Home. That can be a tough thing for coaches to find. They are nomads out of necessity, gypsies with headsets. No one becomes one of the NFL's 32 head coaches by waiting patiently. You beg, you borrow and you deal to get interviews and move where the work is.
It is early evening in midsummer, and Jim Mora finds himself smack-dab in the middle of soccer suburbia.
He’s at Sixty Acres Park with his wife, Shannon, and their four children. Oldest son Cole practices on Field 15. Youngest son Trey performs sit-ups at Dad’s feet while wearing a No. 8 Matt Hasselbeck jersey.
Mora will be coaching the Seahawks’ real No. 8 when the team begins training camp Friday, but right now he’s just a father who treated his 6-year-old to a jersey at Sports Authority.
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“Look, it’s still got the tag,” Mora says.
Sure does. The plastic anti-theft device is clipped to the shirt tail. Everyone laughs, the family’s mood matching the perfect weather this Wednesday evening. Mora wears a sweat-stained Mariners cap, shorts and a smile.
“I’m just pulled here,” he said. “I’ve always been pulled back to Seattle.”
He is one of us.
This is where he became part of a proud era of Huskies football. Back before probation, the purple helmets and any of Rick Neuheisel’s problems. This is where he met his wife, and this is where he returned in 2007 after he was fired by the Atlanta Falcons.
Professionally, it was a setback. Personally, it was a chance to return to where his roots ran deepest.
“My kids felt like they were moving home when they moved back to Seattle,” he said. “Even though they had never lived here a day in their life, they felt like we were coming home.”
Home. That can be a tough thing for coaches to find. They are nomads out of necessity, gypsies with headsets. No one becomes one of the NFL’s 32 head coaches by waiting patiently. You beg, you borrow and you deal to get interviews and move where the work is.
Mora is 47, he has a house on the Eastside where he went to high school, and he has told his children they won’t ever need to leave the area. Not unless they choose to.
“It’s really settling,” he said, “when we moved here, to be able to tell my kids, ‘You’re home.’ “
But it wouldn’t be altogether accurate to say coaching in Seattle was a goal for Mora.
“It was more of a dream that I didn’t think would ever come true in the profession that I’d chosen,” Mora said.
He first left Seattle in 1985 to fetch coffee and make copies as a coaches’ assistant in San Diego. He returned 22 years later after being fired by the Falcons, a team that he had one win away from the Super Bowl in his first year as a head coach.
Mora didn’t return to Seattle for another head-coaching job. Not at first. He simply came back to the one place that has always felt like home.
Mora was 13 when he came to Seattle in 1975, about the same age as his oldest son, Cole, when the family returned in 2007.
This homecoming story spans generations. It started when Mora’s father came to Seattle in 1975 and joined Don James’ coaching staff at Washington. It continued when the younger Mora graduated from Interlake High School in 1980 and walked on at Washington to play for a coach who knew about the family’s football smarts.
“We’ve just known him for years and years,” James said. “It was great to make a Husky out of him. Nice to have a coach’s son on the team.”
Jim Mora took after Dad in the way he saw the game, but don’t call him Junior. He is James Lawrence, his father James Ernest.
Mora started out on the scout team, but he played his way to a scholarship and became a special-teams standout. As a sophomore, he earned a letter on the team that won the Rose Bowl. Mora later spent one year on the Huskies staff as a student assistant.
James doesn’t remember Mora asking him for college-coaching references, and there’s a reason for that. Mora never did. He had no interest in the recruiting schedule that comes with being a college assistant, after seeing the toll it takes on a family.
When his father was an assistant at Colorado, one year he had just a single day off between the end of the college season and the beginning of a two-week recruiting trip. Jim was sick that day, stuck in bed with the flu.
The recruiting schedule ultimately drove his dad to leave Washington for an NFL assistant’s job with the Seahawks in 1978. And the memory of having only that one precious day with his dad, and losing it to the flu, guided the son toward the NFL in 1985, and it’s kept him there for the 24 years since.
“I did not want to leave my family to go recruit,” he said.
Mora wrote his way out of town back in 1985. He sent letters, lots of them.
