Baltimore Stars Coach Jim Mora got where he is today, as John Houseman would say, the old-fashioned way. He didn't just earn it, he earned it.
Mora, a longtime college and NFL assistant before taking the Stars' coaching job two years ago, is standard issue football coach. From the soles of his Adidases to the top of his army haircut and back to the center of his pigskin-covered heart, a coaches' coach. He'll drown you in cliches and whip you with want-to. If you can find a glint of humor in his earnest eyes, take advantage of it because chances are it will be brief.
It's somewhat unseemly, then, that Mora's first fame has come in the U.S. Football League, a somewhat ragtag operation with more twists than a soap opera romance. But Mora, overlooked by the National Football League for most of his 23-year career, has made the most of his first pro head coaching job, turning the Stars into the most professional, not to mention successful, team in the league.
In two seasons in Philadelphia before they moved to Baltimore, the Stars were 35-6, with consecutive appearances in the league championship game. They lost the first one to the Michigan Panthers, then, with Mora's typical flair, came back and did it right last season, defeating the George Allen-coached Arizona Wranglers.
Mora has a tempered-steel jaw and philosophy of life befitting the Marines, with whom he once spent a tour of duty, and the mark of boot camp still is on him. He runs after every practice and his 48-year-old Captain America build is better than those of many of his players. Be careful you don't displease him, because his officer's voice will turn clipped and he's liable to order you to the floor with a "Give me 50, mister, and I mean now!"
Some suspect the Stars were outright intimidated into winning the league championship, answering Mora's orders with a "Sir, yes sir," and obediently defeating the Wranglers, 23-3. The trophy has brought little relief from his notoriously rugged regimen. In the midst of a move to College Park, Md. -- the team's offices are in Baltimore but it will practice in Philadelphia after having taken preseason training in Florida -- the Stars have never run as many wind sprints.
"It's incredible," offensive tackle Irv Eatman said. "You'd think we lost 18 games."
Mora unashamedly gives some credit for his success with the Stars to his experience as a marine lieutenant. He went to officers school straight out of Occidental College, where he played tight end and roomed with then-quarterback and now-congressman Jack Kemp.
"There's a tremendous pride, a sense of esprit de corps that's an important part of winning," Mora said. "There's a real tradition, and sense of being the best."
Mora is the chief check and balance for the Stars, an unruly bunch that specializes in practical jokes. A screamer, Mora was particularly hard on his players during a recent Florida hot spell. He was unhappy with their apparent sluggishness, until he tried to run after practice himself and found he had to stop because of the heat. His idea of easing up was to move workouts to the mornings.
"He can get on your case," Eatman said. "It doesn't take you long to pick up on it. If you aren't working hard, pretty soon it gets harder. It tends to motivate you."
Although he still is lurking in the obscurity of the USFL, Mora may be one of the most learned coaches in the game. That also would include the NFL. Although most of Mora's 23 coaching years were spent in college, he worked under some of the best coaching minds in the game, most notably Dick Vermeil at UCLA.
He didn't break into the NFL until 1978, as a defensive line coach with the Seattle Seahawks under Jack Patera. In 1982, he went to the New England Patriots to revitalize their defense under Ron Meyer. Then the Stars came along. President and General Manager Carl Peterson, the former player personnel director for the Philadelphia Eagles, had been a colleague of Mora as an assistant coach at UCLA under Vermeil.
"The question people always ask about Jim is why the NFL didn't recognize he was head coach material, which he obviously was," Peterson says. "The only answer is that they sometimes don't recognize the ability of players, either. It's always in the eye of the beholder. Jim was there; the opportunity just never came his way. He was overlooked."
Mora acquired a reputation as a fast worker in his short stay with the Patriots, turning the defense around from 25th in the league to 11th in a season. That was one of his charms for the Stars. They found themselves in a typical USFL predicament when George Perles, originally hired as coach, bowed out just weeks before training camp to go to Michigan State, his alma mater.
As usual, Mora was not the first choice for the job. Owner Myles Tanenbaum, frantic that the loss of Perles would ruin ticket sales, tried to persuade Peterson to hire a name coach. Peterson had several NFL assistants in mind, but not Mora, whom he respected but figured was entrenched with the Patriots.
"It was a dark day in Stars history," Peterson said. "The owners were very upset and wanted to know what we could do. I said the first thing we don't want to do is panic. Jim actually called me to recommend another guy. I asked him if he had bought a house in Foxboro (Mass.) yet. He said he only had a one-year lease. I said, 'Jim, I appreciate the recommendation, but how about you?' "
Mora had been seeking a head coaching job, but in the NFL. He visited Philadelphia more out of courtesy than anything else. But Mora was impressed. "I jumped and never looked back," he said.
The Stars had signed 100 players that first year, including running back Kelvin Bryant and all-America Eatman, but their average age was just 24. Mora had 10 days to put together a staff, a playbook, and get the whole bunch to their first training camp. At the end of the season and playoffs, the team was 15-3.
"One of the things I knew I needed was an upbeat guy," Peterson said, "someone who was flexible and wouldn't go to pieces when everything wasn't perfect. I told Jim up front that everything was not wonderful, from the practice fields to the training tables. Jim was the right guy. You ask him how everything is and he says fine."
Mora's rapid rise comes as no surprise to his old mentors, of which there are many. He rarely worked for a loser, keeping company with John Ralston at Stanford, Vermeil at UCLA, Eddie Crowder at Colorado and Don James at the University of Washington.
"I learned from all of them," Mora says. "Good and bad."
From James, for whom he served as defensive coordinator from 1975 to 1978: "I learned the importance of consistency, of sticking with something and maintaining a level path."
On Vermeil, with whom he first worked as a fellow assistant at Stanford and then joined at UCLA in 1974: "He was hard-working, he showed me the value of flat outworking somebody."
On Ralston, his boss in 1967 at Stanford who currently is general manager of the USFL's Portland Breakers: "He was thorough, he left no stone unturned. You cover every base, don't overlook anything."
Mora's philosophy, however, is purely Mora and can be summed up in one sentence: the more you win, the harder you should work.
"He figured that one out himself," Ralston said. "He decided that the difference between a good block and a bad block is about 10,000 blocks."
Peterson compares him most to Vermeil, without the burnout. Mora winces at the comparison, as well as recent attempts to make him the designated "genius" of the USFL.
"Don't even say that," he said. "The genius thing is not all it's cracked up to be. There was a lot of elbow grease."