Randy York's N-Sider
Saturday night’s Fox Sports national telecast of Nebraska-UCLA in the Rose Bowl has countless story lines in terms of tradition, NCAA offensive rankings and which fans will have the most impact – the home team or the visiting team. But few fans watching the game – live or on television – will be as conflicted as Tyrone Hughes will be.
Hughes still holds Nebraska school records and NFL records for kick return yards, plus he’s an official first-team member of the Nebraska All-Century Football Team. He made that elite team as a kick returner because 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers made the same team as a receiver.
Let the record show that Hughes will be pulling for the Huskers to win Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. CT game that will be shown on Fox local affiliates across the country (the main Fox Network that features the NFL and The Simpsons). Hughes is bullish on the Huskers winning, so they can preserve their Top 15 national ranking and gain the momentum necessary to win their first conference championship in 13 seasons.
Mora Jr. His First NFL Coach and a Father Figure
At the same time that Hughes will be rooting for his alma mater, however, he also will be hoping that UCLA Coach Jim Mora Jr. walks off the field smelling like a dozen fresh Rose Bowl roses. Yes, Hughes wants Nebraska to prevail as the best team Saturday, but he wants his first NFL coach, who’s still a father figure to him, to gain the kind of traction that will help his Bruins compete well in the Pac-12 this fall.
“I know it sounds weird, and I certainly mean no disrespect to Bo Pelini because I have a great deal of respect for the way he’s turned Nebraska around. But you have to understand what Junior (Jim Mora Jr.) has done for me and all that he’s done for my family,” Hughes said. “He’s a good guy, a good coach, a good man and the kind of person you just can’t help but root for.”
Wednesday night, on his Huskers Sports Nightly radio show, Pelini echoed Hughes’ thoughts. Having known “Junior” when he was a defensive coordinator and in a couple of head coaching stints, Pelini said Mora does a great job. “UCLA did well in hiring him, and I think he’ll do a heck of a job in moving that program forward,” Pelini told Greg Sharpe. “He’s had a lot of success in his career, and I think he put a good staff around him, so they’ll do a heck of a job out there.”
Pelini Envisions Mora Jr. Turning UCLA Around
With a home stadium in the Rose Bowl, the ultimate destination for every Big Ten and Pac-12 football team, Pelini sees UCLA as a program on the rise. “USC’s been hot since Pete Carroll got there and got it going, and UCLA’s been through some coaching changes in the last five or 10 years,” Pelini told Sharpe. “They’ve had some success and some great football tradition at UCLA. It takes time to get it going when you change coaches, but I think if there’s a guy that can break that, I think Jimmy will do a good job in bringing that back and getting the recruits they need and moving that thing forward.”
Hughes had no idea that Pelini knew Mora Jr., but he’s not surprised the two connect. “Junior is a lot like what I hear about Bo,” Hughes said. “Players like Junior because he’s firm but he’s also fair. Nebraska players say the same thing about Bo. He’s very firm, but very fair. I know one thing. I could not have broken into the NFL any better than I did when I ended up playing for (assistant coach) Jim Mora Jr. and the New Orleans Saints as a rookie in my hometown.”
From 1989 to 1992, Hughes played offense, defense and special teams at Nebraska. He finished his career as the school record-holder in kickoff returns and No. 2 in career punt returns. He led the Big Eight Conference in kickoff returns for three seasons and became the first Husker in 26 years to play offense (split end) and defense (cornerback) in same game (against Missouri).
A Corner with Only Five Games of Experience
“I was mostly a receiver and a return man at Nebraska,” Hughes said. “I only played in five games as a defensive back, and that’s what the Saints drafted me to be – a corner. I had a great relationship with Junior as a coach and as a man. He wanted me returning kicks, and he went out of his way to make sure I learned how to play in the secondary. He went above and beyond every day that I was around him.”
The Saints got more than just a healthy return on their investment. Even though he was overall pick No. 137 in the fifth round of the 1993 NFL Draft, Hughes was named a Pro Bowler, a rare honor in a rookie season. He appeared in all 16 games and returned 37 punts for a league-leading 503 yards and two touchdowns. His 13.6 yards per return was another league best. He also averaged 25.1 yards on 30 kickoff returns and scored another touchdown. A year later, he started five games in the Saints’ secondary, making 31 tackles, intercepting two passes and returning two fumbles for touchdowns.
Hughes played four seasons for the Saints and led the NFL in kickoff returns for three years. He also signed a lucrative free-agent contract with the Chicago Bears in 1997 and finished his six-year NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys. An Achilles tendon injury ended his career, but he will never forget the compassion and humanity Jim Mora Jr. showed his family even when he was no longer a Saint.
Six Airline Tickets and One Recreational Vehicle
“Junior was with the Atlanta Falcons when Hurricane Katrina hit my hometown of New Orleans,” Hughes recalled. “I couldn’t get there for two weeks when they lost their home, but he (Mora) flew right into action. He bought six airline tickets for my mom, daughter, two aunts, a cousin and a godson, so they could fly from New Orleans to Atlanta. Then he rented a huge recreation vehicle for them to use for two months while the wreckage was being cleared so they could start rebuilding.
“Man, I didn’t ask Junior for help. He just did it, on his own, because he thought it was the right thing to do,” Hughes said. “Everyone I know understands why Junior’s a leader, a teacher and a giver. Nebraska’s my alma mater, and I will never root against the school I played for. But I’ll never root against Jim Mora Jr. either ... only his team and only when they play Nebraska.”Send a comment to firstname.lastname@example.org (Please include current residence)
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Voices from Husker Nation
What a great read. I too, went through the devastation that was Hurricane Katrina, as I lived on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. We are the forgotten victims of Katrina, but to America's credit, we had help from all 50 states in one way or another, and reading stories like this really reaffirms one’s faith in humanity. I always look forward to reading what you come up with, so keep up the great work, and I do believe that very soon Nebraska will once again be hoisting the National Championship Trophy. GO BIG RED!!!!! Bryan Hightower, Stateline, Nevada, Husker Fan for Life
This was an exceptional piece and reminded me of the great Jim Murray, in that I was smiling with tears in my eyes upon reading it. Saturday's game at the Rose Bowl produced an amazing game by two terrific teams, and Tyrone Hughes’ words gave a nice window through which to gain insight about the Bruins’ new coach. Your writing certainly added another dimension to coach Mora's takeover of the UCLA football program and inspires further confidence in his coaching ability as well as his personal involvement with his team. I thought this was the best story yet that I've read on Jim Mora, and considering the number of columns in the LA Times directed his way, I congratulate you on an excellent story. Being only the second game of a new season, each team has a long way to go and many more challenges to face, yet I know your writing will enhance the Huskers throughout the season. Sean Holland, Los Angeles, California