Nick Aliotti's long-rumored retirement announcement provides extra motivation for the Oregon defense in Monday's Alamo Bowl game, but that's not why he did it. After a 38-year career in coaching it was just time for the coach to step away and enjoy a season or two away from the grind of coaching.
Passionate and intense, Aliotti gave tremendous heart to his 21-year stint at Oregon, 17 of it as defensive coordinator in three stops, leaving for brief periods to try his hand in the pros and at UCLA.
He coached the 2002 Fiesta Bowl team that allowed just 49 yards rushing to Colorado, the 2010 undefeated PAC-12 Champion defense that shut down Cam Newton before falling on a late field goal, and the defenses that contained Russell Wilson and Collin Klein in back-to-back BCS wins.
Aliotti crafted capable defenses in an era where the Oregon offense got most of the headlines and all the best athletes. He adapted to a system where his unit had to be on the field for 40 minutes a game as the offense sought to score in one to two minutes. He sent 29 players to the NFL and helped the Ducks win 10 or more games for six straight years, but in the minds of some fans, it was never enough.
Somehow anything short of 12 three-and-outs a game made the coach a lightning rod for fan criticism. Even in games where the offense didn't manage more than two or three touchdowns, the defense drew the wrath of fans whenever Oregon lost.
Yesterday in his media announcement the 59-year-old coach revealed he'd cut out a chunk of Fiesta Bowl turf last year, intending to save it as momento: the retirement was supposed to happen after the 35-17 win over Collin Klein and Kansas State. It would have been a graceful exit, saying good-bye after a 12-win season and a dominant defensive effort, a second straight BCS win, but Aliotti agreed to stay on after Chip Kelly's sudden departure to the NFL, letting new coach Mark Helfrich know he'd stay on for one more year to help save the recruiting class and strengthen the transition for a new head coach.
The Ducks had just 13 recruits committed when Kelly left, but with the coaches going out en masse and demonstrating the continuity in the Oregon program, they closed with a flurry and added Cameron Hunt and Torrodney Prevot over the last few days before Signing Day, while hanging on to top pledges like Robinson twins and Thomas Tyner.
Coach Al's last year was not without controversy. He drew heat for remarks after the Washington State game, and criticism after the team's flat performances against Stanford and Arizona, difficulty in stopping the run over the last several weeks of a somewhat disappointing 10-2 season. A late-season knee injury to Marcus Mariota hampered the vaunted offense, but somehow Aliotti's D drew most of the message-board fire.
Time to let that go. The coach's contribution to Oregon's marvelous rise and run of success is unassailable, beginning with the Gang Green Rose Bowl defense of 1994. His players won games. They made big plays and played with heart.
Helfrich and Athletic Director Rob Mullens have an opportunity now to consider the direction and identity of Oregon football for the future, and make an impact hire that will foster a new era of excellence. They'll have to meet the standard they set last year when they brought in Matt Lubick to coach receivers, or what Chip Kelly achieved when he hired Jerry Azzinaro to transform the Oregon defensive line during the BCS run. Oregon could seek out a big-name national candidate, even perhaps former Duck Justin Wilcox, who's rumored to sign soon with Steve Sarkisian at USC, or Clancy Pendergast, the ousted defensive coordinator for the Trojans, who's done a superb job both at Troy and in his previous job with the Cal Bears. Ron Zook is rumored to desire a return to coaching. Ed Orgeron needs a landing spot. Utah State defensive coordinator Todd Orlando is a rising star in coaching, a Broyles Award nominee who transformed the Aggies defense.
Among fans, discussion has quickly heated up around the idea that Oregon needs an overhaul on defense, an aggressive, physical, attacking defense that can contend with the explosive, spread attacks at Arizona State and Arizona while matching up with the power running game at Stanford. Improve the defensive line, fans say, and simplify things so talented young players can get on the field and contribute more effectively early in their short college careers. Install a scheme that matches the personnel Oregon has, and the limitations imposed by recruiting in the West where wide bodies are scarce and offenses attack with variety and speed.
Aliotti deserves the thanks and gratitude of Oregon fans for everything he has accomplished and endured as the Ducks longest-tenured defensive coordinator. But his retirement is also an opportunity. With the right hire, Mark Helfrich can use it to shape Oregon football and strengthen the direction and identity of the program for the next ten to fifteen years.
Current defensive backs coach John Neal deserves strong consideration. He's a great recruiter, a gifted teacher who instills competitiveness in his secondary. He coached a very successful defense at Alabama-Birmingham before joining the staff at UO.
Aliotti was here for Oregon's first bowl in 26 years, the team's first Rose Bowl in 50, three BCS wins, seven Top Ten finishes. He took two and three-star recruits and made them competitive. He was here long before the fancy buildings and the plush offices, coming to work to watch film at three in the morning, handling both the praise and the criticism with pride.
Coach wore his heart on his sleeve. He loved his players. He gave everything he had to Oregon football. As fans, there were times we turned his name into a cuss word. But everyone has to recognize that he was a good man who gave everything he had to help build the Oregon success story.
@AndrewGreif: Frost on Mariota’s injury: “Kid couldn’t even jog two days before the Stanford game.” Said MM could “barely move.”
Thanks Dale. Nicely capturing the entirety of the Aliotti tenure. Lately the frustration when the Ducks failed was laid (IMO a bit unfairly) at Nick's doorstep. For many years his defenses overachieved with lesser personnel and I admired him for it. Thank you, Coach Aliotti for everything you did for the University of Oregon and bon voyage to your next phase.
