Some of the fiercest battles on game day occur in the trenches at the line of scrimmage. Whoever wins the battles up front, whether it is the offensive or defensive line, usually plays an integral role in who comes out victorious.
With the position requiring a great deal of toughness, grit and determination, it seems as though Offensive Line Coach Joe D’Alessandris was born for the job.
After all, he’s been doing it for 35 of his 37 years in coaching.
“The town I come from is a football town,” D’Alessandris said, referring to his hometown of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. “It’s an old steel mill town. When I was a kid growing up, most of the folks who lived there were steel mill workers and their families came from that same environment. So we had a lot of good football players come out of there that set the standard for us young guys.”
D’Alessandris excelled on the football field from the time he hit the gridiron in seventh grade to attending Western Carolina.
“In high school I was an offensive tackle and a defensive tackle, and it was in college that they changed me to offensive guard,” he said. “I probably had more success in high school as a defensive lineman, but then I went to college and they converted me to guard. And that experience was a different one for me for a bunch of reasons. Like I said, I came from a steel mill town, and Western Carolina is in the Smoky Mountains. Sometimes you are just attracted to the opposite I guess.”
No matter the reason,, D’Alessandris’ choice to attend Western Carolina was a good one as he enjoyed five successful years in Cullowhee, North Carolina.
“I was lucky because I had really good coaches,” he said. “Bob Waters was my head football coach. He had played with the 49ers and coached at Stanford before coming to Western Carolina. And I had great memories along the way. I’d say the top memories would be advancing to the quarterfinals of the NCAA National Championship my sophomore year against Louisiana Tech. And the other would be playing Appalachian State. They were our big rivals, and we beat them four of my five years there. And that was a big deal. For us, it was on the scale of a Stanford-Cal game and other big rivalries. It’s called king of the mountain as they are two schools that play there, so it was a big deal.”
D’Alessandris transitioned immediately into coaching once his playing career was done, but it wasn’t exactly seamless. He faced difficulties right from the get-go having to coach his former teammates and good friends.
“I started as a graduate assistant at Western Carolina assisting the offensive line, was involved in recruiting and in the weight program,” he said. “It was great being around those coaches and learning. In the second year they gave me the opportunity to be a tight end coach, and that was another good experience for me. But it wasn’t easy. It was very difficult the first year in the sense that the players were still my buddies. And I’m coaching my buddies, and they didn’t like it sometimes and it was hard on me. In the second year I separated myself. I knew that if I wanted to make this my profession I would have to make changes and I did. They were still my friends and we still had a good time together, but I didn’t hang out with them away from the field. I found out I had to make that separation.”
The following year, D’Alessandris became an offensive line coach at Livingston College, and he’s been coaching the position ever since. D’Alessandris was so determined and committed to getting a job coaching the position that his first interaction with the school was on the same day as his wedding back in 1979.
“I was applying for jobs all over the place because I knew this is where I wanted to be,” he said. “I was graduating with my master’s in education with an emphasis in physical education. Luckily Livingston University called me right before the Fourth of July and we first made contact on my wedding day. And they invited me down for the interview, and a good friend of mine Jim Washburn was the defensive line coach and coordinator at Livingston, and he recommended me off of us playing against each other back in college. So that’s how I got my start.”
D’Alessandris spent the next 11 years of his life coaching the offensive line for a number of college’s before deciding to move on to a new experience in 1990 coaching Ottawa in the Canadian Football League.
“I had an opportunity, and I was about 36 years old, and I had a chance to go up there and learn for my first pro experience,” he said. “I was very fortunate. We had a lot of success and I learned a lot about pass protection up there. Up there it’s only three downs so you’re throwing the ball quite regularly and you have to pick up the blitz because it is a big blitz league. So that was a great, great experience. When I look back on my career that was a good move because I expanded and learned things I didn’t have as much knowledge on before.”
After a single season with Ottawa, D’Alessandris moved over to the World League where he coached Birmingham.. While he only lasted there for two seasons before the league folded, it was a momentous move for him as it marked the first time he coached with Chan Gailey, who would become an integral part of his coaching future.
“(Gailey) was the head coach and we developed a good working relationship and friendship there,” D’Alessandris said. “He had a big impact on my career. When I was at Livingston he was at Troy State which was in the same league. He was the head coach there and I was the offensive line coach and we competed against each other. Then we all branched off in different directions. He got wind of me being up in the CFL and knew a little bit about me and that’s how it started.”
After the World League folded, D’Alessandris went back to the college ranks in 1993 and served as the offensive line coach at numerous universities before taking his first NFL job as the assistant offensive line coach with the Kansas City Chiefs. According to D’Alessandris, the position held numerous similarities and differences.
“Chan was hired as offensive coordinator with the Chiefs and there was a position open as the assistant offensive line coach and he asked if I was interested,” he recalled. “It was my opportunity to get into the NFL. It was somewhat different because I was always in the lead role position, but now I had to step back and let the other guy do his job and assist him. I remember thinking what I would want and I would want someone to help me as much as I can so that’s what I did. In terms of coaching professionals from students, there are some differences because they are professional men. But the fact of them being accountable and giving their best is no different. I don’t care if it is junior high school, high school, college or the NFL, it’s their obligation and my obligation to give the absolute best. I expect nothing else but that from them and myself, and that’s how I look at it.”
After two seasons in Kansas City he went along with Chan Gailey to Buffalo where he was the Bills’ offensive line coach for the past three seasons. Now, he comes to San Diego and he couldn’t be more excited.
“What a grand opportunity this is,” he said. “I’ve always followed the Chargers and I knew what this team was and how they have always been a class organization and have had some great football teams. I knew of Mike (McCoy), but I didn’t know him personally. A number of people put us in contact, but I’d say Coach (Ken) Whisenhunt was also instrumental in me getting this opportunity. We had mutual friends and relationships in this league, so my name came across and they were very straightforward in giving me an opportunity and I really appreciate the opportunity. All the planets and stars were in alignment, so I am fortunate to be here with Coach McCoy and Coach Whisenhunt.”
So now that he is leading the charge for the Bolts offensive line, what are some of the key philosophies D’Alessandris plans on instilling for the front five?
“Number one we have to be disciplined,” he said. “We have to know our assignment and be able to execute our assignment. I will tell them this right away that if you know what to do and how to do it, then you will be pretty successful. If you know what to do but don’t know how to do it you won’t be very successful and vice-versa. So putting those two things together with discipline and working with unity is important. We have to get all our guys working together as one. All our players have to develop a tight bond and communication is going to be very important. So we have to start the building blocks and the foundation right away when things start up again in April.”
Overall, D’Alessandris brings a lifetime of experience with him to the Chargers and his credentials appear to make him an ideal fit to improve San Diego’s offensive line.