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Bob Ryan

School should know pros and cons by now

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / January 6, 2009
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On a day when Gene DeFilippo should have been doing nothing but accepting accolades for his basketball team, the Boston College athletic director was fretting over the immediate future of his football team.

But c'mon, Gene, it's Interview Season in the world of professional football. You can't be naive about this.

The BC AD has a good football coach. Jeff Jagodzinski took the team Tom O'Brien left him in 2007 and gave BC one of its best seasons ever. This past season, when his team was picked in the bottom of the ACC Atlantic Division by all the experts, he again guided the team to the ACC championship game. He is an excellent coach with excellent NFL credentials, and therein lies the problem.

After only two years DeFilippo's coach is making the goo-goo eyes at the NFL, and the AD is upset, very upset. This, he says, isn't the way the Jagodzinski/BC partnership is supposed to be working. Coach Jags has a five-year contract and DeFilippo expects him to honor it.

"I think Jags is a really fine person and a heck of a football coach," says DeFilippo. "I want a football coach who is going to be here for a long time, and I thought I had one."

An important issue, according to my colleague Mark Blaudschun, is that DeFilippo is upset because his coach initially lied to him about what was going on. DeFilippo doesn't like the timeline.

Lied? Of course, he would lie. He got caught with his hand in the cookie jar and wasn't quite ready to fess up. A lie? Oh, please. Lying makes the sports world go 'round.

This is no Bill Belichick thing going on here. Coach Jags is not committing a mortal coaching sin and consigning himself to some kind of DeFilippo-administered hell because the immediate object of his affection happens to be the New York Jets. DeFilippo would be in flip-out mode no matter what team Coach Jags was commiserating with (excuse me, interviewing with). It's not the specifics; it's the principle of the thing.

Jeff Jagodzinski has no legal "right" to interview with anyone, absent Gene DeFilippo's permission. Contrary to at least one published report, there is no clause in his five-year contract saying he would be permitted to do so after three years. He is currently obligated to BC, and BC alone.

Fine. But we're all big boys and girls. If Jeff Jagodzinski is running off to an NFL interview knowing he will infuriate his boss in so doing, may we not infer that he doesn't care, that he actually wants out of BC after just two years? In that case, why would DeFilippo think holding his football coach hostage for the next three years could be anything but counterproductive?

I hardly know Jeff Jagodzinski, who certainly seems to be a likeable guy. But I do know Gene DeFilippo, and he is a prudent man. That being the case, we can assume there is more to the story.

Here's one thing I do know: Gene DeFilippo is 100 percent committed to the best interests of Boston College. I completely opposed the BC switch from the Big East, where it was a founding institution and where the fit was ideal in every way. That is the single biggest move he has made since succeeding Chet Gladchuk as the BC AD 11 years ago. But as much as I oppose it, I respect the thought, research, and passion that went into making it. It was a monumental decision, and it's probably one Gene DeFilippo wished he hadn't had to make.

It's the same thing here.

"I've been put in a leadership position here and I've got to do the best job I can for BC," he says. "Sometimes, the best thing to do isn't the easiest."

A school like BC, which does not have the kind of ancient football tradition or residual fan base to open its doors and assume that great football players will pour through them just because, needs continuity to have a successful program. DeFilippo doesn't think that allowing a coach to go interviewing two years into a five-year contract is good for recruiting. It's about that simple.

All this sounds wonderful and high-minded, but is it realistic? Did Gene DeFilippo, a two-decade veteran of the big-time athletic world (he was at Kentucky, for God's sake), really think that just because Jeff Jagodzinski smiled, shook hands, and signed that five-year contract, thereby pledging fidelity to BC, he would automatically honor it?

What?

Jeff Jagodzinski undoubtedly thought BC was a nice job, but he had just come from eight years with the Big Boys. He was the Green Bay tight ends coach for five years, the Atlanta offensive line coach for the next two, and the Green Bay offensive coordinator in 2006. Did Gene DeFilippo really think Coach Jags had gotten the NFL out of his system?

Jeff Jagodzinski is a coach, remember, and coaches have been conditioned to believe that contracts are for their protection exclusively. Yes, there are colleges that have had various sorts of indemnity clauses written into the contracts to protect themselves against wandering coaches, but they are not the norm. Most coaches believe that when the time comes to leave, you simply act as the aggressor. You shoot first and ask questions later.

I find it difficult to believe that Gene DeFilippo honestly believes Boston College is the kind of destination school that will hold a quality coach's interest for a long time. In football especially, a school such as BC must get lucky with the right guy (i.e. Jack Bicknell in the '80s, Tom O'Brien in the last decade), because BC is - and I'm sure Gene DeFilippo hates to hear this - a steppingstone school in both football and basketball.

Quality coaches have been leaving BC for greener pastures for at least 68 years, or ever since Frank Leahy, fresh from a Sugar Bowl victory, took off for South Bend, Ind., without, as my great old friend Jack Barry would have said, a how-do-you-do?

That's not exactly a comforting thought, but that's reality. Most people in the outside world have no trouble understanding why a Jeff Jagodzinski would want to interview for an NFL job. As much as Gene DeFilippo holds the legal and ethical advantage here, the coach in question comes off as the one deserving sympathy because, after all, isn't he just trying to "better himself"? We've all heard that one already.

Gene DeFilippo is hurt and angry because he selected Jeff Jagodzinski and invested in him and now he is being jilted after two years. I think a better approach is to say, "Hey, we're a place good enough to send guys to the pros - isn't that right, Tom Coughlin? - and we'll just go out and find the next future Super Bowl coach for ourselves."

Assuming Coach Jags doesn't get the Jets job, what Gene DeFilippo needs to do is kiss and make up with his coach, assuming Jags really wants to be here. If not? Jags is good, but he's replaceable, and that's a fact.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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