- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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A few years ago, my wires got crossed even more than normal and I somehow ended up believing a homestanding but underdog Washington team just might beat Oregon. So I picked the Huskies to upset their hated rivals. It was a bad pick, and an Oregon person let me know about it -- profanely and vociferously -- immediately after the Ducks' blowout win.
It was Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.
At the moment, I was shocked and, yes, a bit hurt. I thought I had a great relationship with Aliotti and I had no idea he'd even be aware of, much less give two flips about, my weekly Pac-12 picks.
Oh, but he did. And that's an important part of Nick Aliotti you need to know. Behind the avuncular public face, he's a fiery competitor who is motivated by folks doubting him and his players.
We've chatted -- professionally and casually -- perhaps 20 times since then, and more than a few times he brought up that moment and apologized for it again and again, and then went on to great lengths to flatter the Pac-12 blog and make it blush.
"You've always been great to me," he'd say. "And I appreciate what you do."
That's an important part of Aliotti you need to know. He's a genuinely good fellow. Gracious. Funny. Self-effacing. And I don't know if I know anyone, particularly among members of the Fourth Estate, who'd say differently.
He also is a heck of a defensive coach, which is why more than a few folks are probably surprised that he has chosen to hang it up at just age 59, announcing his retirement Friday effective after the Ducks' date with Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 30.
He has been a fixture at Oregon under four coaches -- 24 years total, 17 as defensive coordinator. He had a brief run in the NFL when Rich Brooks was with the St. Louis Rams, and he spent a year at UCLA getting scapegoated by Bob Toledo, which was such bad form from Toledo that his career swirled into the muck shortly thereafter, his having irrevocably broken his positive karmic balance.
While the Ducks have been known more for their offense during their rise to the nation's elite, Aliotti consistently put together defenses that ranked highly in the Pac-12 and nation, particularly when you went beyond obvious statistics -- such as yards per game -- and used more advanced metrics that accounted for the Ducks offense having no interest in time of possession.
Aliotti will be missed, as a coach and a personality.
"Nick's contributions to the football program at the University of Oregon cannot be overstated," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said in a statement. "His dedication to the success of this program will certainly leave a lasting impression that is hard to measure. I want to thank him for his loyalty and efforts to help make Oregon football what it is today, and wish him and his wife, Kathy, a long and happy retirement."
The first question, of course, even before we ponder the future of the Ducks defense, is whether Aliotti will stay retired. That competitive fire might enjoy a break, but after he watches the 2014 season, you'd have to wonder if his coaching jones might return. Heck, a smaller program might even want to shake his tree a bit and see if he'd be interested in one thing he's missed out on in his career: A head coaching job.
I'd rate Aliotti's potential return a definite maybe. He certainly won't be off the coaching radar when a year from now someone needs a coordinator.
As for what's next for Oregon, two names were all over the Twitterverse this afternoon: Justin Wilcox, a former Oregon player, and Clancy Pendergast, who transformed USC's defense this fall.
Wilcox, as reported by CBS's Bruce Feldman, is shortly expected to follow Steve Sarkisian from Washington to USC. He also is one of the nation's highest paid assistant coaches, making more than double the $370,000 Aliotti made this fall. Aliotti, by the way, is the Ducks' highest paid assistant coach.
As for Pendergast, he'd be a great hire, wouldn't cost $800,000 a year and he's available because of Wilcox's expected arrival in Los Angeles. He knows the Pac-12, having coached the past four years at California and USC, and that can't be discounted when you consider the diversity of offenses in the conference.
ESPN's Adam Schefter has reported Pendergast might be eyeballing an NFL job, but one suspects he is looking only for the best situation -- and perhaps some stability. Considering Oregon ran a hybrid 3-4 under Aliotti, and Pendergast ran the same sort of thing at Cal and USC, calling it a 5-2, the transition would be smooth.
If Helfrich and Pendergast haven't already chatted, that's a call the Ducks first-year coach should seriously consider making. Nothing like hiring a guy who's almost a sure-thing.
Of course, neither of those guys would hold court during a postgame media briefing like Aliotti. His winding, often lengthy, stream of consciousness answers that often ended up having little to do with the original question made postgame stories on the Ducks defense far more colorful.
And reporters were talking to him because his defense, though typically overshadowed by the Ducks prolific offense, was more often than not among the best coached units in the Pac-12.
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