Renton – The conversations usually start with an update on the wife and grandkids, but they always meander toward what the two men enjoy talking about most – football.
As Jim Lawrence Mora embarks on his first training camp as head coach of the Seattle Seahawks today, he has someone he can lean on – someone who’s been through all the ups and downs of being a head coach in the NFL.
No, it’s not Mike Holmgren, though Mora would welcome a call from the retired Seahawks coach.
It’s Mora’s father, Jim Earnest Mora, who provided an in-family example for his son on how to be a football coach.
The younger Mora said the two men chat almost daily about family, football and life. Mora’s father, 74, and a head coach for 15 seasons in the league, is retired in Palm Desert, Calif., where he keeps busy by working out, playing as much golf as possible and keeping tabs on his three sons – who all live in the Northwest – and 10 grandchildren.
But along with doing some work for the NFL Network, the senior Mora’s daily routine involves checking on how his son is doing in his return to the NFL head coaching ranks.
The junior Mora asked his father to join him in some official capacity – either as a coach or a consultant – in his new endeavor in Seattle. But he already knew the answer before the words left his mouth.
“There’s no way I would do that,” the senior Mora said. “I’m done.”
So the Seahawks’ Mora is left with the daily conversations.
“He’s a great resource because he’s spent so many years doing this and he was so successful,” he said. “And he’s got a good perspective, and he wants what’s best for me, and that’s his only objective in life in terms of me professionally, is that we have success.”
Not that he doesn’t have a lot of questions.
“I probably ask too many questions because I know what he goes through as a head coach in the NFL,” the retired Mora said. “So I’m always curious as to how things are going and how he’s handling things. Not whether he’s doing the right thing or not, because hey, he’s a better coach than I ever thought about being. It’s just a question of, I worry about him. And I’m interested in how he’s doing.”
MAKING HIS OWN WAY
Former University of Washington assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Dick Baird arrived at Montlake in the spring of 1984 as a 38-year-old graduate assistant. His locker was located next to that of 22-year-old student assistant Jim Mora. Baird said the two ran the scout team offense, among other duties, for the Don James-led Huskies.
Baird said he knew then that Mora had the qualities to be a head coach.
“He thought the game, and that was very apparent from the get-go,” Baird said. “He had a nice feel for the game.
“He was very realistic about his own playing ability. He wasn’t going to play any more after college, and he understood that. They all come out thinking they want to play more football, but his deal was he knew he was going to be involved in football, he just wasn’t going to be playing it.”
Mora came to Washington from Interlake High in Bellevue. He played safety and outside linebacker, and Mora’s time as a Husky player was nothing special. He was a backup who contributed on special teams, earning a scholarship by his sophomore year.
“I played in two Rose Bowls, I loved that fact,” Mora said. “Those were great experiences. I kind of identified with what Coach James was looking for. I was going to give it my all every day. I was going to be prepared. I was going to be tough. I was going to be hard. I had a winning mentality. I didn’t think I could be beat. I was nave.
“A lot of times I was overmatched, but I just kept battling. I kept battling, and I would do whatever it took.”
Bruce Brown, a sports motivational speaker, coached Mora in football, basketball and baseball at Hyak Junior High in Bellevue. Brown said Mora wasn’t always the most talented athlete but had an advanced understanding of the leadership skills it took to win.
“He was unbelievably mentally tough,” Brown said. ‘He had a spirit that couldn’t be broken. He was an absolute fearless competitor. He loved competition.”
And Mora already had developed a passion for defense. Brown said he used to award a pin that said, “Next to my mama, I love defense the best.” Brown said Mora was the only player who would wear the pin with pride at school.
After his first year coaching with the Huskies, Mora had a decision to make. After sending out letters to prospective NFL teams in search for a coaching gig, Mora had an opportunity to take a job as a quality control coach with the Chargers – which meant he would serve as a gopher for San Diego coaches – or pursue a graduate degree in sports management at Southern California.
He chose coaching, and says he doesn’t regret the choice.
“I was stretched pretty thin, and I was working hard and it was great,” Mora said. “I loved it because I was very fortunate to be in the NFL. And I can’t tell you exactly what the pull was, but I know that when I was given a choice between spending time on the practice field or with the coaches, or being down in the administrative end of the office, the pull was always toward the coaches.”
