After two Rose Bowl defeats, Aliotti wants a win
LOS ANGELES - With salt-and-pepper hair and an olive complexion covered by a seemingly constant 5 o'clock shadow, Oregon Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti looks like legendary actor Al Pacino. And, with a gravely voice and an inherent Italian coolness, Aliotti acts like Al Pacino.
'He's a fiery Italian dude,' linebacker Michael Clay says, of Aliotti.
The 57-year-old Aliotti has often heard the comparison to Pacino, and he has always liked it.
'I think Al Pacino is a good actor and a pretty tough guy, so I'll take that as a compliment,' Aliotti says. 'He's getting older now, too, kind of like me. But, yeah, I like Al Pacino. I liked him in 'The Godfather.' We'll take that. We can go with that.'
Long before Aliotti took on the air of the famous movie star, he was a child growing up in Pittsburg Calif.. Aliotti remembers going over to his grandmother's house for a big Italian family dinner every New Year's Day. Aliotti used to lie on the floor in front of the television and watch the Rose Bowl.
'The Rose Bowl was a special game,' Aliotti says. 'Nothing has ever changed about that. It's always been a special game (for me), being a west coast young man and watching it as a kid.'
Years later, as Oregon's defensive coordinator, Aliotti got his chance to coach in the 1995 Rose Bowl against Penn State and fellow Italian-American coach Joe Paterno.
'Playing Joe Paterno and a great Penn State team was exciting,' Aliotti says. 'The first time, was an incredible experience. When you walked out on to the field in the Rose Bowl, you could feel the electricity with half the side being in Oregon's colors and half the side being in Penn State's colors. Just the electricity and the chills, the whole thing was awesome.'
It took almost no time for Aliotti's dream day to be shattered. On Penn State's first play from scrimmage, the Ducks called for an all-out blitz. With Oregon bringing the house, Penn State handed off the ball to running back Ki-Jana Carter. He broke one tackle and was gone.
'You're in the Rose Bowl,' Aliotti says. 'It's the biggest game you've been in in a long time, maybe in your life. Then the very first play the guy goes 83 yards for a touchdown. You practice all week and you prepare all week and here's a guy that goes 83 yards on the very first play. I'm sitting there going, 'Well, if they scored on the first play in about 13 seconds, this thing could get up to about 100.' '
As he saw his world crumble around him, Aliotti had two choices: smile or cry. He chose the first option.
'I actually smiled on the sidelines when it happened, believe it or not,' he says. 'I decided to smile because there was a lot of game left.''
The Ducks made the game close, but fell 38-20.
In the aftermath, Aliotti was forever branded as reckless gambler, and his bend-but-don't-break defense has never earned unanimous respect in the court of public opinion.
A suspect Oregon defense is especially in the forefront of people's minds this week. Monday's Rose Bowl is expected by many to be a shootout in which the defenses do little to stand in the way of the offenses.
Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst has a lot of respect for Aliotti.
'Nick is a heck of a football coach,' Chryst says.
As for Aliotti being reckless, Clay disagrees.
'I wouldn't say he (takes) risks and gambles,' Clay says. '(Blitzes are) just part of the game plan that's he's implemented with us. You come from different angles, there's different opportunities for linebackers to come in. It's really fun to play in his system.'
Aliotti has coached football for 36 years (including 21 seasons with the Ducks that were broken up by three years in the NFL and one year at UCLA), but due in large part to the longstanding perceptions about his defense, he has never been given the chance to be a head coach.
'I don't think this is the time or place to talk about that,' Aliotti says, when asked at a Rose Bowl press conference Wednesday if he is bothered by that. 'Life is what it is.'
Though the opportunity to run a team has eluded him, Aliotti has loved coaching defense.
'I like the fact that there's a lot of strategy,' he says. 'On offense, you kind of know what you're going to do: feature these groups, run these plays, throw these passes and adjust. On defense, you have to prepare for everything. You have to prepare for all the what ifs. You have to prepare for war in a time of peace.'
Aliotti had a second chance at winning a Rose Bowl in 2010, but Oregon lost to Ohio State 26-17. The 2012 Rose Bowl will be Aliotti's third crack at 'the granddaddy of them all.'
While he likes Pacino, Aliotti has never seen the 1999 movie 'Any Given Sunday' in which Pacino plays football coach Tony D'Amato. Few people in the movie believe in Pacino's character. But, by the end, the coach has earned his redemption.
The film could be a perfect example of life imitating art if the Ducks are able to defeat Wisconsin. With his legacy as a coach still haunted by the ghost of the '95 Rose Bowl blitz, Aliotti could be staring at a chance for his own redemption on Monday.
'One team is going to win and one team is going to lose, last time I checked,' he says. 'It would be nice to win one.'