s what we did back then.
We were good and we were pretty dominant. We were tough and we had something special.
It’s my redshirt fifth year and you are a student assistant. You do that and now we go to the Orange Bowl. Tell us a story how you ended up down in San Diego because I think it’s classic.
I had a couple of things. I had thought about going to USC and being a graduate assistant and being in their sports administration school. Ted Tollner had actually hired me. I wasn’t sure if it was coaching, but I wanted to be in the NFL either as an administrator or a coach.
Where was your dad at this time?
My dad might have been in Philadelphia with the Philadelphia Stars at the USFL. This was before computers, so I typed out letters to every general manager in the NFL and every head coach in the NFL. At the time, there were 28 teams, so I typed out 56 letters. I introduced myself and said I was willing to do anything to get my foot in the door of the NFL. I got a number of letters back that said, “We’ll keep your resume on file but we have nothing now.”I wrote everyone back again and said, “Thank you. Please do keep my resume.” I’m sure they tossed that right in the wastebasket. Fortunately, one person didn’t. That was Johnny Sanders who was the General Manager of the San Diego Chargers at the time. Johnny Sanders had coached my dad in the CIF All-Star game here in Southern California when my dad was at University High School. You and I and Hugh were out throwing the ball at the creek on a Friday afternoon. You and I were throwing the ball and Hugh came to the door and he said, “The Chargers are on the phone for you.”I’m like, “Yeah, right,” and just ignored it. He goes, “No, I’m serious.” I went and picked up the phone and it was Johnny Sanders. He goes, “We want to bring you down for an interview.”It was stunning but I lucked out. I got a break and I got a chance to work for Don Coryell and work with guys like Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner, Kellen Winslow, and Ed White, guys that were Hall of Famers. It was a great way to start my career in the NFL.
There are a lot of aspiring coaches that may be listening to this, like, “It was easy because you had the name,” but your dad hadn’t established himself that much in those days, number one. Number two, it was a lot of persistence. There were 28 teams at the time, so there were 28 letters that went out of which 27 said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
There were 28 that came back that said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and then I sent them out again. I just was going to be persistent. I did get a break but after you get the break, you just have to make your own way. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your reputation is. You still have to forge your own path. While I had the same name as my dad and that helped me get in the door, I still believe it was my work ethic that kept me there and allowed me to continue to progress up the coaching ladder. When I went to San Diego, it was my goal that every single day I was going to be the first one in the office and I was never going to leave before everyone else had left. I was going to be the last one out. I was going to learn how to do everything. I was going to get a key to everything. I was going to monopolize information so that I made myself invaluable. They had to have me.
I remember when we got a new copy machine and no one knew how to use it except me. I would not teach anybody how to use it because I needed them to have to have me there to make copies for them. When we started to use computers, I’d never even seen a computer. I remember Al Saunders, who was the Office Coordinator, he goes, “Jimmy, do you know how to use a computer?” I’m like, “Absolutely.” He’s like, “You’re the computer guy.””Great, I’m the computer guy.” For the next two weeks, I just stayed up all night trying to teach myself how to use a computer. It was just things like that that make the difference. It’s being willing to do the work and show the commitment and put in the time and not just do it every once in a while, but do it every single day. That’s how you become successful.
There’s a guy on your staff right now that must remind you of you a little bit, Scott White, right?
Yeah, Scott is a great story.
It’s a similar type of deal. Share that with us.
Scotty played at Washington. He didn’t make it in the NFL. He took some small college jobs, some high school jobs. He worked around different places but was having trouble finding his way to the Division I Level. Rick Neuheisel brought him in as a volunteer. Scotty was one of those guys who would just stay around all day, all night working. People don’t know this but he slept in the locker room or his car when he had one. He made no money. He ate at the training table. He worked a second job. When I got the job, I kept him on as an intern. I really didn’t pay him anything. We had a players’ lounge and he’d sleep there. I noticed him but I really didn’t get to know him until probably the second year that I was there. I just said, “This guy is good. He’s always around. He always has the answers. He never says, “No.” He always says, “Yes.” If you give him a project and you have an idea of how you want it to be done, it’s always done better than you expected. He’s dependable. The players respond to him. You can just count on him to be there when you need him.” That’s why I started watching him more and watching him on the field and watching how he interacted with the players, and his knowledge of the game. He was always watching film and always talking to people about how to reach the players in a different way and coach and teach and things that need to be emphasized. Now he’s my linebacker coach and special teams coordinator. It’s just great to see a guy that was willing to make those sacrifices and make that investment. It’s paying off for him because I think he’ll be a head coach someday.
