The Oregon football team has begun their annual Spring practice period, and will be breaking in a new Defensive Coordinator for the first time since 1999. The now-retired Nick Aliotti had been a part of the Duck football landscape off and on since 1978. He was on the sidelines when the Gang Green defense roamed the Autzen turf and when Kenny Wheaton stepped into Duck history with his famed pick-six against the Huskies.
During his first tenure in Eugene, Aliotti watched first-hand as the small school with little football tradition blossomed into a perennial contender for the post season, culminating in the 1994 Rose Bowl appearance.
After following Head Coach Rich Brooks to the NFL, Aliotti was hired at UCLA for one season before returning “home” to Eugene, where he again served as Defensive Coordinator for his final 14 seasons. During this time, the Oregon football program continued to climb to even greater heights, due in no small part to his efforts.
Despite mixed opinions among Oregon fans on whether the fiery Italian-American coach with a perpetually raspy voice was the problem or the solution for the defense, Aliotti simply kept working and kept beating the Huskies.
There were occasional lapses, with opponent points and yards piling up against his bend-but-don’t-break schemes. But when he was on his game, his defenses could be absolutely suffocating.
Here are five of Aliotti’s personal highlight games from his second stint:
No. 4 Oregon 38 vs No. 3 Colorado 16 – Fiesta Bowl, 2002
While many felt Oregon deserved a BCS National Championship birth that season, the team had a chance to do the next best thing: play the team that had just routed eventual National Title participant Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship game — the Colorado Buffaloes. Aliotti’s defense held the vaunted run game of the Buffaloes to just 49 rushing yards, and senior cornerback Steve Smith intercepted three Colorado passes to secure the Ducks’ first BCS victory.
No. 22 Oregon 31 vs No. 3 Michigan 27 – Autzen Stadium, 2003
Oregon came into this game at home as massive underdogs, but the Autzen faithful and the players on the field found a way to will the Ducks, led by Jason Fife and Kellen Clemens, to a victory over one of Lloyd Carr’s best Wolverine teams. Michigan came into the game averaging 307 yards per game, but were completely stuffed up front as Aliotti’s defense held them to minus-8 yards rushing. An even more dominating effort though came four seasons later, when Jonathan Stewart, Dennis Dixon and the Ducks played in Ann Arbor, smashing the Maize & Blue, 39-7.
Oregon 56 vs Oregon State 14 – Autzen Stadium, 2005
In a game that returned the favor for a dismal end of the 2004 season — a 50-21 loss in 2004 that locked up a 5-6 finish and no bowl game — the Ducks pounced on little brother from the opening play, when defensive back Stephen Moore snatched the opening pass and ran it in for a pick-six.
That play set the tone as Oregon could not be stopped, and the Beavers’ last chance to capture bowl eligibility was lost in the fog as they staggered out of Autzen with a 5-6 finish to their season, with no bowl game invite.
Oregon 42 vs No. 6 Cal 3 – Autzen Stadium, 2009
After a rocky start to 2009 at Boise State, Oregon escaped Purdue by two points and then again the next week in a way-too-close 31-24 win vs Utah.
The Bears were Top-10 material and the Ducks were unranked. Oregon had lost three consecutive against Cal, and running back Jahvid Best had set the Pac-10 rushing touchdown record just the week before.
Arguably the teams’ best defensive player, Walter Thurmond III, had just suffered a severe knee injury. Another underdog situation was at hand, or so it seemed. Best would be quoted as saying the Autzen crowd noise bothered him during the game, but it was Aliotti’s defense that held him to just 55 yards on 16 carries.
The Ducks kept the Bears out of the end zone as the Oregon offense – led by Jeremiah Masoli, a RS freshman named LaMichael James and Ed Dickson – torched Cal, handing coach Jeff Tedford the worst loss of his career.
Oregon 30 vs Texas 7 – Alamo Bowl, 2014
It appeared Aliotti still had saved some of his best for last in the Alamo Bowl – which became the final game for both he and Texas coach Mack Brown.
Two Oregon losses down the stretch had many wondering if Oregon could stop anyone anymore, especially against a potent ground attack. The Longhorns boasted a two-deep roster chock full of 5-star linemen and skill players, with a legend and future Hall-of-Fame coach on the sidelines for his grand finale in burnt orange.
Early on, Texas was able to pound away for short bursts on the ground, but the Ducks were able to get a few stops and eventually force them to the air — and, with a growing lead, it quickly became advantage Oregon. The Ducks’ defense held Texas to just 236 yards of total offense, and the two Longhorn quarterbacks had a combined stat line of 9-for-23 (39%) for 56 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
This upcoming season will be an exciting one for the Oregon football program as they will now be heading into a new era — life without Nick Aliotti.
Whichever side of the fence you were on regarding the longtime Duck coach, his presence and contributions were an undeniably a crucial piece of virtually all of the greatest seasons in Oregon football history.
Top photo by Cliff Grassmick