The news came in the middle of the departure of Chip Kelly and the formal announcement of the promotion of Mark Helfrich; the defensive coordinator, once again, sandwiched and forgotten in-between two brilliant offensive minds, in a region and conference where offense rules. Last Thursday, Nick Aliotti, Oregon's perennially under-appreciated defensive coordinator, finally got his big break. He was offered the defensive coordinator job at USC, and the chance to work hand in hand with Lane Kiffin to try and turn around one of the great programs in college football history. Nick Aliotti turned the job down.
As I wrote yesterday, I love the hiring of Mark Helfrich as the new head coach of the Oregon Ducks. But my second choice for the job would have been Aliotti.
Nick Aliotti's story has a few more twists and turns in the path than you might think – a coaching career littered with stops and assignments, never hitting the big time. Aliotti didn't have anything to do with defense in college, where he played running back for UC Davis in the 1970's. He got his start in coaching as a graduate assistant with Oregon in the late 70's, but moved across the isle to coach running backs at Oregon State for four years, from 1980-1983. It was in 1984 that Aliotti met a young Mike Bellotti, who hired him to be his offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Chico State. After four years, Aliotti returned to Oregon, where he finally got into defense, coaching linebackers, before being promoted to defensive coordinator and in his second year, leading a defense that helped take the Ducks to the Rose Bowl.
After the Rose Bowl in 1994, Brooks, like Kelly just days ago, jumped to the NFL, taking the head coaching job with the St. Louis Rams. Aliotti followed Brooks and was named the Rams special teams coach. But the Brooks regime fell apart quickly in St. Louis and Aliotti was washed out. In 1998, Aliotti was named the defensive coordinator at UCLA, but one year later, returned to an Oregon team on the rise to work for Bellotti, this time on the opposite side of the ball. He's been with the Ducks ever since.
Trying to hire Nick Aliotti was the smartest thing Lane Kiffin has possibly ever done in football. After a disastrous season where a number one preseason ranking turned into a 7-6 nightmare in which the younger Kiffin had to push out his father as defensive coordinator, the under-pressure USC head coach was searching for answers. In Aliotti, Kiffin had a man who not only would bring the intensity and passion necessary to shake up and turn around the Trojans defense, but would contribute his fiery and fun presence everyone on the team; he could also give input into offense and special teams. Aliotti would also have been the perfect person to shut down Oregon's spread offense, seeing as he knows it inside and out from the last six years, and Oregon looks to be USC's biggest Pac-12 competitor down the road.
I wouldn't have blamed Aliotti if he had left. Oregon has never fully appreciated his value; year after year, he turns undersized defenses into ball-hawking, opportunistic havoc-wrecking machines that perfectly compliment the Ducks' always-blazing offenses. Aliotti is 58. He is 19 years Mark Helfrich's senior, and has never been a head coach, despite job after job after job that qualifies him for the top post. Yet, when Kelly left, Helfrich was a shoe-in; Aliotti barely was considered for promotion. His name rarely, if ever, comes up in other team's head-coaching searches, and a move to USC would have furthered his career and catapulted his name back into the national discussion. But he stayed. Stayed where he is comfortable, and stayed where he is successful.
Nick Aliotti perfectly epitomizes Oregon's harmonious and successful coaching staff that has accompanied and directed the program's rise from ignominy to national fame. It's people like Aliotti, Gary Campbell, Steve Greatwood and so on, good people and good coaches who connect with players and have Oregon overachieving. The Ducks don't recruit exceptionally well compared to the teams they are ranked near, especially on defense. It's Aliotti, who has coordinated offense, defense and special teams, who wins the Ducks games on the less glamorous side of the ball.
The thing that I like best about Aliotti, and this goes for Oregon's other assistants as well, is that these coaches are virtually egoless. They don't get paid a ton. They don't get recognized often in the press. They don't get their back scratched by the University. They just do their jobs, and do them well. Aliotti going to USC probably would have meant a pay raise, a big move that most assistant coaches don't get when they're nearing 60, and a huge ego boost. But he has coached in the NFL, and he's coached at UCLA, and he likes Oregon quite a lot, thank you very much. So, in a coaching world filled with lack of commitment to players, lack of investment in a single job, and ever-lasting lust for the next best position, Aliotti displayed restraint and composure. Oregon is a nice place to coach. Eugene is a nice place to live. Aliotti and his wife Kathryn live in Eugene with their children, who attended Oregon.
Keeping Aliotti is Mark Helfrich's first big win as Oregon head coach. I desperately hope that he gets the chance to run his own show one day, have the chance to be a head coach, something the Oregon defensive coordinator, now in his 21st year with the school, has worked for since 1978.
Aliotti isn't the biggest name, for whatever reason. But neither was Chip Kelly. Both men can flat out coach. Where Kelly is cool and withdrawn, however, Aliotti's buoyant joy is infectious. The man calls a defensive game like a riverboat gambler, throwing blitzes at opposing quarterbacks until they crack into the big mistake. Aliotti is fun because he has fun, his players follow suit, and in sports, success often follows fun.
It is easy to see that when Nick Aliotti returned to Oregon in 1993, and again in 1999, the Ducks were successful. The first time it was a Rose Bowl, the second time back-to-back Pac-12 titles and a number two national ranking, and it’s been on and up from there. He is now working under his fifth head coach at Oregon. He’s the mainstay. The Ducks need this guy. Under him, Oregon's defense is in as good hands as its offense, and keeping those good running back's hands away from USC was a huge victory for the Oregon – another notch in the chart that shows the Trojans trying to catch up to the Ducks for Pac-12 supremacy. There were no new notches on Nick Aliotti's personal chart after the dust settled Thursday. But that's okay. There doesn't have to be.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports