Sometimes a football team needs a coach with a soft touch—someone who can make friends with his players, ham it up with journalists, glad-hand important boosters. Other times, a firmer approach is necessary. Justin Wilcox is betting on the latter tack with the hiring of Jerry Azzinaro, the stone-faced veteran tabbed to lead Cal’s defensive line. Known for being something of a drill sergeant (he’s a judo brown belt from Long Island, if that gives you a better picture), Azzinaro is a demanding yet understated coach with a penchant for getting the most out of his players.
With a resume like Azzinaro’s, he’s earned the right to coach however he likes. Over the course of a 36-year career, he’s established himself as one of the foremost defensive line experts in the game. Since his first job as a graduate assistant at American International College—his alma mater—Azzinaro has worked his way up the coaching ladder with stints at UMass (1992-1994, 1997), Boston College (1995-1996), Syracuse (1999-2003), and Duke (2004-2006), among others. He’s a defensive line coach through and through, serving in that capacity except for a couple of brief stints as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.
While spending 2008 as the DL coach at Marshall, Azzinaro received the call that would take his career to the next level. Chip Kelly invited him to join the staff at Oregon, where he would serve for four seasons (across from fellow Cal assistant-to-be Steve Greatwood). As Cal fans well know, Kelly/Azzinaro’s first three teams all won conference titles. And while the Chip Kelly era at Oregon was defined by high offensive point totals, the Ducks also fielded two top-25 defenses in that stretch.
Kelly made the jump to the NFL in 2013, bringing Azzinaro along as his DL coach and assistant HC. Three years later, Kelly and Azzinaro found their way to San Francisco for one more (ill-fated) season as colleagues. When the 49ers cleaned house, Azzinaro elected to remain in the Bay Area and join Wilcox’s staff.
Azzinaro’s NFL fortunes were, like Kelly’s, mixed. Two of his pro defenses were among the best in the league at stopping the run; two were among the worst. His 2014 D was a sack machine; the others were unremarkable on that front. Perhaps Azzinaro will have more consistent success back in college, where he coached four first-round draft picks (Dwight Freeney, Dion Jordan, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner).
Cal fans have reason to hope the brash Azzinaro will be a good fit in Berkeley. Underneath all the East Coast bravado, he holds a masters degree in educational psychology and has been known to engage in philosophical debates with his players. He also helped implement the 3-4 at Oregon, the same scheme Wilcox and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter hope to put in place at Cal. He even has head coaching experience (albeit for a single year, 1986, with the Western New England University Golden Bears). He’ll surely be tasked with using his collected wisdom to take some pressure off of Cal’s newest assistant, OLBs coach Tony Tuioti. We’ll also monitor his progress on the recruiting front—he could make his first big splash by landing Clemson DT transfer Scott Pagano, whom he recruited to Oregon a few years back.