The Eyes of the Defense — A Farewell to One of the Best in the Game
It was an announcement that made headlines nationwide, one that left many Oregon Duck football fans with their jaws wide open. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti announced his last game before the 2013 Alamo Bowl. For the last 15 seasons, Aliotti ignited a spark in the Ducks’ defense, which led to multiple conference championships and a winning streak Oregon Ducks fans have long waited for.
What began as a simple college experience at UC Davis turned into one of the greatest resumes a coach could have. Aliotti was a starting running back for the Aggies, while studying for a career in engineering. He began his coaching career at age 24 as the running backs coach for his alma mater. What you might not know about Aliotti is that for the first 11 seasons of his coaching career he coached on the offensive side of the ball.
After several seasons at UC Davis, Oregon, Oregon State, Chico State, and with the St. Louis Rams, he eventually ended up back with his dream team, the Ducks, and in his dream state, Oregon. Here, Aliotti made his name known through his ability to create an explosive defense that produced statement plays.
The year was 1994 when the Ducks defense first infiltrated sports headlines. Plays such as Kenny Wheaton‘s “The Pick” against rival Washington and the stifling “Gang Green” defense led the Ducks to their first Rose Bowl appearance in 37 years. Moments like these produced Aliotti’s greatest memories of his coaching career.
His experience in the game formed his eventual strategy as defensive coordinator. As a running back, he learned to read defensive formations and exploit weaknesses. “My philosophy was we were going to stop the run, because I always felt like if you can make a team one-dimensional, win first down, and put them into third-and-long situations, you are going to win more games.” Aliotti continues, “People always talk about winning third down, but if you win first and second down it goes a long way to winning third down. Stopping the run was always the first priority.”
When the Oregon Ducks make ESPN headlines, they typically pertain to the hurry up, NASCAR-like offense. With time of possession weighing heavily upon the defense, Aliotti describes his defensive tactics in the same manner. “I’m proud of the fact that we were probably one of the first teams to incorporate playing defense because of the change of the game: to play defense like a hockey team. We would substitute three or four players every four or five downs … and now a lot of teams are doing that. We started doing that to combat fast, uptempo offenses.”
So how did he do it? Aliotti’s competitive nature and ability to strategize on the go, helped shape the program into what it is today. He says, “There is a special thing when you put this game plan together and you pull out all these movable pieces that have to go here and there to make this and that work. The strategy when you’re looking down there, seeing personnel come in and you have to make these calls in 25 seconds. I make 75-80 calls, about one every 25 seconds, when we’re on defense. That’s taking into account what down and distance that is, what the score of the game is and what personnel do they have in the game.” All this decision making in such a short period of time with the game on the line … no pressure, right?
There is no doubt that Aliotti left his mark on Oregon. Countless hours of watching film and developing players paid off as Oregon is now recognized as one of the top programs in the country. Aliotti says, “Most importantly, you can’t describe the amount of hours and time that we put into something. And when you win on Saturday, the exhilaration is like the best drug you could ever have. It’s an unbelievable adrenaline rush you feel when you win a football game.”
Coach Aliotti left some big shoes to fill. Once an Oregon Duck himself, new defensive coordinator Don Pellum has had his fair share of experiences on the gridiron. Aliotti passes on his advice to Pellum, saying, “‘You have to be your own guy and do it your way. Don’t try and be something you’re not. Whatever you do, make sure you’re an expert in what you’re doing because you have to have all the answers. As long as you know what you’re doing and what your direction is, you’ll have all the answers. Stay true to yourself.'”
While Duck fans knew this day would eventually come, they just didn’t want it to until “next year.”
Aliotti had never intended to have the attention all on him. “Knowing it was my last game, you don’t go saying ‘win this one for me.’ But inside I said, ‘I’ve gone out so well, I’d like to go out with a win in this bowl game.’ We went out and played a very good defensive game, scoring two touchdowns on defense.”
Aliotti continues, “Going out that way and walking off that field, I’ll never forget that moment.”
Thank you Coach Aliotti for all your hard work and dedication to the Oregon Ducks.
Top Photo by Cliff Grassmick