He mailed one to every coach and general manager in the NFL asking for a job, any job, on the coaching staff. A rejection resulted in another letter. He offered thanks for the consideration.
Of course, there was an easier way. Dad was coaching the Baltimore Stars in the United States Football League.
“I wasn’t going to do that,” the son said. “I felt like I needed to establish myself.”
“I just felt like it was best for him to do his own thing, make his own road,” said his father.
All those letters finally landed Mora a gig in San Diego.
The title? Coach’s assistant. The reality?
“I was a gofer,” he said.
He got dinner for other coaches, filled their cars with gas and kept the coaches’ refrigerator stocked with Cokes.
Tom Bass, Chargers defensive coordinator, found the refrigerator empty before San Diego’s first exhibition game that year. He reminded Mora once and never had to do so again.
“I became obsessive about it,” Mora said, “to the point where I put one in as soon as somebody would take one out.”
He didn’t just make sure the refrigerator was full, he made sure the label of every Coke can faced out.
Mora doesn’t do anything halfway. This is a man who runs up Tiger Mountain’s cable-line trail to stay in shape and who was once filmed huffing an ammonia capsule as a coach to make himself more alert. His college roommate Hugh Millen remembers how meticulous Mora was about keeping things clean, the vacuum running all the time. Mora took the same compulsive approach to his profession.
“I just felt like I could make myself indispensable,” Mora said.
He did. Mora stayed on the Chargers staff under three different head coaches by doing anything asked of him. If he didn’t know how, he learned.
In 1991, he was the Chargers’ secondary coach. The head coach was fired after that season, Mora’s contract was up and he needed a job.
Cincinnati had an opening and made an offer. It should have been a no-brainer except Mora heard the siren’s call of Seattle. Tom Flores had just been hired by the Seahawks, and he had a staff to fill.
“I was not going to accept a job in Cincinnati until I had completely exhausted every opportunity to get even an interview in Seattle,” Mora said.
He never got that interview. Luckily, a job opened up in New Orleans, and he went to work for his father as the Saints’ secondary coach. The son had his own résumé now, and a growing reputation for developing a defense that matched his personality. Relentless.
The homecoming, however, would have to wait.
Jim Mora returned to Seattle with a press release, not a parade.
On a Sunday in January 2007, the Seahawks announced he would be an assistant coach. Three years earlier, Mora had led the Atlanta Falcons to the NFC Championship game in his first year as an NFL head coach. Now he was coming to Seattle as an anonymous assistant coach.
“It was very healthy for me to avoid the spotlight, which I didn’t want and I didn’t deserve,” Mora said. “This was Mike Holmgren’s team. Of course, I had aspirations to be a head coach again, but this was an opportunity to watch one of the great coaches of all time up close.”
To characterize Mora’s time in Atlanta as a failure is wrong. He won 11 games the first season, never won fewer than seven games in three seasons, and had the highest winning percentage in franchise history when he was fired.
He essentially talked himself out of a job, calling the Washington Huskies his dream head-coaching job in an interview on KJR-AM. Mora held a news conference that day in Atlanta saying he was joking during the interview with Millen, his college roommate.
For the past two years, Mora has kept his head down and his eyes open as he coached the Seahawks’ secondary.
“There were lessons I needed to learn,” he said.
Mora interviewed for the Washington Redskins coaching vacancy in January 2008 but withdrew his name. After Holmgren announced 2008 would be his final season, Mora signed a contract to become the Seahawks head-coach-in-waiting. Mora wasn’t at the news conference announcing the arrangement, and he didn’t discuss his plans as head coach until after Holmgren’s tenure ended.
Now, he’s coaching the team he cheered for as a kid in the city he has always considered home.
“It’s a place that I always wanted to raise my kids because I had such a great upbringing here,” Mora said. “I felt so complete here.”
It hardly ever works out this way. Not for coaches, at least, and while Mora admits that adds some pressure, it’s also what makes it so special.
“The people I grew up with live here,” he said. “And I want to make them proud. I want to do special things with these people.
“Under no circumstances do I believe I’m allowed to fail. I’m not a mercenary in this city. There’s nothing else for me.”
Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org