Aliso Niguel's Wood Gives Program a Quick Start


If Joe Wood were a politician instead of a football coach, he would win a second term by acclamation.

It would be hard to find another four-year plan that worked as well as the one Wood used at Aliso Niguel.

In only its third year of varsity football, Aliso Niguel took the Pacific Coast League and the rest of Division VIII by storm in 1996, going 14-0 and winning the section's Division VIII championship with a 32-21 victory over Pacifica.

It is this achievement that catapulted Wood to being named The Times Orange County Coach of the Year ahead of other deserving candidates--Mater Dei's Bruce Rollinson, Servite's Larry Toner, Rancho Alamitos' Doug Case, Santa Margarita's Jim Hartigan and Newport Harbor's Jeff Brinkley.

When notified, Wood insisted the Wolverines' brilliant season was not his doing alone.

"It's an honor," Wood said. "But I'm not in this position without the players and coaches and the vision we had for the program.

"I take a lot of pride in it, but I guarantee there are many people who have helped me get it."

The vision, Wood said, belonged to the administrators and parents at Aliso Niguel who believed in doing whatever it took to build the school's athletic programs as quickly as possible.

He went on to say that his staff--Jim O'Connell, Kurt Westling, Mike Middlebrook, Chi Chi Biehn, Dan Bornfeld and Ken Goldstone--did yeoman duty in developing the team from its freshman inception to the present-day powerhouse.

Of the six Aliso Niguel coaches, only Westling has not been with Wood all four years. He replaced Robby Schmidt.

"Since the first day we've had a theme of 'Together We Win,' " Wood said. "Everything we do as a team, school and community was to work for the goal of being a CIF [section] champ. That is the ultimate goal.

"We did this with a good strength-training program, a coaching staff who taught the game, the kids' commitment to stay together through adverse times, and the parents getting us the resources to be successful."

None of this success came quickly, although it has happened faster than expected.

Four years ago, despite few athletic facilities at Aliso Niguel being operational, 75 freshmen turned out for football. The turnout immediately gave Wood the kind of numbers he would need to create a foundation for a program.

"In most cases, when you go to a brand new school you get kids from other schools," El Toro Coach Mike Milner said. "Generally it's people that other schools want to get rid of, so you start with castoffs.

"The hard part at a new school is to sell your program. Not only that, [the coach] has to sell himself as well. Joe did both."

Eric Patton is the former coach at Capistrano Valley, where Wood worked seven years as a defensive coordinator before taking the Aliso Niguel job. Patton said he thought Wood got two breaks when he came to Aliso Niguel: he got a free hand in choosing a staff, and he had very few players who had played at other schools.

"With a new school, you have a chance to build traditions and a system from the ground up," Patton said. "There is no baggage from previous years. Some schools can have problems getting over bad years. At new schools you can say, 'We'll take our lumps for a couple years but believe in what we do.' "

That's exactly what happened. Wood kept most of the freshmen playing other freshman teams in 1993. There was only one varsity game, a 42-0 loss to Calvary Chapel.

The Wolverines played a 10-game slate in 1994, finishing a respectable 4-6 and fourth in league. Last season, they were 8-3-1 and reached the Division VIII quarterfinals, losing a 9-7 decision to top-seeded Baldwin Park Serra.

Wood says that game was the turning point for the program. "I'd like to think that loss, which came in the last seconds, made our team realize how good they could be and not allow that kind of loss to happen again."

Offensive tackle Brett Nelson, who has been in the program all four years, calls Wood "intense," but approachable.

"Coach Wood is very supportive," Nelson said. "He doesn't get down on players, but he's honest with you. He tells us when we play teams that are better or when we have the better team. He tells us what we need to do to win.

"One of his main goals, besides making us good football players, was to make us good young men for today's society. We feel we reflect that on the field and in the classroom."

Wood said it will be difficult to say goodbye to this first Aliso Niguel senior class. But the next challenge for the Wolverines and their coach is to maintain the level of excellence they have reached.

"I think the foundation of understanding the work ethic needed to stay at that level is in place," Wood said. "But you have to have players. In some ways coaching is overrated; if you have no players, you can bust your butt and still not win more than three to four times.

"I will remember this group as one that had a lot of good athletes, a lot of kids who were focused on winning week in and out, and enjoyed playing the game. I never had a feeling with the group we were getting tired of the process, getting stagnant. I've never felt any pressure or negativism from the parents, boosters and administration. Who knows what will happen down the road, but these four years have been pretty good."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World