Definitely he’s got that same mentality that you had. It was never handed to him. He had to earn it.
You have to earn real success. People can hand you things but if you want self-satisfaction, if you want to be gratified personally, you have to go earn it. You have to put the work in. That’s when you feel like you’ve achieved something when it’s hard. If it’s easy, it’s easy. You want it hard.
Speaking of earning it, the name of this podcast is Finding Your Summit. Everybody has a different version. It’s really metaphorically speaking. It could be in business, it could be in coaching, it could be in climbing mountains or whatever your thing is. Let’s go back to when you were in San Diego and we’re going to work our way up to now you’re a head coach in Atlanta. You’re in San Diego and now you have an opportunity to go where? Was it in San Francisco?
No. I had been through three head coaches in San Diego, and every time one got fired, I’d moved up. The last guy to get fired was a guy named Dan Henning. I was out of a job. I had an opportunity to go to the Cincinnati Bengals with David Shula. I decided to pass that up to go to the New Orleans Saints and work with my dad. I’d been in the NFL for eight years, so I felt like I had the credibility that I could go and work for my dad now and people wouldn’t think it was nepotism. I went to New Orleans for five years. From there, I went to San Francisco, which was a great place to be. They had a tremendous tradition, a great standard of excellence around multiple Hall of Fame players, some of the greatest that ever played the game. I was mentored by Bill Walsh. I’d go sit in his office almost every day and talk to him about things, have him come to my meetings and evaluate my teaching style and how I could better reach the players. I became the defensive coordinator there and then was fortunate to get the opportunity to be the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.
The thing that was great is when you called me and said, “I just got the head coach.” I was so excited for you because once you hit that level, you typically get a couple of chances no matter how it goes. It just seems like that’s the whole formula. I remember you invited me down there to go to a game, and this is after you got your feet wet and you had your camps going and your coaching staff picked, and now we’re into the season. We ended up going to a Carlos Santana concert right in the middle of City Park. The thing that was bizarre to me is we were sitting there, we had great seats, and we turned to each other and we were like, “Let’s get some beers.” I’m like, “Okay.” You go, “You need to go get them.” I’m like, “What are you talking about? You go get them.” You go, “You don’t understand.” I go, “What do you mean? You’re right. I don’t understand. Help me understand that.” The South is just so much different and you were so recognizable that you couldn’t get from point A to point B without being mobbed. That was just an eye-opener for me.
It’s different. I don’t like that stuff but that’s the way it is in the South. We went in there and we had immediate success. We took over a 5 and 11 team and we went to 11 and 5 and went to the NFC Championship game my first year. You’re this 40-year-old guy and everyone thinks you’re the savior. It had been forever since I’d been to the playoffs. There’s not a lot that they’re more interested in down there than the Falcons. People always wanted to PC you and that was tough on me because I’m such a family guy that I couldn’t even take my kids to the grocery store, to the mall, or to a game without them having to stand off to the side while I signed autographs for an hour. That was just part of the deal but it was an awkward a part of the deal for me.
You’re saying you didn’t like it. What was that like? One day, we’re us, and the next day, your face is recognized everywhere you go.
It’s never changed me. I don’t like it, first of all, but I do it. It’s part of the job. If you’re in a position where you have a platform and people want to meet you and they think it’s neat, then I’m lucky. I’m blessed to have the jobs that I’ve had, so it’s okay to spend some time with people, but the contradiction was the time it took away from the family. I just tried to stay as humble as possible and not think that I was all that because people wanted my autograph. I realized that it could have been this book of matches that if that had been the head coach and they got an 11-5, they’d want the book of matches to sign autographs. It wasn’t necessarily me. It was just the position of head coach. Being in the South is different. Football is the real deal in the South. It’s different down there. It’s like a religious experience for them. It’s amazing. They go to church on Sunday and then they go to the games. That’s what they do.
Now you have immediate success there and you’re down there for three years. It seems like for every head coach, ultimately, it ends. It either ends great, which is not very many people, or it ends. I know that was a very difficult transition for you but you talk about your summits and it’s not all about going up because sometimes you’ve got to go down to go back up. That happened with you and there was a relationship you had with the GM in Seattle. You ended up at your hometown. I know you didn’t get there until high school or something but now you end up back in Seattle with the Seahawks.
