by Rob Moseley
In naming Erik Chinander to replace departed defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti as the Ducks' outside linebackers coach, UO coach Mark Helfrich didn't technically continue "the Oregon way" of tabbing a current staff member for a new job. But it's pretty darn close.
Chinander, 34, was announced Wednesday as the newest full-time member of the UO coaching staff. He returns to Oregon after a year on Chip Kelly's staff with the Eagles, prior to which Chinander spent three years as an intern and graduate assistant coach for the Ducks.
About the only thing new to Chinander, as he moved into his new office this week, was the location of that office — the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, which opened late last summer.
"It'll probably take me a month to figure out the twists and turns of this place," Chinander joked Wednesday from behind his desk in the office vacated when new defensive coordinator Don Pellum moved down the hall to Aliotti's old digs, which feature floor to ceiling windows overlooking Martin Luther King Boulevard and, farther north, the Coburg hills.
Chinander's hiring provides a jolt of youth and energy to Oregon's staff, which mixes a new generation that also includes offensive coordinator Scott Frost and receivers coach Matt Lubick with stalwarts such as running backs coach Gary Campbell and offensive line coach Steve Greatwood.
Chinander left Eugene on Wednesday afternoon to put that youthful energy into action on the recruiting trail, and he sounds ready to bring a prominent new voice to the practice field in April.
"I'm not a negative person, but I'm a yeller," Chinander said. "I've got no problem chasing guys around and bringing energy.
"Between DP and Ron Aiken and John Neal, we've got enough guys (on the defensive staff) that can take guys aside and say, 'Hey, here's what you should have done.' I need to be out there showing guys the tempo, showing them how to chase the ball, working on things you can't do until you're in 11-on-11 football."
To that end, Chinander's return will harken back to the days his mentor the last four years, Jerry Azzinaro, was at Oregon. Azzinaro coached the Ducks' defensive line from 2009-12, an era in which the outside linebackers were primarily grouped together with the three down linemen for meetings and drills. (Aliotti worked with the nickel and dime packages in the secondary then, before taking over outside linebackers last season.)
Chinander was an intern on the UO staff in 2010, and a graduate assistant in 2011-12, when he had de facto ownership of the outside linebackers, for portions of meetings and individual drills in practice. Thus, he's familiar with how Oregon uses the position, and even some of his personnel, including returning starter Tony Washington and Tyson Coleman.
"If it would have been any other place in the country, I probably wouldn't have left," said Chinander, who worked as an assistant to Azzinaro with the Eagles this past season. "But this is such an easy transition, as far as knowing the lay of the land, and being familiar with the people.
"But also, coming back into a new head coach, a new building, a new defensive coordinator, there are going to be some fun challenges."
Chinander grew up in Iowa, the son of a high school football coach, and initially thought he'd follow his father's path into prep teaching and coaching. He was recruited to the University of Iowa by legendary head coach Hayden Fry, and finished his career there under Kirk Ferentz, with whom Chinander consulted prior to taking his new job with the Ducks.
Incredibly, Chinander's group of mentors with the Hawkeyes also included offensive line coach Joe Philbin, now the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Given that pedigree, there's no wonder Chinander ultimately entered the coaching ranks himself.
An injury ended his playing career — "I also wasn't very good," Chinander joked — but by then he'd discovered his value was higher as a de facto coach for teammates than on the field himself. He worked as a strength and conditioning intern while finishing his undergraduate degree, then used a family connection to get a job coaching both lines at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls.
An invitation to coach a camp at Northern Iowa led to a job for Chinander on the staff there, just two years removed from his own playing career. Eventually, Chinander was roommates with another Northern Iowa assistant, Frost, who helped open the door for Chinander's internship at Oregon in 2010. (Chinander had also known Kelly casually, from playoff matchups between Northern Iowa and New Hampshire, and seeing Kelly speak at coaching clinics.)
At Northern Iowa, Chinander thrived as a recruiter, given how he was able to relate to players not much older than he was. And he was growing into a gifted X-and-O guy, to the point he was entrusted to be Azzinaro's "eyes in the sky" during games, quickly diagnosing personnel groups and formations to give the Ducks and Eagles ideas of opponents' tendencies.
Chinander's ability to build relationships — and some cases of being in the right place at the right time — also helped his career progression.
"This business is a lot about that," he said Wednesday.
With the Eagles, Chinander had the opportunity to coordinate elements of meetings and practice, because of commitments Azzinaro had in his dual role as assistant head coach. Chinander also worked with outside linebackers, under the position coach there, Bill McGovern.
At Oregon, Azzinaro helped reshape the Ducks' defense, transitioning to a 3-4 scheme with a "drop end" that moved between defensive end and outside linebacker. He also helped mold under-the-radar recruits like Taylor Hart and Wade Keliikipi into key pieces of Oregon's 2013 defense as seniors.
"Obviously you learn great technique and how to teach the guys, there's no question about that," Chinander said of being Azzinaro's understudy the last four years. "But you can do that from a lot of people.
"With him it's all about, how do we take these young men we're given and establish a culture in which they can thrive — not just as football players but as people? How do we get them from good to great?
"He's really good at that. The other thing is, he's the best at getting the guys to play as well as they can, getting the most out of their ability. And that's what I've always wanted to do. Can I take these guys and get the best out of their ability, get the most out of them?
"It's all about creating that culture first. As long as they know you have their best interest at heart, they'll do anything you ask them to do. They'll buy in."