It all started with an innocent radio interview back in 2006, when he said he’d all but bear-crawl from Atlanta to Seattle if the University of Washington football job ever came open. Jim Mora had to apologize in a written statement. He was, after all, head coach of the Atlanta Falcons and the Huskies already had a coach.
“Cost me my job,” he said Tuesday.
That day in ’06, Mora was being Mora, a little impetuous, a little hair-trigger. But to a lot of UW football fans, he was being passionate and heartfelt, and for them, that affair became a mission statement on his career goals.
The stars have never quite aligned, however, leading us to Friday night’s Washington-UCLA game in Pasadena, which features a guy from Southern California, Steve Sarkisian, leading the Huskies, and an alum with a deep feeling for the UW and Seattle, Mora, coaching the team from Southern California.
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It seemed so perfect, the union of Mora and the UW. He’s a coach qualified enough to have headed two NFL teams, and it’s a program that at times after 2000 had a crying need for fresh, spirited leadership.
But not every relationship that seemed meant to be is meant to be. At least that’s the take-away as the Huskies visit the Rose Bowl in a key game for both programs.
“If that job’s open, you’ll find me at the head of the line with my resume in hand ready to take that job,” Mora said on KJR-AM back in 2006 in an interview with hosts Dave Mahler and Hugh Millen.
How invested was Mora in Washington? Well, he was a walk-on player at UW in some big years in the early 1980s. His dad Jim worked with and for Don James, which brought the families so close together the younger Mora was babysat by James’ elder daughter Jill, and in turn, Jim later baby-sat the James’ younger daughter, Jeni.
Mora’s wife Shannon is a former UW cheerleader, and earlier this fall, when he hatched a surprise 50th birthday party for her, the site was downtown Seattle, not Los Angeles.
Tuesday, Mora did his best to hose off the old controversy. He said on the Pac-12 teleconference call that his words in that radio interview were “a joke. It wasn’t in any way, shape or form serious.”
Mora added that the Huskies “have never approached me.”
But they are believed to have at least sniffed around at his availability a couple of times.
Let’s go back more than a decade, to February 2003, when Mora, then a career assistant in the NFL, was defensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers. Surely he had a front-row seat to a clumsily conceived interview the coach at his alma mater, Rick Neuheisel, had with the Niners for their opening.
Two seasons later, after Neuheisel had been fired and the Huskies were seeking to replace his successor, Keith Gilbertson, Mora was late in his first year as a head coach with the Falcons.
The Times identified Mora as a UW target, but the timing just didn’t line up. Mora was in the process of taking the Falcons to the NFC Championship Game.
Washington hired Tyrone Willingham. By Willingham’s third year, in 2007, the Huskies were struggling mightily, unable to gain any traction, leaving him 11-25 at UW. Mora was much closer now, fired in Atlanta and in his first year coaching defensive backs for the Seahawks under Mike Holmgren.
Huskies fans who yearned for Mora on the sideline have to know now: That was the year, the year it could have worked.
It didn’t. After some internal anguish and consideration of Willingham’s future, the Huskies decided to keep him.
A few weeks later, Mora returned to Seattle from the East Coast. He had been interviewing for the head-coaching job with the Washington Redskins.
After Mora huddled with Seahawks general manager Tim Ruskell, the club named Mora a coach-in-waiting whenever Holmgren stepped down. It was no doubt a move in response to the Redskins’ pursuit, but perhaps with the secondary intent of quelling Mora-to-the-Huskies buzz. (Attempts to reach Ruskell and then-CEO Tod Leiweke for comment were unsuccessful.)
As the Willingham regime soured toward its 0-12 conclusion in 2008, the Huskies had interest in Mora. And in fact, the topic was so overheated in Seattle, he released a statement through the Seahawks midway through their season that he wasn’t a candidate for the UW job. He stayed true to his status as coach-designate with the Seahawks and took over in 2009 after Holmgren exited.
Sarkisian came aboard, and the Seahawks jettisoned Mora after one year.
UCLA fetched Mora after the 2011 season, and Tuesday, he was saying about his alma mater, “I think they’ve got the right guy in Steve Sarkisian.”
Friday night, Mora will look across the sideline at the program he once said he was dying to lead, and find out how somebody else is doing with it.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org