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.