The thing I admired about him most was his passion and intensity. Our next DC should have these qualities. We have enough mild mannered nice guys already.
I think the timing of the announcement is not the best but perhaps it was staged that way to offset the "Mack Brown" effect a bit. After Stanford, Arizona and Oregon State everyone knows what Texas is going to attempt to do. Nick will have his players prepared. Thanks for the years of great coaching Nick but what are you going to do now? 59 years seems a bit young to retire from what you love.
Very well said, Dale. I have to admit, I've been a member of the "AllowA Lotti" chorus, these past years. I never thought it was completely out of tune, your article did point out that the D was certainly not the reason for everything bad that happened in games. It was overshadowed by the offense, so perhaps, because of that, it was easier to see and blame, when the Ducks struggled.
Opportunity is exactly what Allioti's exit provides the Ducks. As much as the coaching continuity in coaches has meant for the program, I do think it would be a mistake for Neal to just move up. Oregon is a HOT location now, a lot of fine coaches would love to be a part of the program. Oregon's identity is that of innovation. So, keeping the family of coaches is fine, but bringing in some new blood, a new brand of enthusiasm, I think is the way to go here.
@Dale Newton Hmm…I like Frosty, but if the team was/is so dependent on MM, why not have at least one back-up that can run the O close to, if not better than, what MM could as an invalid? That's how Roper won the Holiday Bowl, freshman Thomas almost upset Boise State, and later took the Ducks to the Natty. Hope at least one of Lockie and Rodrigues stay on next year and get some meaningful playing time - just in case.
This just makes Mariota even more impressive, and lets us look at the Heisman touters who had him on the top of their lists, but right after the Stanford game dropped him completely. with even more disdain. In a way, Mariota is exactly opposite what the Heisman has become.
He is a totally selfless player, who always played hard, was completely team first, and couldn't care less about personal stats or self promotion.
His 21-year career at UO saw the rise of Oregon football from the Bottom Ten to the Weedeater Bowl to a national program, and he was instrumental in a lot of big wins both on the field and in recruiting. Avery Patterson and John Boyett were his, notably. Hopefully he remains a part of the Oregon community.
A coach doesn't have to be a milquetoast nice guy to be loved by his players. The most important qualities in a new coach are indeed passion and intensity, coupled with a clear vision and the ability to get total commitment for it.
Aliotti told the media that it was HELFRICH who requested that he announce on Friday, and I think he 1) wanted to give the coach a good exit and 2) wanted to counter the Mack Brown factor a little.
A national hire is a good thing only if it's a truly outstanding coach who ignites new excellence in the defense. Wilcox is going to USC and gets paid almost twice what Aliotti or any of the Oregon assistants do. Orgeron wants to be a head coach and has never actually been a defensive coordinator. Pendergast is headed to the NFL. It's very unlikely to bring in an SEC/ACC guy to the Pacific Northwest.
The Ducks need both continuity and innovation. I think John Neal is the best choice, because he is a tremendous coach who instills pride and aggressiveness in his players, a good teacher and x's and o's guy, favors an understandable, attacking style, and understands the Oregon culture and what made it great. He'll field a determined, competitive defense, and bring the energy that inspires consistency and trust in his players. He's the best candidate, even if he's already here.
@rgyle @Dale Newton I think there's a gulf between players like MM and others. It's not that Rod or Lockie can't run the offense like Marcus can, it's that they don't, and an injured MM is better as an alternative to one of them. It is speed, it is confidence, and it is precision. And if I hit the enter key, I cannot continue this post. So.... You mention some great moments in Oregon football, but look... Those were moments in time when all of the stars aligned. Yeah, Oregon "should" have a QB to backup Mariota that's "at least' capable of running the offense, but it is what it is. I don't fault The Helf or Frost for the choice they made. I'd have made the same choice. If Lockie or Rodriguez, or both, choose to go after this season, then so be it. They aren't the future. That is their role, based upon their skill levels and performance, and that's the way it is. Nothing against them.
You didn't include passionate and intense in your description of Neal. MH fills the list of attributes you listed BUT he's not passionate or intense. I believe this needs to be more than just a job. I want someone with a huge fire in the belly, so much so that it pours out of his eyes and mouth when he coaches. I want the players to say, "Holy Cow".
No doubt that Neal would fill the role nicely. But, while I agree with all the attributes you noted in his favor. I don't know that being a part of the Oregon culture, trumps everything else.If Neal ends up being the choice, I'll be fine with it. But I hope that a serious search is conducted, and he rises to the top, rather than it being simply next man up.
@Dale Newton @Ducko30 Agree on John Neal. A great coach, recruiter, mentor and has experience as DC. Didn't realize the pay disparity between Wilcox and Aliotti was that big. Something is very worrisome about that. Most all of the Oregon coaches are getting along in years. If all are that underpaid how in the world does Oregon fill the differentials when the retirements start (and they may just have)?
df, I used to attend practice in the days before it was closed, and I can assure you Neal is both passionate and intense. His catchphrase with his players is COMPETE! He wants them competing all the time, every drill. Think of all the players he has sent to the next level: T.J. Ward, Jairus Byrd, Walter Thurmond, J.D. Nelson, Pat Chung. That's a group of competitors.