That’s A Mora
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in IM‘s September 2001 issue.
“A leader of men,” says Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay.
“A great motivator,” says team president Bill Polian, who hired Mora.
“He’s done wonders for us,” says his quarterback, Peyton Manning.
“The perfect father,” says son Jim, the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody more disciplined—intellectually, athletically, emotionally or socially–than Jim,” says Jack Kemp, the quarterback-turned-politician who was Mora’s college roommate.
This month, Mora begins his fourth season in charge of the Horseshoes, and by many measures his tenure has been a success. Mora’s Colts orchestrated the NFL’s greatest single-season turnaround between Years One and Two, going from 3-13 to 13-3. They backed it up with a 10-6 mark last season and a second-straight playoff trip. Under Mora’s direction, Manning, running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison have evolved into what many esteemed observers regard as the most exciting trio in the NFL—the best since the Dallas Cowboys’ Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.
But. There’s always a “but.”
But Aikman, Smith and Irvin won three Super Bowls, and Mora has yet to get his talented threesome past the first round of the postseason. Last year, it took a miraculous finish and a set of highly improbable circumstances for the Colts—preseason Super Bowl contenders—to even make the playoffs. And there’s the 26-22 overall record.
Joining a moribund franchise that had never seen a winning season in its 19 NFL years, he directed the New Orleans Saints to four playoff berths. But every one of those four teams nosedived in the playoffs.
With 119 NFL victories, Mora ranks 20th among all-time coaches, but he’s the only one with zero playoff victories.
So, is Mora’s glass of Gatorade half full or half empty?
“If he hadn’t done a good job, his teams wouldn’t have been in the playoffs in the first place,” says Kansas City Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil, whose relationship with Mora began when both were assistants at Stanford. “They’d better appreciate him in Indianapolis, I’ll tell you that.”
Some don’t. Many do, including those whose opinions count most.
“Last year, the coach of one of our opponents said it was over—the Colts weren’t going to the playoffs,” says Polian. “Everybody had written us off. But Jim hadn’t. He kept preaching to the team that if you continue to play hard and work hard, you’ll get better, and we’ll be stronger at the end than some of the other people we play. He wouldn’t let them give up. That run we made down the stretch last year was entirely due to Jim Mora. He took that team by the scruff of its neck and dragged it over the finish line.”
The big boss, Irsay, who has proclaimed a desire for his Colts to win not just one Super Bowl but three in a row, appears equally committed to Mora, who has two years remaining on his initial five-year contract. “I am in total support of Jim Mora, because that’s a critical element to having a successful franchise,” says Irsay. “In every meeting I have with Jim, I tell him that I’m here to support him.
“All I know is this: In New Orleans, Jim was picked as coach by Jim Finks, who will be remembered as one of the great general managers in NFL history. And here, he was picked by Bill Polian, who is in that same vein. Now we’ve just got to continue to work to give him the kinds of players he needs.”
Not everyone feels likewise—particularly after last season when the Colts limped into the playoffs and lost to Miami. Up by 14 points, the Colts were done in by a Dolphins team led by quarterback Jay Fiedler, who will never be confused with Dan Marino.
Critics can find plenty of reasons why, starting with Mora himself. Some–including a few players–think he’s a rough, tough, gruff SOB of a coach. Some, fans mostly, think he’s even more conservative professionally than his pal Kemp is politically. Some think that at 66, Mora’s too old, no matter that his looks belie his age. Some consider him an unrelenting disciplinarian whose heart—if you can find it—is made of hard, cold steel.
Mora seems unfazed, sounding eager as ever for the stresses and challenges of coaching an NFL team, especially one earmarked as a serious title contender. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know that I want to keep coaching,” he says. “I’m not ready to quit; I don’t feel any older than I did 10 years ago. In fact, I feel better than I did 10 years ago. And no question I’m a better coach. If not, I’ve wasted a hell of a lot of time.”
Mora doesn’t believe he’s wasted time when it comes to professional matters. His personal life, though, is another story. His career has distanced him from his wife of 40 years, Connie, as well as from his three sons and eight grandchildren, whom he adores. But the ex-Marine fends off inquiries about his family life with a verbal stiff-arm that Edgerrin James would appreciate. “I’m not going to get into it,” he says flatly. “Whatever’s happened in my [personal] life is my own fault. I don’t blame anyone.”
Nor is he proud of his status as the NFL’s oldest head coach, although he should be: It speaks to his perseverance and longevity in a cutthroat profession. “The only time it becomes a grind,” he says, “is when you’re losing. But that’s the way it is with everybody. I don’t care whether you’re 25 or 65–losing is the hardest part of the job.”
He fairly spits out the words. Just the thought of losing stokes his competitive fires. That intensity has been a trademark since his youth in Los Angeles, where his father, Mario, was a television film editor and his mother, Helen, was a homemaker. A younger brother, Dick, worked in the vitamin business and lives in Orange County. A younger sister, Marilyn, lives in Houston. Morals father, now 91, lives in Costa Mesa, California. Mora’s mother died in 1992.
