SAN ANTONIO — As the members of Oregon’s defensive unit marched in a line entering the Alamo Bowl press conference today, senior defensive end Tony Washington walked in with his arm around defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.
A touching moment, as the man who coached Oregon’s defense for 21 seasons announced that he would be retiring after the Ducks play Texas on Dec. 30.
Aliotti’s known for being full of emotion, not afraid to speak his opinion, but to his players, he’s a father figure. The defensive coordinator began today’s press conference introducing his players with nothing but praise and told the media to ask them questions, saying the focus should not be on his big announcement.
“This is not about Nick Aliotti,” the 59-year-old Aliotti said. “This is the timing that Mark and myself decided on … this is about trying to win the Alamo Bowl. These are not just good football players … these five guys right here, they are great young men. They represent everything you want in a college athlete and it’s been a pleasure to coach them.”
When asked about what prompted his decision to retire, Aliotti said he was planning on retiring at the end of last season when the Ducks won the Fiesta Bowl. In fact, he even grabbed some turf from the field at University of Phoenix Stadium as a memento.
He went on saying that with the departure of Chip Kelly, Aliotti stayed with the program to help with the recruiting and told coach Helfrich he would go for one more year.
“I have had a good ride. It’s not about me, let’s go onto the Alamo Bowl,” Aliotti said. “I am at a good place, especially when I have these five guys to my left, I am at a better place.”
Senior defensive lineman Taylor Hart spoke about how Aliotti is like a second father to him and that he can’t say anything bad about him.
After Hart’s words, the coach reached over and patted Hart on the back as the two exchanged a smile.
“He comes with that relentless passion every day to get the best out of each player. He’s made everybody better at this program and he has done it day in and day out,” said cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
On the opposing side, a major storyline for Texas has been Mack Brown’s last game being a motivator for the Longhorns. Now the same could be said for Oregon’s defensive unit, who have struggled against the run game during parts of the season and face a team that’s ranked No. 35 in the country for rushing yards, averaging 197.6 yards per game this season.
However, when asked if the announcement would provide the defense with extra fuel, safety Brian Jackson said that Aliotti wants the team to focus on the game ahead.
“We came here almost like a work visit,” Jackson said. “I respect him and I am glad he made this decision, but I am just like he is — we need to get out there and play some football.”
Junior linebacker Derrick Malone echoed similar thoughts.
“No matter what happens, who’s leaving, who’s staying between players or coaches, we have one common goal,” Malone said.
Aliotti said that in knowing it would be his last year he may have been a little softer on his players (even though they might not agree) but believed he hasn’t changed in any way.
“I have the same passion, the same work ethic, but I did enjoy this group of kids. This is a good group of young men,” Aliotti said.
Aliotti said that he hasn’t thought about his future plans after retirement. As for the Ducks’ future, Malone said that he isn’t focused on the offseason yet and that playing for a different coordinator will be a new experience for him.
“I know the offense has experienced that (a change in coordinator),” Malone said. “Now it’s our turn to experience that and I feel like we will bounce back pretty well and be pretty effective. We’ll see how it goes.”
Although Aliotti said he isn’t sure he will collect a keepsake from San Antonio to take back with him, he said win or lose, he will make sure he sees all the defensive seniors.
“I am hoping it ends in a win so we are all smiles .. .the bottom line is I just want to make sure I touch every one of my guys and tell them thanks and I hope they have a smile on their face when it is all over. That is the most important thing to me,” Aliotti said.
Follow Beth Maiman on Twitter @bethamaiman