Jim Mora had emerged from UW's basketball arena and was walking toward Husky Stadium when he was stopped. It was a Tuesday afternoon. Two female Japanese tourists, cameras in hand, recognized him and asked for a picture. Mora was only too happy to oblige. He posed with one and then the other, his beaming smile indicative of the soaring popularity of his Washington Huskies. Fittingly, a bronze statue of former UW president Mark Emmert towered nearby. The statue was given to the university in 2008 by the Husky Half Brains -- a group of zealous fans that believed Mora could be the program's savior. And when UW hired Mora, those fans showed their gratitude to Emmert by commissioning the statue.
Five years have passed since that time, when Washington football was rudderless and adrift upon college football's open seas. Fourth quarter collapses against Washington State and Hawaii closed out a miserable 2007 season, and left the Huskies with a 4-9 record. Under third-year coach Tyrone Willingham, Washington had gone 11-25 -- by far the worst coaching tenure in UW's storied football history. Beyond the record, Willingham had also alienated players and boosters beyond the point of reconciliation. Morale was down, ticket sales were down. This once-proud program had been devastated from within.
But public support for Willingham was another matter, especially within the media. Seattle Times columnist Jerry Brewer and KJR Sportsradio host Mike Gastineau rallied behind the embattled coach and demanded that he be given a fourth year to make things right. Legions of emotional fans threw their support behind Willingham, and would not relinquish their viewpoint at any cost. To top it off, the NAACP and NFL MVP Shaun Alexander cited Willingham as a credit to the African-American community and insisted he be retained.
Despite the mounting pressure, UW president Mark Emmert stood strong as leader of the university. Once upon a time, as chancellor at LSU, he'd hired Nick Saban as head coach and two years later won a national championship. Now, he vowed to make a similar difference here at Washington, his alma mater.
After listening to all arguments and conferring privately with former players and advisors, Emmert made bold moves to bolster the Husky football program. During a dramatic three day stretch in December of 2007, Emmert fired Willingham and hired Seahawk assistant Jim L Mora as UW's next head coach.
"I know that he got a lot of flack for hiring me," Mora said recently as he stood in front of the Emmert statue. "There were some folks on the radio and internet who didn't think I was a good choice. But I appreciated Dr. Emmert's faith in me. And I think it's friggin' safe to say that his faith has been awarded."
Mora's words are an understatement. In his five years as UW coach, Mora has produced a 49-16 record and has led the Huskies to two Rose Bowl championships. His ferocious and aggressive defenses draw comparisons to those of the Don James era. Meanwhile, Mora's offenses and special teams are models of efficiency.
The path to success hasn't been altogether smooth. Early in his tenure, Mora received bad publicity when he reportedly yelled at softball coach Heather Tarr. Mora's anger reportedly stemmed from Tarr's decision to bring her players into the weight room while the football team was training. Mora also received a reprimand that spring from interim AD Scott Woodward for publicly saying "we don't have cow tippings one block from our campus." The comment was widely viewed as a cheap shot at cross state rival Washington State's rural setting.
"That's just part of Jimmy's charm," said a close friend of Mora's who didn't want his name disclosed. "He's very passionate and in the moment."
But Mora's impact on the football team's fortunes has been immense. During that first season in 2008, when sophomore quarterback Jake Locker struggled in September, it was Mora that insisted he become a run-first quarterback. "Jake was a tremendous athlete but it was clear that he wasn't meant to be a pro-style QB," Mora said. "Why force it? So we turned him into a running QB. I just said, `Jake, stop thinking. Just run, run and run, son!' And that worked out pretty well."
Locker became the first quarterback in Pac-12 history to rush for over 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. It also proved to be the formula for success, as Locker (and a record-setting defense) led Washington to the 2011 Rose Bowl title with a win over Ohio State.
After returning to Pasadena the following year and winning the Rose Bowl over Wisconsin, the 2012 season carried large expectations. Perhaps those expectations were too large, including the Associated Press ranking the Huskies #2 in their pre-season poll. Despite starting the season 6-0 and having three offensive linemen earn 1st team All Pac-12 honors, the Huskies faded late in the year. They finished with a loss to Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl and limped back to Seattle with a 9-4 record.
In the weeks following that game, Mora saw the fickle side of college football fans. The Husky Half Brains -- those zealous fans that gifted the Emmert statue five years ago -- started a website called FireMora.com. The site's members are apparently appalled by last year's 4-loss season. The slogan atop the home page says: "If you can't see that 4-loss seasons are unacceptable at UW, we can't help you."
"The Husky Half Brains are like some kind of cult," said a member of the athletic department who requested anonymity. "It's like some kind of cult of personality going on over there. It's like if we don't win the national championship every year then everyone needs to be fired. They have no perspective. It's ridiculous."
When asked about the website, Mora broke into a big grin. "Yes I've seen it," he said. "Those fans are passionate to say the least. But you know what? It doesn't bother me at all. Nobody puts more pressure on me than I do. I hate to lose so much I can't even describe it. I hate losing more than I love winning. And I want our fan base to be like that too. I mean, think about it. What would you rather have -- rabid fans who demand we win, or wishy-washy fans who are satisfied with mediocrity?"
Under Mora, the Huskies have been anything but mediocre. After a long string of defeats to Oregon, Mora has gone 3-2 against the Ducks. He also took the Huskies down to Baton Rouge last September and beat the Tigers with a last-second field goal.
For the upcoming 2013 season, newly-remodeled Husky Stadium will be unveiled August 31st against the Boise State Broncos. Other home games include Oregon, Arizona, Washington State and Idaho State. Of the non-conference games, Idaho State is the most intriguing. Led by second year coach Steve Sarkisian, the Bengals will definitely give the UW staff something different to think about. In 2012, Sarkisian's squad averaged 63 pass attempts per game, while finishing the season at 7-6.