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Aliotti Gets Bent, but Doesn't Break

November 15, 1998|BILL PLASHCKE

SEATTLE — Nick Aliotti stood in a locker room hallway late Saturday afternoon, cheeks red, eyes sunken, exhausted.

"I've never had anybody do that to me in 23 years," he said. "I was mad, angry, embarrassed."

He wasn't talking about the Washington Huskies, whom Aliotti's defense had just helped defeat in UCLA's 36-24 victory.

He was talking about his head coach.

Five days earlier, in the most startling trick play of the season, Bob Toledo had publicly censured his defensive coordinator.

At his weekly news conference, Toledo said he was "not pleased" with Aliotti.

Toledo implied he wasn't coaching enough fundamentals. Toledo said he had to get better.

Football people cringed.

You don't do that to your assistants, do you? Since when do you lob grenades on your partners in the trenches?

"This has been the longest week in the history of my coaching career," Aliotti said.

But by the time the sea gulls reclaimed Husky Stadium here with the Bruins' record still unstained, it might have also been his most rewarding.

Aliotti's maligned defense, knowing he was in trouble, bailed him out as only 19- and 20-year-olds can.

"We flew," defensive end Travor Turner said. "He wanted us to fly around, so we flew."

"You call our coach out?" cornerback Eric Whitfield said. "Then you call us out."

Aliotti, who did not sleep Friday and had not eaten all day Saturday, managed a famished smile.

"I love these kids," he said. "They played like a fist. They played together. They hung together."

While bending to give up 255 yards on the ground, the defense did not break, holding Washington quarterback Brock Huard to 203 yards, his lowest total when attempting at least 34 passes this year.

After the Huskies pulled within 13-10 midway through the second quarter, the Bruin defense held them to a 21-yard drive. That stifled the momentum long enough for Ryan Roques to return that punt 77 yards to increase the lead.

Then on Washington's first two drives of the third quarter, it could get no closer than the UCLA 44-yard line. This gave the Bruin offense time and space to convert two field goals to essentially put the game away.

The defense still gave up a garbage touchdown in the final minute that could possibly affect UCLA's bowl ranking. It is still the team's biggest pothole on the road to a possible national championship.

But for once, it was smart, playing more zone coverages and taking fewer chances.

And it was passionate.

"I don't like anybody on our defense to get insulted," said linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who then told a story.

When Aliotti learned he had been scolded by Toledo, and that it was in the newspaper, he brought it to his players.

During a meeting, as hard as it was, he told them everything Toledo had said.

Then he added one more thing.

"He said, 'I'll take the blame,' " Ayanbadejo recalled. "He told us, 'Don't you worry about it. This is about me. This is my deal. I'll take it. You guys just go play.' "

Did they ever.

"To hear him take the heat, stand up for us, that really meant a lot to us," Whitfield said. "It really made us want to do it for him."

This feeling was illustrated early, when cornerback Marques Anderson was burned by Huard and receiver Andre DeSaussure on a 53-yard completion on the Huskies' first play.

When he came to the sidelines, he saw Aliotti, and he remembered.

"I knew I had to get my groove back," he said. "I knew this could not happen again."

And it didn't.

Aliotti, who came from the St. Louis Rams to replace popular Rocky Long this season, would have plenty of reason to blame the players, particularly on this unit depleted by graduation.

He has not exactly been given a great hand. The things he did as defensive coordinator for Rose-Bowl bound Oregon in 1994, he can't do them here yet.

"But these are kids, they are just learning, it's not fair to them to put it on them," Aliotti said. "I didn't like what Coach Toledo said, but it is my responsibility to coach them better, so I will."

Toledo is also one who never publicly blames the players. Which made it so surprising when he publicly blamed his coaches.

Pausing in a hallway while walking to the team bus Saturday, now only two wins from a probable date at a national championship ball, Toledo smiled.

"Part of what I said, maybe it was motivation," he said. "Maybe I knew some of this would get back to the players. It got people going a little bit, didn't it?"

And of the coach whose week he momentarily ruined?

"I told him, I feel bad doing it, but it's part of my job," he said. "Everybody knows I'm honest about things, I want people to know how I feel, it's the only way I can do it."

Before leaving the locker area, Toledo had walked past Aliotti and slapped him on the shoulder.

Both men smiled. Neither man flinched. Another trick play. Another long gain.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address:

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