Grid Iron Heavyweight

It was the spring of 1979, time for AIC football coach Bob Burke to go on a recruiting trip. One of his stops would be in Franklin, Massachusetts, home of Dean Junior College. There, he had a specific interest—an all-out tough linebacker from Brooklyn. His name: Jerry Azzinaro.

“Yes, Bob Burke convinced me to continue my education at AIC, and that turned out to be the most important time of my life,” Azzinaro said.

Because he chose AIC, and because Burke later gave him a chance to join the coaching staff for two years as a graduate assistant, Azzinaro found the path to a life in football-coaching.

“Whether it’s college or pro, though, the big thing is making sure the players know you care about them.”
Jerry Azzinaro ’81, MA ’95

As a player, he did steady and outstanding work in his linebacking role. In his senior season in 1981, he led the team in tackles.

“I think I set the AIC season record in that department,” he said.

Now, at sixty-one, he’s still on that football path as defensive coordinator for UCLA on the coaching staff of Chip Kelly. The 2019 season was a difficult one for the Bruins and Azzinaro’s defensive unit—especially in losses to Utah and city rival Southern Cal—but he knows how to deal with adversity. It’s all part of a profession he loves, no matter what the season record may be.

Azzinaro has coached with Kelly at the University of Oregon, then in the National Football League with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers. When Kelly made Azzinaro part of his UCLA staff, he did so with a resounding show of support.

As Kelly told the Los Angeles Times, “You hire people because of the type of teachers they are, and the type of scheme they favor. I’ve worked with Jerry for a long time. He’s a hell of a football coach, one of the best I’ve ever been around.”

Late in the 2019 season, when UCLA couldn’t contain the Utah and Southern Cal passing attacks, Kelly refused to blame his defensive players or their coaches.

Jerry Azzinaro ’81, MA ’95In an interview with the LA Times, Kelly said, “We’re a team. We don’t blame one side of the ball or one facet of anything else. We stick together as a group and that’s what we’ll always do. It’s offense, defense and special teams that make us up, not just one side of the ball. I think when you get into that, you start finger-pointing and that’s not what we’re about. We were down some players (with injuries) and we’ve just got to rally. That’s the bottom line.”

Long before he met Kelly, Azzinaro learned football lessons from Burke and his AIC successor, Alex Rotsko.

“After I played for Bob Burke, he took me on as a graduate assistant coach. I did that for two years, and while I was on the football staff I was able to complete requirements for my master’s. That whole time at AIC was an inspiring experience for me,” Azzinaro recalled.

He graduated in 1982 with a degree in psychology and in 1985 with a master’s in educational psychology.

Burke moved into administration in 1983, working as an assistant to Athletic Director Milt Piepul, then succeeding him when he retired in 1986. Meanwhile, Rotsko came on as head football coach. He spent ten seasons at AIC (1983-92) before switching to high school coaching, where he has compiled a remarkable record—eleven Super Bowl champions in nineteen seasons at Longmeadow High School and now five state titles in eight seasons at Marshwood High School in South Berwick, Maine.

When Rotsko became head coach, Azzinaro was still a grad assistant. After completing his master’s studies, he spent the 1985 season coaching at Westfield State University and the 1986 season at Western New England College, his only head coaching role.

In 1987, Azzinaro returned to AIC for a five-year run as defensive coordinator on Rotsko’s staff. Again, that time at his alma mater proved to be invaluable for him.

“Alex Rotsko is the best I ever worked for. I learned so much from him, the way he treats his players. I can see why he’s so successful with high school teams because he has a way of inspiring kids every day,” Azzinaro said.

Because he loves what he does, Azzinaro has been able to stick with it over a career in which he can count seventeen stops (including the two at AIC and two at UMass).

“Yeah, we are well-traveled,” he said of his football life with his understanding wife, the former Alison Rourke.

The early years of that career were spent “back east,” including jobs at Boston College, Maine, New Hampshire, and Syracuse. He spent two seasons at Duke and one at Marshall before joining Kelly’s staff at the University of Oregon in 2009.

Kelly’s Oregon teams played in the 2010 and ’12 Rose Bowl games, the 2011 national championship game (a 22-19 loss to Auburn), and the 2013 Fiesta Bowl (a 35-17 victory over Kansas State). Kelly’s Oregon teams won three consecutive conference championships between 2009 and 2011 and a conference division title in 2012.

Kelly’s Oregon success led him to the Eagles in 2013. Azzinaro went with him for a stint of coaching at the game’s highest level. After three seasons with the Eagles and one with the 49ers, Azzinaro went back to college coaching—this time at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2017. In 2018, he moved south to Los Angeles to rejoin Kelly at UCLA.

From a coaching viewpoint, what’s the difference between working with players at the college level and the NFL level?

“There’s really no difference in the actual coaching,” Azzinaro said, “but at the college level, you do have to work around the time they need for academics. Whether it’s college or pro, though, the big thing is making sure the players know you care about them.”

As Azzinaro reflected on his years at AIC, he pointed out that there was a time when he tried another sport.

“For a couple of years, with the blessing of Bob Burke, I spent the winter as a Golden Gloves boxer,” he said. “In 1981, I lost in the Western New England tournament as a light heavyweight, but in ’82, I fought at my natural weight and won the heavyweight championship.”

Azzinaro had the opportunity to train with Duke Belton, a local boxing legend who worked with hundreds of fighters at Springfield’s Dunbar Community Center.

“Yeah, Duke got me ready for the tournament. Those were fun times at the Holyoke Boys Club (site of the Golden Gloves tournaments). Boxing and the Holyoke club gave me more reasons to love Western Mass.,” Azzinaro said.

“Mainly, though,” he added, “I love it because of AIC. I still feel that it’s my second home.”

 

By Garry Brown ’55, hon ’14 :: photos by don liebig