One thing that is pretty easy to conclude is that Jim Mora loves coaching.
How else can one explain Mora’s decision to take over one of the least successful recent programs in college football?
Here’s a guy who, in his first NFL season as a head coach with the Atlanta Falcons, advanced to the NFC championship game before losing to the Philadelphia Eagles following the 2004 regular season. That first season, in which the Falcons went 11-5 and won the NFC South, was probably the highlight of Mora’s career.
It’s a head coaching career that hasn’t been marked by sustained excellence, but it’s been far from a disaster. Three seasons as a head coach with the Atlanta Falcons, just one in Seattle before being fired after a 5-11 season. Then he dipped his toes into the college ranks and went 46-30 in six years at UCLA before being fired after this second straight losing season in 2017.
Mora, who has always been great at the podium, returned to broadcasting in 2018 with ESPN.
He could have coasted the rest of the way but instead chose to take on one of the biggest challenges in college football when he was named head coach of the University of Connecticut last November. He couldn’t have taken the job for the money, there was plenty made in the NFL and at UCLA. Then again, coaches coach, and Mora accepted the challenge without blinders.
Taking over a struggling program without a conference isn’t for the meek of mind. One could say this is the worst situation in college football. Some might suggest Don Brown beginning his second stint at Massachusetts is worse, but at least UMass beat UConn 27-13 last year. Either way, both coaches aren’t exactly riding on easy street.
Here’s how much UConn has struggled: From 2016 through 2021, the Huskies were 10-50. (In 2020, the program didn’t field a football team due to COVID).
So Mora took over a team that went 1-11 last year, with only a 21-15 win over Yale. With the way UConn has struggled, getting a coach with four years of NFL head coaching experience and six as a head coach in the PAC-12 (is that what the league is still called?) probably made him overqualified for the job.
So with all the buildup, Mora and UConn opened a brutal schedule with a difficult opener. The Huskies kicked off the Mora era with a game at Utah State, the defending Mountain West champions, led by veteran quarterback Logan Bonner. It wasn’t very surprising that Utah State was a 27.5-point favorite.
What caught most off guard is that UConn jumped out to a 14-0 lead.
Already the keyboards were pounding with the storyline of Mora ushering in the Cinderella story of college football, in Week 0 no less. Then Utah State interrupted the feel-good story by scoring 24 unanswered second-quarter points. When Noe Ruelas hit a 54-yard field goal with 10:09 left, UConn cut the Aggies lead to 24-20.
This was a legitimate game.
Until Utah State scored again.
Final: Utah State 31, UConn 20.
Connecticut showed true character against Utah State, even after sophomore quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson, the Penn State transfer, suffered what appears to be a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter. True freshman Zion Turner, had some ups, but more down, completing 12-31 for 109 yards, one TD and two interceptions.
Still, there were bright spots, led by sophomore running back Nathan Carter, who rushed for 190 yards on 20 carries (9.5 avg.). Junior linebacker Jackson Mitchell was all over the place with 16 tackles, a sack, a forced and a recovered fumble.
There was plenty of fight displayed, so maybe this group will play spirited football this season. Yet looking at the schedule, even if UConn is vastly improved, where are all the wins coming from?
Aug. 27 at Utah State, 20-31 L
Sept. 3 Central Connecticut State
Sept. 10 Syracuse
Sept. 17 at Michigan
Sept. 24 at NC State
Oct. 1 Fresno State
Oct. 8 at FIU
Oct. 15 at Ball State
Oct. 29 Boston College
Nov. 5 Massachusetts
Nov. 12 Liberty
Nov. 19 at Army
If Mora goes 3-9, they should immediately seek donations for a future statute of him.
This project will take time for the 60-year-old Mora and his staff. It was as good of a first step. And don’t say moral victories don’t mean much, especially when the real ones have been so hard to come by.