YOU TALKIN’ PLAYOFFS?
The senior Mora was one of the most successful NFL coaches never to win a playoff game. He finished his head coaching tenure with a 125-106 record, the 23rd-winningest coach in the league. He was 0-6 in playoff appearances with the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts.
The father and son never met on the field as head coaches, but they did face off four times when Mora was an assistant coach for the Chargers and the San Francisco 49ers. The younger Mora said he finished 3-1 in those contests, but his father said that doesn’t matter because his son wasn’t the head guy.
There were a few memorable moments.
Mora said he used to wear a New Orleans Saints sticker on the back of his watch during games on Sundays when he served as the defensive backs coach for San Diego. Minutes before the 1 p.m. kickoff times on the West Coast, Mora found himself hunting for a Saints score before the game began.
There also was the occasion where he found himself leaping from his chair and cheering in the San Diego press box during a game after New Orleans linebacker Sam Mills recovered a fumble by Chargers running back Marion Butts.
“I immediately realized, ‘Wait a minute, that’s the wrong thing to say here.’” Mora said. “And then I sat down very quietly, ashamed of what I said. But it was a real conflict when we played them, because you never want to see your dad struggling. And I know how hard he takes losses.”
Mora also was on the opposite sideline during the game that produced one of his father’s most infamous moments, the press conference after his Colts lost to the 49ers, and the elder Mora unleashed his “playoffs” rant.
A little-remembered side note is the younger Mora was the defensive coordinator for the 49ers that game. San Francisco forced five Indianapolis turnovers, including an interception return for a touchdown, as the Colts were blitzed by San Francisco, 40-21. The Colts finished with a 6-10 record in 2001, the senior Mora’s final year as a head coach in the league. He was replaced by Tony Dungy when the season ended.
“After the game, I saw him walking off the field, and it was a quick handshake and he was on his way,” Mora said. “He was a tough dude.”
‘HARD AND RELENTLESS’
Mora understands he’s following in the footsteps of the most successful coach in Seahawks history.
And while he has a healthy respect for Holmgren’s legacy, Mora has blazed his own path in the months leading up to his first training camp.
“I’m just going to be myself,” Mora said. “But, at the same time I’ve learned a lot of lessons from a lot of great people.
“I don’t necessarily spend a lot of time worrying about following in Mike’s footsteps, because I think that’s wasted energy. I just consider myself lucky to have had the chance to work for him and learn from him. And he’s still only a phone call away.”
Mora said he has not talked to Holmgren during the offseason, choosing instead to allow his predecessor the opportunity to transition away from the game.
“I just hope that Coach Holmgren knows he’s always welcome here,” Mora said. “I’ll always relish any advice he has to give me, but I don’t want to pull him in, unless he wants to. That would not be fair to him at all.”
The person who hired him, Seahawks president and general manager Tim Ruskell, said Mora’s first few months on the job have confirmed his decision.
“We’re just aligned philosophically in terms of how to build a team and what’s important,” Ruskell said. “That was important in that decision, in terms of having him become our head coach. All that feels good. Has it been reaffirmed? Yes, it has. We are on the same page.”
Mora understands a team takes on the identity of its coach, and to that end, Seattle’s new coach has kept his philosophy simple.
“My two favorite words are hard and relentless, and that’s the kind of football team I want us to be,” he said. “And yet – you know I use the word nasty – I want us to play with class and integrity and respect for the game.”
His father understands that NFL coaches get few second chances and wants to make sure his son takes full advantage. So the daily talks will continue.
“He had some success in Atlanta, but again a lot of it is being in the right situation at the right time,” the elder Mora said. “But I think he learned a lot in Atlanta, and I think he’ll do a good job for the Seahawks. I think he’ll benefit from some of the experiences he had with the Falcons.”
Along with wanting to prove himself in the NFL again, Mora has extra motivation – returning the Seahawks to a winning team in the town where he grew up.
“To me, as an NFL football coach, you come into a situation a little bit as a mercenary,” he said. “You don’t really have an affiliation with the city or the team that has hired you. Now, it grows as you are there.
“But for me, being the Seattle Seahawks’ head coach, that isn’t the case. This is where I grew up. This was my team. This is where my best friends and family live. So I feel a real responsibility to this community to make them proud of this football team. And I intend to do that.”
Eric D. Williams: 253-597-8437