Defense chief answers critics
Nick Aliotti sounds off on UO's bad year and controversial recruit
EUGENE Ñ He has been the defensive coordinator for four Pacific-10 Conference championship teams and six bowl teams in the last six years. And, behind his fiery, competitive and tough-as-nails exterior, Oregon's Nick Aliotti feels unappreciated.
The Ducks' defense took major league lumps last season as Oregon sank to eighth in the Pac-10 and finished 7-6 after being embarrassed by Wake Forest in the Seattle Bowl.
But the criticism that really stings surrounds Aliotti's pursuit of Rodney Woods, the star defensive back who served seven months for felony assault.
Aliotti and coach Mike Bellotti wrote letters to a Lancaster, Calif., court, asking for an expedited decision on whether to reduce Woods' conviction from felony to misdemeanor Ñ so the player could enroll at Oregon on scholarship and participate in spring drills.
A judge changed the conviction Friday, and Woods plans to be at spring practice in Eugene on April 5.
'Good for Rodney,' Aliotti says. 'I'm happy for Rodney.'
Aliotti, Bellotti and the UO administration pursued and signed Woods only after California had taken back its scholarship agreement with the player. It was Aliotti who did the due diligence on Woods and concluded that the player had straightened out his life and deserved a second chance.
Woods spent seven months in prison for an assault on a teenager in Littlerock, Calif., in 2000. The assault happened at the party where another young man died after suffering injuries from a punch and a kick from Woods' friends. The victim's family blames Woods for instigating the events of the night.
Recruit paid the price
'I knew it was a problem,' Aliotti says, 'but when I found out what actually happened, I'm sitting there thinking, 'Why would he even go to jail for seven months, for getting into a fistfight?'
'It's a moral issue. People take sides from what they hear and what they think. When we hear 'felon,' we think somebody went and slit some people's throats and 19 people died. The gravity of a young man dying, I am not taking lightly. Don't get me wrong; I'm a parent. When there's a death, it makes it more of a focus, even though Rodney, it's been proved, had nothing to do with the death of the young man.
'He's paid a pretty good price for two years (time served and probation) of his life.'
Critics accuse Aliotti of paying too high a price to fix his defensive backfield. But Aliotti says he would have recruited Woods in 2001, when the Ducks went 11-1 and won the Fiesta Bowl, because 'you always want to upgrade.' Besides, there were cornerbacks ranked ahead of Woods on UO's list that the Ducks could not land.
'Anytime somebody says something negative about you, it hurts,' he says. 'I have feelings. I care. The reason it hurts is because most people don't know the whole story. I know the story. Most people don't know me. They don't know what kind of person I really am. If they did, I think they would trust my judgment.'
Aliotti, 48, served as defensive coordinator at Oregon under coach Rich Brooks, and he followed Brooks to the NFL's St. Louis Rams after the Ducks' 1994-95 Rose Bowl season. After three NFL seasons, he returned to the Pac-10 as defensive coordinator at UCLA, and the Bruins captured the 1998 conference title. In the last four years, since his return to Oregon, the Ducks have played in four bowls and won 37 games.
As the Ducks flopped last season, many pointed their fingers at Aliotti, whose defense gave up 409 yards per game, including 292 passing Ñ 115th of 117 teams in the country.
Aliotti denies the rumor that he offered to resign. 'I would never quit anything, especially in the middle of the year. Ever,' he says.
'All the sudden we go 7-6, and I'm a bum?' he says. 'I don't think I'm as good as I am when we win, so I shouldn't be as bad as people might think when we lose.
'I know it's 'What you've done for me lately.' Well, we weren't very good. OK, I'll take the blame, but I can't make the tackle and I can't cover. The year before, we made the tackle and we covered.'
Aliotti says Brooks offered him a job after Kentucky recently hired Brooks as head coach. Aliotti didn't want to leave Eugene, where he has lived on and off since 1978. He has family and friends in Eugene and says, 'I love the guy I work for, I love the guys I work with, I like the administration and the whole atmosphere.
'Quality of life is so important. I think I would be at Oregon as long as I can be at Oregon.'
He says he has been offered other NFL coaching positions. He prefers to remain in college because he would rather coach young men than professionals.
Aliotti made $132,500 last year, not including incentives, a higher salary than many Division I head coaches. He felt confident he would have landed the Sacramento State position this winter had he pursued it. It wasn't the right situation, he says.
Something very important to him is to one day be in charge, as the head coach at the Division I or NFL level. It's a fairly sensitive topic with him Ñ 'close to my heart' Ñ because he has watched other UO assistants get head coaching jobs.
Aliotti has served as offensive and defensive coordinator in college and as a special teams coach with the Rams.
'I can recruit, I'm organized, I'm loyal, I have integrity, I work hard,' he says. 'I would be a great head coach. But I know beauty's in the eye of the beholder.'