It was an instant classic. The BCS went out with a defiant, triumphant bang. The lead changed four times late in the fourth quarter at the grandest old venue in the United States. Florida State 34, Auburn 31.
And it all felt very familiar, didn’t it Ducks fans? It felt like 2011 with Auburn in the mix and a national championship game so tightly strung, so finely poised that the littlest miscue, the tiniest slip would be the difference between a euphoric triumph and a crushing defeat.
Oregon was there, just three years ago. Remember? Michael Dyer kept running, and Oregon lost 21-19. After the game, Chip Kelly, who responds better to defeat than most head coaches, turned to star cornerback Cliff Harris at the podium and said, “We gave them quite a show, didn’t we Cliffy?”
Now, at the dawn of 2014, Oregon seems far away from that moment and that game. Kelly and Harris are both gone, and when the 2014 season kicks off there will just be a handful of players and coaches left from the national championship season.
Most importantly, Nick Aliotti has retired.
In hindsight, we could have guessed that this might have been Aliotti’s last year as defensive coordinator. His family started showing up to post-game press conferences. His desperate rant to get Oregon focused on getting back to the Rose Bowl made sense when it happened, and makes more sense now.
Aliotti didn’t want to coach his last game in the Alamo Bowl with a team that could have gone down as one of the greatest in Oregon history. The stars of that team – Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu, and Ifo-Ekpre Olomu are coming back for a mulligan. Aliotti knew he wasn’t going to get a second chance to do what was expected of the Ducks this season, next season.
He’ll tell you he doesn’t care about stats, but Aliotti does. He can rattle them off, and we can better understand why the coach ripped into Mike Leach for continuing to throw the ball late in a lopsided loss. When you throw the ball 89 times, as Washington State did that day, you’re going to rack up some yards.
Athletes and coaches all remember lasts well. Firsts and lasts are important. Aliotti’s last game, that Alamo Bowl, was a terrific way to bow out. Oregon’s defense outscored Texas’ offense.
In the locker-room afterwards, Mark Helfrich spoke about the victory, and implored his team to be “Men of Oregon.” It’s one of Helfrich’s favorite refrains. “Men of Oregon,” on the field, off the field, in every walk of life.
After he was finished speaking, Helfrich turned it over to a real Man of Oregon, Aliotti. This guy postponed his retirement, and a pretty nice “last” – a Fiesta Bowl triumph – to come back and help steady the ship in Helfrich’s “rookie year of coaching,” as he put it after the bowl game.
The Men of Oregon are becoming harder and harder to identify. There’s something about the very humble roots of the football program that are becoming harder and harder to identify in the current setup as well.
Aliotti was a pillar. He was a firebrand who never took a play off. At the dawn of the Kelly era, an unranked Oregon played a top-10 Cal team in a late-September game at Autzen.
Oregon obliterated the Bears on both sides of the ball, and even when the score was 42-3 late in the fourth quarter and the Cal players just wanted to board the bus and go home, Aliotti blitzed the hell out of the Bears’ offense, sending five, six guys on each play against Cal’s backups. 42-3 was the way things were going to stay.
It’s important to remember when looking at Aliotti’s legacy that he never had the talent to work with on the defense that Oregon could attract on offense. Aliotti’s defenses overachieved, so much so, that Aliotti was offered the USC coordinator job after that Fiesta Bowl.
He thought he was retiring, so he never seriously considered the job. Not that he would have anyway. He was a Man of Oregon.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been a bad choice if the Ducks had promoted Aliotti – only 58 at the time – to head coach ahead of Mark Helfrich, who could have remained the offensive coordinator, running the blur offense. But Aliotti was never seriously considered for the job, and Helfrich was the only true candidate.
Now, Aliotti, who often felt like the anchor of the 2013 team, is gone. Helfrich has a huge hire in front of him. Will he promote someone from within the program, as the Ducks are prone to do, or hire someone from the outside?
Oregon was close to a great season this year. If they had just heeded Aliotti’s advice, and played hard against Arizona, they’d probably have another Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl.
That’s how fine the line is at the top. Just ask Auburn, who ran out of magic dust with just a minute left in the season Monday night.
Auburn won a similarly close championship over the Ducks, and so they have come full circle. What about Oregon? When will they be back to write that final chapter, to play that classic game, and win that championship that is the missing capstone to this era of greatness in Ducks football?
It will take Men of Oregon. Men of Oregon who are standing in the shadows right now.