James Lawrence Mora always had this gravitational pull about him, this presence that intrigued people and pulled them closer. It came naturally.
KIRKLAND — James Lawrence Mora always had this gravitational pull about him, this presence that intrigued people and pulled them closer.
It came naturally. They wanted to follow him, to see him smile, to hear him laugh. Even then, when he served as a backup linebacker and special-teams ace at the University of Washington in the early 1980s, his roommates were struck by how many people knew him and how many others wanted to.
Mora wasn’t a star in the traditional sense, just a backup outside linebacker who moonlighted on special teams. Yet there was the UW women’s track team, hanging on his every word, even bestowing Mora with a nickname.
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“Rump Daddy” they called him.
In those respects, conventional wisdom never does the 42-year-old rookie head coach of the Atlanta Falcons justice. Just like most role players aren’t treated like star quarterbacks, it’s too easy to point to destiny in his current situation, that of a son following in his father’s footsteps, taking over the family business and rising so fast, so soon the whole thing seems preordained.
They never could pigeonhole him into those tidy personality boxes reserved for coaches because, at once, James Lawrence Mora resides at both extremes.
He’s tough and hard-nosed and disciplined, all right. The kind of guy who spent 20 years filling a black bag with ideas and game plans — everything he altered and used when all his dreams fell into place — then brought it with him to Atlanta for an interview that knocked the mustache off Falcons owner Arthur Blank.
But he’s also universally recognized as a players’ coach. The kind of guy NFL Films caught on tape at the Georgia Dome last month, imploring staff to turn up the Snoop Dogg song blasting through the loudspeakers.
“He is a coach without a flaw,” said Hugh Millen, Mora’s college roommate and a radio personality at KJR. “He’s going to be one of the greats in this industry. Twenty years from now, people are going to talk about him as one of the great, all-time coaches. Ever. Twenty-five years from now they’ll be handing him a yellow blazer.”
James Lawrence Mora returns home this weekend for the first time as an NFL head coach. He returns to the roots that were planted when his father, longtime coach Jim Mora Sr., served as an assistant coach at Washington (1975-77) and with the Seahawks (1978-81).
Those roots run deep. Like just a couple weeks ago, when Don James’ daughter, Jill, asked her youngest son this question.
“Can you name the NFL head coach I used to baby-sit for?”
The answer, of course, was James Lawrence Mora. And those roots tugged at him last month when UW inquired about its vacant football post. Three years earlier, Mora would have hopped on a plane to “my favorite place on earth” with his black bag.
This year, with Michael Vick at quarterback, a solid nucleus in place and the Falcons in the playoffs, Mora couldn’t possibly take the job he calls “the best in college football, period.”
“It’s probably going to be distracting,” said Mike Mora, Jim’s brother, who works for Heliotrope Architects in Ballard. “It’s important for him to come back to these places and win. There’s history there. It bugs him on a personal level that they lost last week in the Superdome (in New Orleans, where their father coached).”
Those who knew Mora the Huskies walk-on aren’t surprised that he’s coaching now. Stephen Mora, a brother who’s an actor in New York, remembers his brother growing up as a coach in training. Every morning, he read the sports page while eating a bowl of cereal.
Falcons defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was a graduate assistant at UW when Mora played there. Mora always wanted to know “why.” Why were they in that scheme? Why did it work? And those questions, Donatell said while laughing, were often not pertinent to Mora’s on-field success. They were pertinent for later.
“It’s in the genes, so to speak,” Donatell said.
Or in the build, if you ask Mike Mora.
“If he were a little bigger and a little faster, he’d be playing,” Mike said. “Given the way he’s built, he’s bound to be coaching. Jim was exactly the kind of player you expect to be a future NFL head coach. He didn’t play that much, so he was forced to sit on the sideline and listen to the coaches talk.”
His package, his plan, his very ideology were in place long before Mora took the Falcons’ reins. They were culled from legends like James, from stints as an assistant in San Diego and New Orleans and San Francisco. Culled from even further back, to when he served as a visiting locker-room attendant for the Seahawks.
Family members say Mora has an extreme Type A personality, the kind of guy who needs unwind time to get to sleep at night, especially if everything on his to-do list isn’t done. The kind of guy, Millen remembers, who cleared his head by constantly vacuuming.
“I’ve never seen a guy that vacuumed more than he did,” Millen said. “Felix and Oscar (‘The Odd Couple’) is what it really was.”
All those ideas came together in the mind of Mora much sooner than they do for most. Maybe he figured it out while making his house the cleanest in the U District. Maybe, as Donatell points out, he figured it out because he was on a sideline since the age of 8, around football for 40 years, putting Mora 10 years ahead of the conventional coaching curve.
Maybe it’s the little black bag that holds all the secrets.
“It’s not little,” said Greg Knapp, Mora’s offensive coordinator on the Falcons and a longtime friend. “He’s been putting that thing together his whole life. He’s got a little bit of his dad in him that way.”
“That’s Jim,” Mike Mora said. “He was always operating under the expectation he would be an NFL head coach.”
It was always obvious James Lawrence would follow in his father’s footsteps. The elder Mora would hand down his legacy — the name, the intensity, the organization, the profession and, eventually, the success.
Back at Interlake High School in Bellevue, James Lawrence starred in football, basketball and baseball. He was a coaches’ player even then, always wanting to guard the most dangerous opponent. Stephen remembers his brother not caring if he scored, just that he frustrated the other team’s best player into shoving him or fouling out.
“That defines what Jim was and is about,” Stephen said.
Mora always wanted total control, too. San Francisco linebacker Jeff Ulbrich saw that when the 49ers traveled to play in domes. Mora wasn’t a big fan of playing football indoors, so he’d bring dirt from the 49ers’ practice facility and make the defensive players rub it on their jerseys.
“He was so meticulous,” Ulbrich said. “He thought about everything. He has that aura about him. It’s hard for it not to be contagious. I mean, it was every day, just the fire in his eyes.”
Combine all of that. The discipline. The organization. The smarts. The gravitational pull. The corresponding relationships he builds with players, with coaches, even with a women’s track team.
And this is what you’re left with — the Mora aura.
The only thing left is to expand it to the NFL, to take the Falcons back to the Super Bowl and win it, to unleash all those ideas in that black bag.
Stephen Mora reminds his brother of that often. Besides taking roles in Broadway plays, he’s done some commercials. And in one Bud Light commercial that ran during a recent Super Bowl, he’s holding a falcon in the air.
“I tell him all the time,” Stephen Mora said, “I’m the first Mora to take a Falcon to the Super Bowl.”
James Lawrence scribbles that down somewhere, another idea to be tucked into that black bag. Surely, he smiles when he hears it, tucks the idea away and starts to figure out a way to get there, to realize another dream.
While vacuuming, of course.
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or email@example.com
|Road to Atlanta|
|A look at Jim Mora Jr.’s 19-year coaching career in the NFL:|
|San Francisco||Def. Coordinator||1999-03|
|San Francisco||Secondary coach||1997-98|
|New Orleans||Secondary coach||1992-95|
|San Diego||Secondary coach||1989-91|
|San Diego||Secondary assistant||1985-88|