LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jedd Fisch moved his family to the West Coast last winter with plans to build a powerhouse alongside UCLA coach Jim Mora.
Instead, Fisch is spending the next few weeks trying to make sure Mora’s last Bruins team ends its season with some measure of pride.
Fisch is UCLA’s interim head coach this week after Mora was suddenly fired last Sunday. The Bruins (5-6, 3-5 Pac-12) need a win over California in their regular-season finale on Friday night at the Rose Bowl to secure bowl eligibility for the fifth time in Mora’s six seasons.
The 41-year-old Fisch has called every play this season for the Bruins, and he aspires to be a head coach. Just not under these circumstances.
“We all know how much our players love Coach,” Fisch said after practice in Westwood. “They love Jim. He recruited every one of them in this class. He sat in all their living rooms, and so I would imagine they’re greatly affected by it, as we all were. Whether you’ve coached with him just for nine months or all the six years he was here, he makes a tremendous impact on you.”
This is not what Fisch had in mind when he left Michigan to become Mora’s offensive coordinator, taking charge of a unit that had an embarrassing 2016 season while the Bruins went 4-8.
Although Fisch rebuilt the Bruins’ offense into a productive, entertaining unit ranked fourth in the conference with 34.1 points per game and third with 466 yards per game, UCLA didn’t produce enough wins to protect Mora’s job. Instead, a terrible defense doomed Mora, a longtime defensive coach.
Fisch remained positive and upbeat throughout the Bruins’ struggles this season, including an 0-6 record away from Pasadena. He also quickly developed a strong connection with quarterback Josh Rosen, whose NFL draft stock is solid despite playing for his third offensive coordinator in three seasons.
Only Washington State has managed more yards passing per game in the Pac-12 than the Bruins’ 341.0 with Rosen and Fisch.
“He’s been awesome,” said Rosen, who is 16-13 as a three-year starter. “Sort of the rallying cry is to carry on Coach Mora’s legacy for the remainder of this year, and I think Coach Fisch is adjusting really well. He’s jumping on the opportunity. He’s leading the guys. There’s a pretty good energy moving forward, as good as it can be in such a situation.”
Fisch called this week “by far the hardest challenge” of his coaching career, which took off as a graduate assistant at Florida under Steve Spurrier nearly two decades ago.
“It’s unfortunate circumstances,” Fisch added. “It’s (in place of) a head coach that literally our family loves, and for somebody that gave us an incredible opportunity to come out here. It’s a very difficult circumstance.”
UCLA went 46-30 under Mora, and these Bruins still could finish with a winning record for the fifth time in his six seasons. Yet on the morning after they played fairly well in a 28-23 loss at Southern California , Mora learned he will be paid more than $12 million not to coach the Bruins.
Speculation on Mora’s replacement immediately centered on former Oregon coach Chip Kelly and other big names. Fisch has been coaching long enough to know how the process works.
“I think that anybody would like to be the head football coach at an extremely prominent university,” Fisch said when asked directly if he wanted UCLA’s full-time job. “In this case right now, my mind is 100 percent on trying to get our seniors to 6-0 and to leave Coach Mora’s legacy as one that he was able to get five out of his six teams to bowl games.”
Fisch plans to lean on veteran Bruins defensive coordinator Tom Bradley for the finale and in any potential bowl game. Mora’s staff realizes it will probably be looking for new jobs within weeks, but Fisch also vowed to continue the Bruins’ recruiting efforts by selling UCLA as an institution with top academics, the Rose Bowl and the lavish Wasserman Football Center on campus.
“You guys have all seen what (Fisch) has done with the offense and how we’ve progressed as a team, and how he’s made us better, and what we could have been from the start,” senior center Scott Quessenberry said. “I think he’s going to bring great passion, great energy to this last game, and then on into the bowl game. I think if they’re thinking about Coach Fisch as the (permanent) guy, I think it would be a really wise decision.”
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