I had a chance to be the head coach in the Miami Dolphins after I got fired in Atlanta, but I chose to come back to Seattle because that was home for me. I moved there when I was twelve. I did not want to raise my kids in South Florida. I wanted to raise them in the Pacific Northwest, which I still consider home. I took a job with the Seahawks as the assistant head coach and defensive back coach and was very happy. It was actually a relief to not be the head coach for a while, but I still wanted to have another opportunity to be a head coach. I had that opportunity with the Washington Redskins. I went back and spent time with Dan Snyder. I was offered that job but at the same time, the Seahawks. Mike Holmgren decided that he was going to coach one more year and retire, so the Seahawks made me the head coach in waiting, which looking back on it, was probably the worst decision I’ve ever made, to stay there as the head coach in waiting and follow Mike Holmgren. It just didn’t work out right.
You look back in past history too and there are not many guys who have followed the Hall of Fame coach to come in and have immediate success and keep that torch going. It’s just such a hard thing and people’s expectations are so high.
He’s not a Hall of Fame coach and he won’t be a Hall of Fame coach, but he was a damn good coach.
He’d been to the Super Bowl, and the way that people looked at him in a certain way up there.
They won four games a year before I improved his record and still got fired. It’s just a weird deal.
I do believe though that that sets you up to what I believe is your life’s calling.
Every action has a reaction and you’re right. Getting fired in Seattle was the hardest thing that I had experienced because I felt like I’d let my hometown down. It also led me to where I believe I should be, which is coaching college football at UCLA. The two years after I got fired, I worked in television and I blew up my knee skiing with you at Crystal Mountain. I had a chance to spend five days a week, three hours a day, six months at the University of Washington when Steve Sarkisian was the head coach. I was over there rehabbing my knee and they opened their doors and said, “You can come in and learn the college game.” I found myself really drawn to the college athlete. I’d be in the training room. The football players were in there. The basketball players and women’s and men’s volleyball players, the swimmers, the gymnasts, you name it, they were all coming through there. They knew who I was because I had been the head coach at Seattle and I’d played at Washington. They’d start to ask me life questions and it felt good to be able to mentor them. I realized very quickly that’s where I should be, where I belonged, where I could have the most impact and feel the most gratification was coaching in college. I was lucky to get the UCLA job.
When you were in that space between the Seahawks, that was a hard time for you. I and Hugh Millen always felt that your best talents were most served in the college game for a couple of reasons. Number one, the NFL head coaching gig is very transient. The average is something like two and a half years, so it’s not very long. Number two is the way that you can impart your knowledge, the way you communicate with everybody. It’s the guy that doesn’t have a lot of money who comes from a rough neighborhood to the mid-American type of guy to the guy from the affluent communities. You just have a certain way that you can really relate to that guy. It really showed the first year you came down and you ended up with something like the number 12 class. This is a guy who had never recruited and yet to assemble a coaching staff together, hit the ground running, go out and recruit, your timeline was crazy to make all that happen.
One of the things Bill Walsh said about me publicly that I’m most proud of is he made a comment once that he’d never been around somebody that was more comfortable with the contemporary athlete than I was. What he meant by that was that being able to handle the diversity, race, religion, socioeconomic background, political beliefs, all of those things. I have the ability to talk to anybody on their level and do it comfortably. That transcends well into college football because you’re dealing with kids that a lot of times have come from nothing, single-parent households, sometimes no-parent households, raised by maybe their grandma. They’ve had to struggle to survive and they’re not very trusting sometimes, so you have to earn their trust. I’ve just been lucky that for some reason I have an innate understanding of how to build that trust with those guys.
Now you’re going into your sixth year at UCLA. What would you say is your craziest recruiting experience?
There are just many. I can’t even tell you what the most bizarre one is. I’ve been in some situations that would be hard for people to conceive. I’ve been in the south, in homes where people actually had dirt floors and they might throw some linoleum over the dirt floor and not to exaggerate, they’d have to go outside to the outhouse to use the bathroom. I’ve been to those places. I’ve been here in South Central Los Angeles where I had to get permission to go into the neighborhood; a hood pass is what they call it. They had to know I was coming or they sensed a guy that looks like me driving in and he’s like, “What’s this guy doing here?”
This is part of your life but for most people, they don’t get this exposure. You went over and had a chat with Snoop Dogg, right?
I’ve been to Snoop’s place. I’ve been in every little cranny of LA. Sometimes it’s great places and sometimes it’s daunting and dangerous places but there are great kids everywhere. You can find really good people and really good players and motivated, respectful people everywhere. You just have to sometimes give them a chance. I think we’re too quick to judge sometimes. Unless you’ve lived in a man’s shoes, it’s hard to understand why he is the way he is. A great story is Takk McKinley who just was drafted in the first round by the Atlanta Falcons. People had given up on Takk. He’d gone to a junior college. He never knew his father. His mother disappeared at age five. He was raised by his grandmother. His grandmother and him used to have to collect cans and bottles in order to eat. Oftentimes, he was homeless or they were staying on friends’ couches. If they were lucky enough to scrape enough money together, they could live in an apartment. His grandmother died when he was eighteen and he made her a promise that he’d go to a Division I school and he’d make it to the NFL, and he did. It was just amazing to see him fulfill his promise at the draft in Philadelphia last year.
