LOS ANGELES -- Here's a spoiler alert: This fall, the Pac-12 Network will air a documentary series entitled The Drive, and this series will prominently feature the UCLA football program. These 15 episodes, according to a presentation from Pac-12 Networks president Lydia Murphy-Stephans at Thursday's culmination of the conference's media days, will provide "us and our audience with unprecedented access" to the Bruins' inner workings. And I don't want prematurely reveal the wizard behind the curtain, and I especially don't want to napalm your perception of the editorial veracity and/or objectivity of a conference-owned television network here, except to say that none of these standards apply to The Drive. Which, not surprisingly, is where UCLA coach Jim Mora comes in.
"We had to think about it," he said of the series, but they didn't have to think about it very long, because once Mora realized it was airing on the Pac-12 Network, once he understood it wasn't going to be "looking for scandal" or "looking to embarrass anybody" as (his words) a program like Hard Knocks might, and once Mora realized that he'd have complete editorial control over everything and anything and could lay down an extensive list of ground rules, it no longer seemed like much of a problem at all. So it goes at UCLA: Every football coach is a control freak, but Mora has always seemed especially attuned to maintaining the strict boundaries around his teams, and I'm guessing he feels even more of an obligation to sweep away every imaginable distraction now that the Bruins have the highest preseason expectations they've had in decades.
This is the Mora way. He hauls his team off to the badlands of San Bernardino for training camp every fall ("I hope it's hot," he said). He admits that he checks social media roughly every 10 minutes to be sure that none of his players are doing anything untoward on Facebook or Twitter on Instagram. He tells them, he says, that "I'm not looking over you, I'm just looking out for you."
It's been three years now since Mora became the head coach at UCLA, after two abbreviated and not-particularly-successful stints as an NFL head coach. So it makes sense that he would gird his program through such emphatic micromanagement, and it makes sense that he would attempt to use what's essentially a promotional film to shape the perception of a school that is engaged in a constant recruiting battle with crosstown USC, while not ceding any real control in the process. And thus far, everything he's doing appears to be working: The Bruins won 10 games last season, their most successful year since 2005. Heading into this fall, UCLA is the media's overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12 South. In a league that's top-heavy with experienced quarterbacks, the Bruins' electric Brett Hundley may be the most enticing talent of them all. And in a city that is traditionally owned by a retrenching USC program, the excitement this year is firmly entrenched in Westwood, maybe not as much as it has been since the Terry Donahue era in the 1980s. Asked, somewhat hyperbolically, if he thinks the Bruins now "own" Los Angeles, Hundley replied, "I do, personally."
"My freshman year, there was nothing (on campus)," said Hundley, who heads into his junior season after choosing not to enter the NFL draft last spring. "People didn't really want to talk about UCLA, to be honest."
All this attention, I imagine, is fine with Mora, as long as people are talking about his program (and his players) in the proper way. When someone asked him about Hundley's NFL prospects, he immediately noted that Hundley is a passing quarterback, a thrower, and that any perceptions of him as a run-first player are based on lingering stereotypes of African-American quarterbacks. When someone asked him about UCLA's construction of a new football facility -- one of the rewards of being linked to a lucrative machine like the Pac-12 Network -- Mora said he meets with the architects every couple of weeks. When someone asked him about a viral video that featured Hundley winging footballs at delinquent UCLA students, Mora said that it would help "normalize" and "humanize" his quarterback (and to be fair, film of men getting hit by footballs is historically award-winning material).
Mora said all of this while sitting in a pavilion on the grounds of Paramount Studios in Hollywood, where this week's Pac-12 media days were held, amid the sound stages and studios and artificial streets populated by burly grips careening back and forth in golf carts to the set of Rizzoli & Isles. For the moment, of course, college football is the only big-time football in Los Angeles, a town laden with superficiality and rife with distractions, and I imagine there is some part of Jim Mora that loves being in Los Angeles (mostly for the recruiting advantage it provides) and some part of him that sees it as a constant challenge to his hegemony.
In the offseason, Washington -- Mora's alma mater -- reportedly tried to lure him away to become their head coach (a position he once famously noted would be his dream job, which turned out to be a mistake, largely because he was still coaching the Atlanta Falcons at the time), but Mora chose to stay. He is, he now says, at UCLA for the long haul, and for at least as long as he is here, and as long as he continues to succeed on the field, he will manage the perception of his program the best way he knows how, which is to embrace the artifice of this city whenever it serves his cause.