Taking the Pro Bait
Head coach Pete Carroll had a tremendous run at USC. Even though his tenure brought some serious probation for the Trojans, it also brought a pair of national championships and seven first place finishes in the Pac-10. He's also become the single biggest piece of "proof" that hiring a pro football coach for a college team is a good idea. The counter-examples seem far more abundant (see Callahan, Bill, for example). UCLA is going down the same path as their rival, with the hiring of former Falcons and Seahawks coach Jim Mora. Can he be a similar exception?
Pro football is tremendously popular. In the recruiting game, persuading prospects that you can provide a ticket to an NFL career can help land some outstanding athletes. But in the absence of a great understanding of college football, how well does that translate on the field? Especially when you bring in players that are more interested in being drafted than winning in college. People might point to Nick Saban as a pro football coach that made it big in college. But Saban, spent sixteen years coaching in college before setting foot on a pro sideline and another five as a college head coach at Michigan State before finally winning a share of a national championship in his fourth year at LSU. The track record for guys that were truly pro football coaches first, don't resemble Saban's. Mora spent one year as a graduate assistant in 1984, since then it's been all professional football.
So what might we expect from UCLA under Jim Mora? The recruiting will probably be strong, but it's always been pretty strong. There are so many good players in the Bruins back yard that USC can't take them all. The environment is a bigger question. Westwood isn't what you'd call a college football-crazed atmosphere. Basketball maybe, but not football. Mora had one winning season out of four as a head coach in the pros. Carroll was only two for five in that department before heading to USC, so while a winning track record in the pros isn't all-important, it does show that the coach has his limitations. Mora did hire a veteran college offensive coordinator coming off a decent two-year run at Arizona State. Mora's defensive coordinator spent virtually his entire career coaching pro football, but none of it as a coordinator. That doesn't exactly spell "quick turnaround" for a defense that was among the weaker ones in the country.
The Near Term
In 2012, the hopes of the Bruins will ride on the offense, which still needs to settle on a quarterback but has an experienced senior option available. UCLA must replace their top receiver but otherwise will have some good offensive weapons available. Defensively, they had better be ready for a decidedly college-style offense when Nebraska comes to town. The zone read isn't something you deal with against a Kurt Warner or Drew Brees. Likewise, they'll want to see improvements in their return game.
If the Bruins can win enough games early while the staff gets adapted to the college game, then there's no reason UCLA can't be highly competitive in the Pac-12. The fear with pro coaches is that they don't adapt well to the limited practice time and the more limited ability that college players have. But Nebraska's Bo Pelini himself is a good example of someone who quickly made the switch on the defensive side of the ball from the pro game to the college game. Many of the most famed busts moving from pro to college jobs, were offensive coaches. Like Carroll and Pelini, maybe Mora can be a positive exception and make UCLA a strong program in the years to come.