This is a kid that had not slept in a bed until he got to UCLA. The first few nights at UCLA, he would take his covers and his pillow off the bed and put them on the floor where he felt more comfortable. We’ve got a guy coming in this year from Nigeria who, when he was a youngster, was kidnapped by the militants. I thought it was Boko Haram but it wasn’t. At age twelve, his very best friend was beheaded right in front of him for trying to escape from the militants. He had never slept in a bed until he got to the United States. There’s story after story after story like that. I have a kid coming in this year from the Ivory Coast, who moved to Philadelphia when he was seven. He was put into high school when he was twelve because he was so big, it’s a Blind Side story. Just amazing stories and it’s the human will to succeed. I just love having the opportunity to be in their lives and help. I know what their goals are, and having the chance to help them reach those goals, sometimes that means some tough love with some of these kids. Sometimes you have to get on them. You have to hold them accountable because they start to get in their comfort zone a little bit and they forget what they are after and where they came from. You have to have built that trust up so that when you do hold them accountable, they understand that it’s coming from a place of love.
To me, that really showed through with a guy like Takk who is a super intense, emotional guy on the field. He needed to be able to trust somebody in authority which was you. I thought you did a fantastic job of really trying to let him be him but at the same time, within the guidelines of team rules.
It’s hard. There’s a balance there. It’s really difficult in college because you have to teach them about standards and about accountability, yet you have to find a way to let them be individuals but individuals within the framework of the team. That’s not always easy. In the NFL, you can err on the side of letting them be individuals. In college, you have to err on the side of making sure they’re members of the team, part of the team. I just have a lot of one-on-one conversations with these guys and I can draw on my experience in the NFL. I can draw on all the experiences I’ve had with players through the years, to try to help them through any misunderstandings or help them understand why things are the way they are, why they’re being asked to do what they’re asked to do, why they need to conform, what NFL teams are looking for because they all come to the UCLA football program with the dream of playing in the NFL, why their education is important because your NFL career or your college career can end at any time. You make sure that these kids are taking advantage of every opportunity to be successful on and off the field.
I’ve got this module that I’ve created called the Seven Summits Of Success. When we talk about the word SUMMITS, it’s an acronym for accomplishment. S is for Seed, that’s your idea, then you unleash it, you move it, you measure it, improve it and then you traverse it before you hit your S, which is your summit and you pay it forward. Last year, due to a lot of reasons, you guys didn’t have the season that you wanted to have. There was a lot of adversity that you had to go through. Just the nature of being in the public eye, people are chirping. They’re critical. It’s just the nature of the beast. I felt like one of the things that you did which was really difficult for you is that many of the guys on your offensive side of the ball ended up going someplace else and you brought in new staff. I just want to talk about new voices and I think it’s so important. The guys that you brought in have the street cred, and they’re brilliant. You guys are going to take from where you were last year, a healthy quarterback, a healthy line, a great defense and you’re going to have the season that you probably thought you were going to have last year.
I hope so. I’m very loyal, so any time it comes time to make a change in my staff, it’s really hard for me but I also have that responsibility as a head coach, to make sure that we’re always moving in the right direction. I had to make some difficult choices. I was very lucky to be able to hire some coaches that are fantastic. They have done a great job of relating to our players, are very great coaches, former NFL players, a lot of great pedigree. I’m excited about the year, but the most important thing is that we are back to having the type of culture amongst our team that’s important to success. I have a saying that culture precedes success, language dictates culture, and leaders determine language. Right now, we have that. We have leaders that are talking the right way. That language is creating a certain culture and that certain culture is going to lead to us having success. We’re all on the same page, moving in the same direction, and we have an opportunity to capitalize on some of this momentum we’ve built.
You have a quarterback that’s coming back that was hurt most of the year, Josh Rosen. What was his progress this last spring?
Outstanding. Josh got hurt in the fifth game and he had to sit and watch. I had a great talk with him. It was probably the worst and the best thing that ever happened to him. He was always the golden boy, the anointed one. All of a sudden, things got really tough on him and he went to a dark place. He came out of it and he realized that he needed to change his approach and his attitude, and that would help him have success. He’d taken things for granted. Now, all of a sudden, it was taken away from him and he realized how much he loved playing football and loved being a quarterback and loved being a part of a team and loved the respect that comes with it. He’s embraced all of the things that are necessary to get back to being a great player. It’s not just because he’s highly skilled, it’s because he understands all the other things that go into being successful: the hard work, the commitment, the sacrifice, the effort, the investment you have to make.
