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UCLA's Jim Mora sticks his neck out on an attention-getting hire

BILL PLASCHKE

Bringing aboard Sal Alosi, a strength and conditioning coach who was fined after a tripping incident with the New York Jets, is kind. But it surely will test the weary Bruins nation.

January 10, 2012|Bill Plaschke
  • Recently hired UCLA football Coach Jim Mora could be taking an unnecessary risk in hiring a strength and conditioning coach who was caught cheating during an NFL game in 2010.
Recently hired UCLA football Coach Jim Mora could be taking an unnecessary… (Danny Moloshok / Associated…)

When outlining his search for a coaching staff, new UCLA football boss Jim Mora said, "I want guys that are … great mentors for our young student-athletes."

On Monday, he hired the perpetrator in the most blatant cheating incident in recent NFL history.

When describing members of his new staff, Mora has called them "coaches and teachers on and off the field."

On Monday, he hired the man who, two years ago, stood on an NFL sideline and purposely tripped an opposing player as he streaked down the field on a punt return.

He's Sal Alosi, he's the Bruins' new strength and conditioning coach, and his appearance here will surely test the strength and conditioning of the weary and exasperated Bruins nation.

Seriously, while everyone deserves a second chance, is a struggling football program in its first months with an unsettled new coach really the place and time for second chances?

"I understand the criticism, I expect the criticism, it's completely warranted," said Mora on Tuesday. "But I know the fiber of this man."

America, sadly, knows only the foot of this man. Alosi made national news on Dec. 12, 2010, when he admittedly tripped the Miami Dolphins' Nolan Carroll as Carroll was running down the sidelines to cover a punt.

You probably saw it. You might have spent the next few days talking about it. Rarely have such schoolyard tactics been so exposed. Rarely has sports chicanery been so frighteningly obvious.

It might not have been so bad if the cheap shot was impulsive. But it was later learned that the entire event was planned, as Alosi was part of a wall that included five inactive Jets who stood on the edge of the sidelines to prevent players such as Carroll — known as "gunners" — from racing unfettered downfield on punt coverage.

Quickly and lamely, Jets Coach Rex Ryan and special teams coach Mike Westhoff claimed that Alosi devised the scheme and executed the act without their knowledge or consent. They were wholly unbelievable. Alosi was on the lowest rung of the Jets coaching staff as their strength and conditioning guy. He would never have had the freedom to devise a game-day strategy on his own. The NFL also apparently didn't believe the Jets, fining them $100,000.

Alosi was probably just following orders. But it was his foot. And as it usually turns out in these situations, when Carroll was tripped, it was Alosi who splattered.

Alosi immediately took public responsibility and was fined $25,000 and suspended for the rest of the season, after which he was essentially dumped.

His credibility was shot. His pro career was finished. After spending a year working with individual pro athletes in his garage and underprivileged kids in a New York City boxing gym, he spent this season working for tiny Bryant University in Rhode Island.

Mora is being nice to remember and value Alosi from 2006, when Alosi was on Mora's staff with the Atlanta Falcons. But is the new head coach being smart? Is he being savvy? Does someone trying to sell a Four Horsemen attitude really need to embrace a man whose behavior was more worthy of the Three Stooges?

And what does this say about Mora's willingness to cover his eyes and stick out his own foot? Less than two months after he's hired, the guy in charge of giving the Bruins discipline hires football's most famous rule breaker?

Cynics are already chortling that the Bruins hired Alosi because, well, you know, last season they ranked 117th out of 120 teams in punt returns.

"You can rip me if you want for this hiring, but it's not fair to rip Sal," said Mora. "This is a good man who made a poor decision, took responsibility for it, paid a dear price, and has fought his way back."

Mora quickly came to the phone Tuesday to explain his decision. Alosi, who has barely spoken publicly for more than a year, phoned 30 minutes later. Their immediate accountability was admirable and revealing. They believe in this hire, even if they might be the only ones.

"With the level of negativity that comes with hiring me, I knew the only chance I had was with a head coach who understood me as a strength coach and didn't have a lasting impression about me based on one incident," said Alosi. "I know how lucky I am to be here."

When asked about the event, Alosi said simply, "It's all out there, everyone saw what I did, I feel terrible about it, and it's impacted my life in ways you could never imagine."

Is he a cheater? "I have never believed in shortcuts, I coach the players to win through preparation," he said.

If he would trip someone on the field, what is to stop him from doing illegal things to help his team in the weight room? "For someone to draw some conclusion about steroids from this is just an ignorant statement," he said. "There is no place for steroids in sports."

In keeping with the duties of most strength and conditioning coaches, Alosi will be in charge of keeping order on the Bruins' sideline this year. Here's hoping he behaves, or the next person he trips will be his head coach.

Sal Alosi stuck out only his foot. Jim Mora is sticking out his neck.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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