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The best college football coaches are not just that

Jim Mora came to UCLA known as a hothead prone to bouts of spontaneous verbal combustion.

An out-of-town colleague put it to me this way: "You know he's crazy, right?"

Mora lived up to the reputation by screaming at assistant coaches and midlevel staffers. He did not always wait to take it behind closed doors.

He has confronted the local media in seemingly petty and petulant ways.

So when Mora stormed out of a news conference Monday after an NBC technician's cellphone conversation disrupted the session, it might have seemed like the same old Jim.

But it wasn't.

The Mora in this straight-to-viral video revealed more a man fully engaged in his occupation as head coach of a big-city football corporation.

Having spent time with the grieving family of a UCLA player who died after being struck by a vehicle over the weekend, Mora was in no mood for extraneous chitchat.

"Shut up," Mora demanded.

Mora had every right to get mad and every right to get up and leave. But he also later called the UCLA beat reporters and told them he'd be available on the field.

This ranks as one of the tougher emotional weeks in UCLA history as the team prepares for Saturday's tough trip to Nebraska.

The Bruins are looking at Mora for direction, and he has increasingly shown the ability to galvanize. The veins popping from his forehead now spell out "U-C-L-A."

Being a good head coach is so, So, SO much more than Xs and O's, a fact lost on many athletic directors who end up losing lots of games and millions of dollars.

USC once hired an offensive "genius" in Paul Hackett who might not have been able to lead bees to honey. Conversely, Bobby Bowden was stupendously successful at Florida State, yet his assistants refused to let him wear headsets on the sidelines.

Many coaches fall between the margins, and it's too early to say where Mora is on the spectrum.

John Robinson knew offense and the running game but was also, in his best years with USC and the Rams, a provocateur of public relations.

Mack Brown is a Robinson type who has somehow survived 15 years in Austin by closing off the Texas recruiting border while running football like the head of a Fortune 500 company. And man, under Brown, has Texas football made a fortune.

Is Brown a great coach? There is no doubt. The 151-44 record spells it out. Yet his resolve is being tested.

Saturday's home game against Mississippi ranks as one of the most important in Brown's tenure. Brown had to put on big-boy pants Sunday and fire defensive coordinator Manny Diaz two games into the season.

Head coaches have to make hard decisions — and when they need to be made.

Texas allowed a school-record 550 rushing yards in Saturday's loss at Brigham Young. The reason for the move was obvious.

"Lack of ability to stop the run, period," Brown said.

Brown is in a different kind of crisis than Mora, but any number of issues can stack up on a coach's desk.

"It can be, frankly, overwhelming," Oregon State Coach Mike Riley said this week of the responsibilities.

Riley, like Mora, had to be the program face two years ago when freshman defensive lineman Fred Thompson collapsed and died after a game of pickup basketball.

"I don't know that you're prepared for that," Riley said. "It's real life and you encounter every part of it."

When a tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa, Ala., the point man on the recovery became not the governor but Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban.

A lot of coaches can draw up plays, but that's the easy part.

The difference between a great coordinator and a great head coach is the difference between checkers and chess. The great ones are politicians, psychologists, fathers, spokesmen and manipulation masters.

Saban has led Alabama to three national titles in four years because he never veers from his unwavering narrative. His program vision is acute and he keeps his lips tight because loose ones sink ships.

Saban understands vanity and contentment are the biggest threats to success. Last year, after a nice opening win against Michigan on national TV, Saban tore into the media for praising his players and not respecting a weaker upcoming opponent in Western Kentucky.

"We win one game and I can't believe what gets written," he snarled.

Alabama outscored its next two opponents 87-0.

It's fascinating to study the good ones against the ones convinced they're good.

Charlie Weis was cocksure his high football IQ would translate to head coaching after calling winning plays for Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. He was chased out of Notre Dame all the way to Kansas.

Last week, against 1-AA South Dakota, a Kansas receiver caught a touchdown pass for the first time in 17 games, dating back to Oct. 22, 2011.

Some guys have "it" and you know it when you see it.

Chip Kelly had it the first game he coached for Oregon in 2009, a debacle at Boise State that ended with punches and embarrassment. Yet Kelly's blood pressure never rose as he guided the Ducks from disaster to the Rose Bowl.

You saw it again Monday night when Kelly, in his first game with the Philadelphia Eagles, made the Washington Redskins' Mike Shanahan look like the wide-eyed rookie.

Some guys might not have "it" but have a tremendous knack for convincing people they do.

Weis could fall into this category.

You might have other coaches in mind.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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