It reminds me of you going through your patch between not knowing if you were going to coach again. You wanted to but you didn’t know what your path was going to be after the Seahawks gig. Taking a step back, being humbled a little bit, and getting that fire back so that when you were in the position again, you put yourself in a position to be out talking to teams like UCLA, you had all the MO ready to go, you had a book, a game plan. When you hit the ground running, you were going at full pace. That’s all about preparation meets opportunity, right?
My dad used to always tell me, “Just do the best you can do where you are at that moment. Certainly you’re preparing for other things but don’t always be looking to the future. Just do the best you can. In the off-seasons, spend some time and study and talk to people and research but don’t be a social climber. Don’t try to climb the ladder too fast but do as great a job as you can where you are in that moment and then you’ll get your opportunities.” I believe in that. I also believe that finding your summit, there’s no summit. You said that the summit shifts. When you get to the summit, when you reach your goal, you immediately need to set a new goal. If you set a standard and you reach that standard, then it’s time to reset the standard. If you ever feel like you’re at the top, then it’s a quick slide to the bottom. To me, it’s always about setting goals, never feeling like you’ve made it, readjusting those goals as you go but never feeling like you’ve found the summit. The summit is elusive and that’s what makes it so awesome. The great people are always in search of it.
One of the things that you talk about is summit. For those people that don’t know, Jim Mora and I were invited to be a part of Chris Long’s Waterboys, which is raising money to build water wells down in Tanzania for the people of the Maasai tribe. We got to go down there. Number one, we raised money and we kicked butt in terms of the amount of money we were asked to raise, in terms of actually funding our own well, which was really inspirational. We were grateful at the same time for the people that donated to this great cause. Number two, we actually got to go down and go to these villages and I know it had a huge impact on me and it had a huge impact on you. We take it for granted. We’re here in Los Angeles and there are nice cars and houses and the ocean and all these beautiful things around. Down there, we’re talking about putting in a faucet which changes their life. Water is life and that’s their big saying down there. It had a profound effect on me. You and I went and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with the other six NFL guys and Green Berets. Just that whole experience of putting life in perspective of the bigger picture of where we’re trying to go and accomplish things in life, it really took it down to its core for me.
We live in a bubble. It’s great to get outside that bubble and see what it’s really like. I would say it was life-changing. It was life-altering to see how simple it was to help someone else, to make an impact on somebody else in a very profound way. It was life-changing, not just moment-changing where they had instant gratification, but this is life-changing stuff that we’re doing for these people. That was really cool. I had another great opportunity to go to Iraq on a USO tour and it was the same type of thing. You’re over there and you’re seeing these soldiers and they’re thanking you for coming. “Thank you for being here.” You’re like, “No. Thank you for what you’re doing.”They’re living in containers. They’re getting shot at every day. They’re thousands and thousands of miles away from their families. We’ve been lucky because being in sports allows us the chance to do some of these really unique things and serve other people.
I was so grateful to be part of that because I’m not a coach. You put yourself through hard work and dedication in a position to be that change agent for all these guys we’re talking about that you go out and recruit and come to UCLA. What a wonderful gift you’ve been able to give those guys.
The coaching part, the winning the games, that’s fantastic but it goes away. When the game is over, everyone starts talking about the next game and you have to win that. When you know that you impacted a life and changed it forever or changed the direction of a family forever because you gave someone an opportunity, and you held them accountable to that opportunity, and then those people come back, those kids come back and they thank you years later, then you know that you’re doing the right thing.
I’m super thankful and grateful that you’ve allowed me to go on all the road trips with UCLA and the way the UCLA family has embraced me in terms of just respecting who I am and letting me go and come in inside the locker room or on the field, and all those things. It’s amazing. It’s a wonderful gift for me. For all those people out there, Jim Mora is a quality guy, class act, best friend and I just think there are great things ahead for you where you’re taking this program and the leadership that you can give to all these different kids that come to your school.
Thanks. It’s been fun. When you’re experiencing things in life that you like to do and you’re getting to do them with someone that you’re close to, we met when we were seniors in high school, that’s what makes it pretty special. When you’re doing it alone, you’re walking the journey alone, it’s okay. When you get to do it with someone that you care about, that’s what makes it really special, too.
I totally appreciate this. This has been amazing. Thank you and we’ll do this again.
My pleasure. It was great.
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