SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The three defensive players for Oregon, spread out in different corners of a lush banquet room on Sunday morning, each told their own story about defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.
The stories, unique to each player’s experience, shared many of the same qualities.
Aliotti is loyal, tough and values hard work, said junior defensive end Taylor Hart.
Praise is tempered and well-earned, said senior defensive end/outside linebacker Dion Jordan.
According to senior linebacker Michael Clay, he’s also got a good sense of humor.
And, more than anything else, each player said Aliotti wants them to come away from their time at Oregon with something more than a football career.
“When we meet for the first time before the season starts, we don’t talk about winning games, we talk about representing yourself as an Oregon football player and about ‘Winning the Day,’ ” said Aliotti, referring to Oregon’s well-known slogan. “And when you do that, you pick your head up at the end of December or the beginning of January and you find yourself in a place like this.”
The place Aliotti and the Ducks are at right now is their fourth straight BCS bowl, facing No. 7 Kansas State in Thursday’s Fiesta Bowl.
Aliotti came to Oregon first as a graduate assistant in 1978, then returned 10 years later after stints as an assistant coach at Oregon State and Chico State to be the Ducks’ outside linebackers coach under Rich Brooks, eventually moving up to defensive coordinator before following Brooks to the St. Louis Rams to coach special teams in 1995.
He returned to Oregon in 1999 as defensive coordinator under coach Mike Bellotti, a position he kept when the Ducks made the transition to Chip Kelly in 2009.
“Whether it’s six in the morning or seven at night, you’re going to get the same guy ... this fiery Italian, always energetic, always ready to work,” Clay said. “He doesn’t sugar-coat things for you, he’s out there telling it like it is.”
Oregon’s forte this season has been forcing turnovers — they’ve done it 38 times — and Aliotti thinks that could turn the tide against the Wildcats.
“We’ve done a nice job of taking the ball away,” Aliotti said. “I wouldn’t be disappointed if we got that number over 40 ... I’m shooting for 42. That’s not to disrespect anybody, it would just go a long way for us if we could get (K-State) to turn the ball over four times.”
With seven starters returning on defense in 2013, including the entire defensive backfield, Aliotti could be on the verge of crafting another masterpiece similar to Oregon’s famous 1994 “Gang Green” defense that made it to the Rose Bowl or his 2010 defense that gave up 18.7 points and lost in the BCS title game to Auburn.
The Ducks will also return eight starters on offense.
But that talk will have to wait for another day.
“Honestly, I’m just thinking about being better today at practice,” Aliotti said. “Don’t get me wrong, we look a little bit ahead, but not this week. I know we have a lot of great players coming back, but we also have a lot of players to replace.”