The Oregon Ducks currently have one of the most seasoned coaching staffs in college football. Position coaches such as Gary Campbell and Steve Gratewood, for example, have been on Oregon’s staff for more than 25 years.
Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti was a huge part of that experience, having spent more than 20 years himself as an assistant coach in Eugene. With Aliotti’s recent announcement that the Ducks’ Alamo Bowl matchup against Texas would be his last game before retirement, it seems only fair to take a look back and appreciate the assistant coach’s long tenure in Eugene.
Oregon has come to be known over the past several seasons as an offensive powerhouse. Because of how quickly the Ducks can score, the defense is often forced to spend the majority of games on the field, often skewing statistics and creating the false impression that Oregon struggles on defense.
While it may not be quite as potent as the offense, Aliotti has put together some truly superb squads to go up against the high-flying attacks of the Pac-10/12. In fact, since he became Oregon’s defensive coordinator in 1999, 21 defensive Ducks have been selected in the NFL Draft.
Among those players are first-round picks such as Haloti Ngata and Dion Jordan, and current NFL studs Jairus Byrd, T.J. Ward, and Kiko Alonso. Aliotti deserves a special amount of credit for Jordan and Byrd, who spent the majority of their Oregon careers away from their original positions.
In fact, Dion Jordan came to Oregon as a wide receiver or tight end prospect before Aliotti helped turn him into one of the nation’s most feared pass rushers and eventual Top-3 selection in the NFL draft by the Miami Dolphins.
Aliotti has been a Duck for a long time, but his run in Eugene has not been continuous. He has been in and out three different times. He first came to Oregon from UC Davis, where he had played as a running back, in 1978 as a graduate assistant. After two seasons with the Ducks, he spent time at both Oregon State and Chico State.
However, he eventually found his way back to Oregon, where he found success as a linebacker coach for the Ducks, helping lead the 1994 “Gang Green” defense to a Pac-10 title and Rose Bowl berth. Due to that success, Aliotti was able to move up to the NFL where he spent three seasons as a special teams coach for the St. Louis Rams.
Returning to the NCAA in 1998, the impressive defensive coach found his way home to Eugene in 1999 after spending a year in Los Angeles coaching the UCLA Bruins. This time, as we know, he was here to stay.
Aliotti brought innovation and energy that helped allow the Oregon football program to truly take off after 1999. While players such as Joey Harrington and Keenan Howry may get a lot of the attention (and rightfully so), Duck fans owe just as much to Aliotti’s grooming of defensive players such as Wesly Mallard, Keith Lewis, and Peter Sirmon.
The same holds true for the Chip Kelly era. Averaging 50 points per game is an amazing accomplishment, but let us not forget that Aliotti’s defense only allowed about 21 points per game over the last five seasons, regularly placing the Ducks in the Top-25 in scoring defense.
Aliotti’s personality may seem abrasive to some (I have Washington State head coach Mike Leach in mind.), but that personality brought an aggressive and innovative defensive philosophy to the table that has been an enormous part of Oregon football achieving elite status.
While most Duck fans were heartbroken over the departure of Chip Kelly a year ago, many found solace in phrases such as, “It’s alright, at least we’ve still got Aliotti.” This is not to say that the Oregon defense is somehow doomed with the news of Aliotti’s retirement. It is simply to show the true value of a man that many casual fans would not appreciate due to the behind-the-scenes nature of his duties.
Aliotti’s final game was one of his best, holding the Texas Longhorns to only seven points, and his defense came up with two defensive touchdowns when the offense had trouble converting long drives into scores.
After 37 years of coaching – and a total of 22 fantastic seasons of great success at Oregon – defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has truly earned his retirement. Duck fans thank him for both his incredible coaching feats and long-term commitment to the program. He will be missed.
Top photo by Cliff Grassmick