No one in the family pushed Mora into football. In fact, he’s not even sure how he got to this point in his career, because there was no plan. That’s right: The guy who spends hours diagramming the X’s and O’s applies no such structure to his own life. “It just happened,” Mora says.
“It” started at University High School in west Los Angeles, where Mora was an excellent receiver and defensive end. Though an “all-city” player, he wasn’t dazzling enough to attract offers from California’s major colleges. Through a family friend, though, he heard of an 1,800-student NAIA college called Occidental, located in the L.A. suburb of Eagle Rock.
At Occidental, he met a quarterback whom he had played against in high school: Jack Kemp. The two hit it off instantly and went on to become fraternity brothers (Alpha Tau Omega), roommates and football co-captains. They were joined by Ron Botchan, who’s now an NFL umpire and a veteran of five Super Bowls. As best friends they played football and did pretty much everything together, including double- and triple-dating.
“A wild evening for us was to go out cruising in Pasadena,” recalls Kemp. “But we never went to bars, and there was no carousing. I don’t want to say we were goody-two-shoes, but it was the ’50s, and we all had a very strong work ethic.”
“I was a straight arrow,” Mora remembers. “During football season, I wouldn’t even drink a Coke. We weren’t hellraisers by any means.”
While at Occidental, Mora—and Botchan—joined the Marine Platoon Leaders program. After they graduated in 1957 they were commissioned as second lieutenants and sent to Quantico, Virginia to begin three years of active duty. Mora was trained as an infantry officer, but in those days, military bases fielded football teams and often attracted topnotch talent coming out of the colleges.
Soon Mora, from little Occidental, found himself alongside–and against-players from the major conferences in the country. And in addition to taking on military opposition, Quantico played college teams such as Boston College, Boston University and Holy Cross. “I started out as an eighth-string tight end and ended up starting,” Mora says.
During his required three years of active duty, Mora played one season at Quantico and two at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. When his military commitment ended, he returned to southern California and was contemplating a career in teaching and coaching when he learned of a job opening at his alma mater. A new coach, Vic Schwenk, needed one assistant. Mora got the job-which paid all of $500 per season—and coached the offensive and defensive lines. He also taught physical education at San Fernando Junior High while he and Connie began raising their sons Jim, Michael and Stephen.
Before his fifth year at “Oxy,” Schwenk resigned to become a full-time scout for the Los Angeles Rams, and Mora was hired at age 29 to become the head coach. He was happy. He was successful. His second Occidental team went 8-1 and finished 10th in the 1965 national small-college rankings.
The team’s performance drew the attention of John Ralston, then coach of Stanford (and later of the Denver Broncos), who tried to hire Mora as an assistant after his second year at Oxy. Mora, however, couldn’t get out of his contract. Still interested, Ralston called back the next year, and this time Mora was free to go.
“The dean of the faculty told me I was making a major mistake,” Mora recalls. “He said I could stay at Occidental the rest of my life, have tenure on the faculty, coach, settle in the community and have a nice life. But I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got to give it a shot.'”
Thus began an odyssey for Mora and his family. His stint at Stanford lasted only a year, after which, at the behest of his former Marine football buddy Chet Franklin (now with the Oakland Raiders), Mora joined Eddie Crowder’s staff at the University of Colorado. Six years later, when Crowder resigned, Mora was hired by Vermeil, who’d become head coach at UCLA. Mora stayed at UCLA only one season, then became defensive coordinator for the University of Washington in Seattle. There, Mora was instrumental in recruiting future NFL quarterback Warren Moon.
In 1976, Seattle had gained an NFL expansion team, the Seahawks. Mora was tiring of the recruiting grind and the amount of time it required him to spend on the road. His sons were now in junior high and high school. So when the Seahawks had an opening for a defensive line coach in 1978, Mora applied–and soon found himself in the National Football League.
In 1982, another opportunity “just happened.” Ron Meyer left SMU to become coach of the New England Patriots. One of his assistants who had worked with Mora at Colorado called him regarding a position for a defensive coordinator with NFL experience.
“That turned out to be the toughest move I ever made,” Mora says. “My family was in a comfort zone in Seattle, and we loved it there.” Taking the job was a 3,000-mile leap of faith. During his year with the Patriots, their defense ranked fifth in points allowed in the AFC. Again, Mora was content. Again, the telephone rang. It was Carl Peterson, a former staffmate at UCLA who had just become general manager of the Philadelphia Stars in the USFL, a start-up professional league. George Perles had been hired as their head coach, but left within weeks of the start of training camp to go to Michigan State. Was Mora interested? “No,” he replied. “Don’t bug me.” But Peterson persisted. “I finally said, ‘What the hell, I can always go back to the NFL if this thing (the USFL) doesn’t make it,'” Mora says.
The league didn’t make it, folding after three years. But Mora’s teams had played in three title games and won two. Mora was a hot property, attracting bids from the Eagles, the Cardinals and the Saints.
Jim Finks, the GM who had just guided the Bears to the 1985 Super Bowl, was one reason Mora opted for New Orleans. “We just instantly hit it off,” Mora said.
