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Aliotti returns to roost

Commentary

Nick Aliotti returned to Eugene last March in need of some love. And respect.

Aliotti, 45, was a wounded Duck assistant coach who was welcomed back into the Oregon football nest as defensive coordinator after three years as an assistant coach in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams and one frustrating year as defensive coordinator for UCLA last season.

Aliotti, architect of Oregon's celebrated Gang Green defense in 1994 that carried the Ducks to the Pac-10 title, thought he was finished as a college coach when he accompanied former Oregon coach Rich Brooks to St. Louis in 1995.

Brooks lasted in St. Louis as coach of the Rams for two years before he was fired. Aliotti stayed on for one year on the staff of new coach Dick Vermeil.

When you have a chance to go to the NFL, you take it, says Aliotti. No question.

As far as going to UCLA, I don't know if that was a mistake. I didn't think it was. I was thinking I might want to be a college head coach, and I felt that could be a way to go.

UCLA coach Bob Toledo brought in Aliotti as the Bruins' defensive coordinator after Rocky Long left to take over as coach at New Mexico.

When Aliotti arrived at UCLA, he admits he didn't fully understand what he was getting into as the coach of a group dominated by freshmen and sophomores, who lacked experience, maturity and game toughness because of their youth.

The first 10 games of the 1998 season all went the Bruins' way. They took a 10-0 record and the No. 2 ranking in the country into their final regular-season game at Miami. At the time, UCLA was two wins from a national championship.

So what could be wrong at 10-0? In Aliotti's situation, a lot.

At UCLA, winning games isn't enough. Winning championships is the order.

At Oregon, Aliotti was a hero in 1994 when his defense led the Ducks to a 9-3 record, the Pac-10 title, and into the Rose Bowl. But 10-0 at UCLA, with a Pac-10 title assured, national championship aspirations at a boiling point, and either a berth in the Rose Bowl or Fiesta Bowl locked up, those were just the appetizers.

As Aliotti's defense languished near the bottom of several NCAA national statistics, while UCLA's offense led the country much of the year in total offense and scoring, finger-pointing turned toward Aliotti.

Youth or not. Talent or not.

It wasn't good enough to be 10-0 and have the best offense, and perhaps the best quarterback (Cade McNown) in the country.

When the Bruins lost to Miami in their final regular-season game and fell to Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, criticism of Aliotti and the UCLA defense turned downright ugly.

It was clear UCLA scored enough points to beat Miami and Wisconsin.

Fans, even Toledo, looked for a scapegoat. Aliotti was the guy.

It was hard, says Aliotti, who accepted Oregon coach Mike Bellotti's offer to be Oregon's defensive coordinator three months later. There were circumstances involved that some people didn't really understand, and I took the heat.

I would hope that when I left, I would at least be known as a good person, says Aliotti, suggesting that the criticism got very personal in Westwood, Calif.

Aliotti says he inherited a defense with only two senior starters returning. Of his 11 starters, eight were freshmen and sophomores.

Was it his fault that Long and Toledo didn't leave the defense stocked with enough veterans to help Aliotti settle in?

Toledo -- the head coach -- deserves the heat for that. He should have stood up for his coach. He hired him.

Aliotti has the job of rebuilding an Oregon defense that has been clearly down since he left in 1995. The Bruins may not miss Aliotti. But the Ducks did.

That's why he was welcomed back to Eugene with hugs and handshakes.

It felt great to come back and get that kind of support, says Aliotti. I needed it, that's for sure.

Aliotti says he hopes to return the Ducks to playing at least Gang Green-style defense, which is hard-hitting with a contagious spirit. His defense is anchored by a trio of physical linebackers in Peter Sirmon, Dietrich Moore and former Grants Pass High all-state player Matt Smith.

I won't compare these linebackers with any of the others I've had here, says Aliotti. Because I had some good ones. But these guys can be just as good.

Aliotti says his spirits lifted just thinking about working for Bellotti, his long-time friend dating back to their days on the Chico State staff in the mid '80s through the Gang Green years at Oregon.

Mike's a great coach, and I'm very happy to be back with him, says Aliotti. Kath (his wife Kathryn) and I missed Eugene right away when we left.

No question. We were all the way back in St. Louis and we didn't know anybody. We missed our friends, but you have to give the NFL a shot when the chance comes.

But now, he's back home. Feeling comfortable. And feeling appreciated.

Duck fans couldn't be happier.