Before Finks and Mora—who were backed by the bucks of new Saints owner Tom Benson—the Saints had been the “Aints,” a sorry lot forever mired in the muck of mediocrity. But with Finks drafting shrewdly, and New Orleans filling its roster with a number of ex-USFLers whom Mora knew, New Orleans quickly became an NFC West division challenger to the San Francisco 49ers.
Blessed with a stout defense and an uncanny kicker (Ben Davis High School product Morten Andersen), Mora guided the Saints to seven straight non-losing seasons, two division titles and four playoff berths. He cultivated not only success but an image as well, one that followed him to Indianapolis: tough, conservative, unyielding, curt with the media and generally not an approachable guy. “I got a reputation,” Mora admits. “And it was just like Jim Finks always told me: If you get a reputation as an early riser, you can sleep until noon, because you will always be thought of as an early riser.”
As long as he was winning, Mora’s image didn’t particularly affect him. But after seven good years, his team began reverting. Without Finks (who became ill with cancer, left as GM, and later died) the franchise became a rudderless ship and went 7-9 in both ’94 and ’95. Then, in the middle of the ’96 season, after a loss to Carolina that dropped the Saints to 2-6, Mora unleashed the famous “Mora meltdown,” in which he blasted his team, his coaches and himself in largely bleepable terms. A day later he resigned.
“After Finks left, we kind of got screwed up as an organization, but I’m not blaming anyone else,” Mora says. “It just wasn’t the same. We didn’t handle things well, and we faltered. There were personal things in my life that didn’t help, but I won’t go into that. It just got to the point where I couldn’t go out there one more day. It had been building for a couple of years and I fought it, but I just got to the point where I couldn’t do it. “So I quit. I’m not proud of the fact, but I knew I was hurting myself, my family, the team and the organization. It was horribly hard, because I knew what I was doing, and knew the repercussions. But I did it because it was what I had to do.”
As the meltdown became national sports-talk sound-bite fare, Mora “kind of went into a shell.” He applied for two head-coaching jobs (San Diego and St. Louis, the latter of which hired his pal Vermeil) and got neither. NBC called about a color commentator gig, and Mora said yes. It was a way to stay involved in the league and see how other franchises were run, and Mora enjoyed the experience. The pay was good and the pressure was off. But it wasn’t coaching.
Coincidentally, the last game Mora worked for NBC was a Colts game. Shortly thereafter, Jim Irsay dismissed Bill Tobin as vice president and Lindy InFante as head coach. He hired Polian and told him to go find “a leader” for a young team that would inherit the first pick in the NFL draft.
Through Peterson, now GM of the Chiefs, Polian heard of Mora’s interest. “I said, ‘Wow, give me his number,'” Polian says. Thus ended the search. “We needed someone who could point this team in the right direction, who would give them the kind of professionalism and discipline they needed,” Polian says. “Jim Mora filled that bill completely.”
Mora arrived in Indianapolis and quickly began to obliterate the stereotypes. Yes, he was demanding, but not unfairly so. Sure, he brought discipline, but he brought it to a team sorely deficient in that area. Conservative? Not with a quick-strike offense and a defense that liked to gamble and blitz. In the meantime, the media learned that Mora was anything but inaccessible and aloof, and that on occasion, he could even display genuine sensitivity and charm.
“I think discipline’s important—you have to be demanding and consistent and tough and fair. But I’m no drill sergeant, and I don’t coach that way,” Mora says. “Conservative? I don’t think I am, at least not to a fault. We’re scoring a lot of points here but we are having trouble stopping people. Does that make me conservative?
“I’ve also tried to do better with the media. In New Orleans, I didn’t do a good job dealing with the media. I was sarcastic. I was curt. I wasn’t a total asshole, but I could have been better, especially with the local guys.”
In other words, even at 66, you’re not too old to learn and even change. And of course you’re not too old to coach. Mora remains consumed by his profession. Though he has an apartment in a gated community on the northside, he often spends nights at the Colts complex sleeping on his office couch. He’d like to carve out more time: to finish any one of the four novels he’s halfway through, to sharpen his “crappy” golf game, to visit children and grandchildren out West, to take former Indy-car driver Derek Daly up on an offer of lessons at his high-performance driving school. And he wishes he had more time for people. “I don’t want people to think I’m something special or on a different level,” he says. “I’m just a guy like everyone else. When they say ‘celebrity,’ that bothers me. I’m a football coach. I just coach and live.”
So is Mora’s glass half full or half empty? Stare into it long enough and you’ll see reflections: of dismal seasons, of marginal talent, of a not-so-long-ago era when the closest the Colts ever got to the Super Bowl was the distance between a couch and a television. Granted, the current Colts crop hasn’t come close, either–not even as close as the Jim Harbaugh and Tony Siragusa crew in 1995. But contemplate the potential of Manning, James and Harrison, and just try to keep the corners of your mouth from turning up.
Was last season disappointing? Most assuredly. Was it Mora’s fault? Perhaps. But with two years left on his contract, and an offensive triad with more offensive punch than NATO, Mora hardly needs to start checking the walls for handwriting.
“I love Indianapolis,” he says. “It’s a wonderful city, and the people have been super. I want to stay here. I want to win. I want to win it all.”