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Stabilizing force

Longtime assistant Spaziani is settling in as head coach at BC

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / January 23, 2009
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The walls on Frank Spaziani's new office remain barren, the floor littered with cardboard boxes he moved from down the hall on the third floor of Boston College's Yawkey Athletic Center. The room feels big to him, a bit strange and difficult to get used to. He is uncertain how and when he will decorate. "It's a little pretentious," Spaziani said. "Maybe I can get settled in."

For almost 40 years, Spaziani had been comfortable working in cramped assistant coaching offices, adhering to what a coach told him long ago: Do your job, do your job, do your job, and something good will happen. Most people get what they deserve. Spaziani recalled those words often. It was the first thing he thought after he became the head coach at BC Jan. 13, the position he wanted more than anything else.

His new surroundings, if unfamiliar, signify the conclusion of a coaching odyssey for Spaziani, the 61-year-old son of blue-collar, first-generation Italian-Americans, the hollering, mustachioed coach who has prowled the Eagles' sideline wearing a visor, sunglasses, and a yellow towel draped over his left shoulder for the last 12 seasons.

Spaziani could have left BC two years ago, figuring the school owed him the head coaching position after 10 years of service, figuring he had ably replaced Tom O'Brien as interim head coach and rallied the Eagles to a bowl victory, figuring a man deserves something more after he's coached at four colleges and in two countries.

But Spaziani stayed even after Jeff Jagodzinski was hired. His parents worked the same jobs and lived in the same house for more than four decades. He played football for Penn State, where the coach hasn't changed for 43 years. He had worked under the same head coach at Navy and Virginia, George Welsh, for 15 years, with largely the same people. Spaziani liked BC, and more, he understood loyalty. He went back to work as defensive coordinator and waited for another opportunity.

"Now is just my time," Spaziani said. "Something good happened."

Working-class background
Joseph Spaziani worked in Clark, N.J., building houses. He built his own home in 1950. He lived there until he died. Regina Spaziani went to interview at a plant that made Regina vacuum cleaners. Her eventual boss asked her name. She got the job. She worked there for 40 years, until she retired.

Both of Spaziani's parents emigrated from Italy, and they felt lucky to have work, like most folks in Clark. Spaziani knew no one growing up who moved or took a vacation.

"No one became a senator from my town," Spaziani said. "If you became a lawyer or a dentist or something along those lines, you really made it."

When the guidance counselor at Arthur L. Johnson High School asked Spaziani what he wanted to become, he said, "Baseball player." He had reason to believe so. People across central New Jersey knew who Spaziani was - an ace pitcher and a rifle-armed quarterback.

He was the last player Joe Paterno recruited to Penn State while serving as an assistant coach; Paterno's first year as head coach, 1966, was Spaziani's freshman year. "He had a good arm," Paterno said. "But we had a couple kids who were a little better than he was."

The coaches at Penn State made Spaziani a running back, and then, for good, a defensive end, the first of many high school quarterbacks Paterno would convert into program-defining defenders. Spaziani became a team captain, and Paterno made him a graduate assistant after his playing days.

"I thought he was smarter than that, to be a coach," Paterno said. "Bright kid. He could be good at anything. If he had gone into business, he'd be the president of the corporation. He's not afraid to work, and he's not afraid to make tough decisions."

Spaziani decided he would teach high school after his apprenticeship at Penn State. He went to Seton Hall at night and earned his certificate, then got a job near his hometown. The head coach where he taught remembered he had played and asked if he would help. Coaching offered the guidance of teaching without the hassle of teaching.

"I realized I wasn't cut out to grade papers," Spaziani said.

His first break came when Paterno called Welsh, then the coach at Navy. Welsh had coached running backs at Penn State while Spaziani played, and he brought Spaziani on his staff. "I'm embarrassed to tell you what I made back then," Spaziani said.

But he loved his experience at the Naval Academy. He met two other young coaches, Tom O'Brien and, two years after he started, Art Markos. (An older coach named Steve Belichick scouted then for Navy. His son Bill, not yet 10 years old, bounded around the office.) They would coach together for the next 15 years.

O'Brien, Markos, and Spaziani bonded at Navy, three young coaches packed in a room no larger than a side section of Spaziani's new office at BC. They learned from Welsh and tried to outcoach one another on the practice field. They took trips together to Alabama and Florida State for research. They would go out together in Annapolis, Md., and tell girls Spaziani was Tony Orlando; the resemblance was close enough that some believed it.

"I looked forward to coming to work," Markos said. "Coaching is a grind. But it wasn't a grind with Spaz."

Winning personality
Shortly after Notre Dame fired George O'Leary in 2001 for lying on his résumé, BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo received a message from his secretary. "Frank is on the phone," she told him. "He said he needs to talk to you immediately."

Later that day, Spaziani burst into DeFilippo's office.

"Geno, I've got something to tell you," Spaziani said gravely as DeFilippo braced behind his desk. "It's about my résumé. I didn't take Pork Chop Hill all by myself." DeFilippo exploded into laughter.

"I have a peculiar sense of humor with stuff like that," Spaziani said. "I just had that aptitude. It comes from teaching. I would always teach, and kids just listened. I've been able to get along with CEOs, and I've been able to get along with people like my dad that were way down the pole."

Spaziani's personality keeps people close to him. Paterno met Spaziani's mother only once, when he recruited Spaziani, and Paterno still calls her by her nickname, "Rexy." Spaziani speaks with Welsh's wife on occasion. Ten days after his promotion, phone calls, cards, and e-mails poured in, a few from people he hasn't spoken with in decades. O'Brien was at a coaches convention the day after Spaziani was hired, and peer after peer came up to him and wished his friend well.

"He's paid his dues," O'Brien said. "A lot of people were very happy for Frank Spaziani."

They not only like Spaziani, they respect his coaching ability. Welsh said Spaziani was one of the best teachers of technique he ever had, and Paterno said he would have hired him had a spot on his staff come open. BC's defenses have consistently ranked among the nation's best. Fans see his enthusiasm during games, but his preparation, more than anything, allows success.

During the 2000 season, Markos received a call from his old friend. Spaziani wanted a new punt fake defense for the Eagles, and he recalled one Navy used in the mid-'70s. "What the heck are you talking about?" Markos asked him. Then he dug through files in the basement and found the play, which BC still employs.

"He has a great feel for the situation," O'Brien said. "Situations change daily, sometimes by the periods during practice. He's been able to change whatever he is doing by the mood of the team, what needs to happen to get them in the best situation."

Northern exposure
Spaziani's time in the Canadian Football League may have helped more than he realized. He left Virginia because he wanted to try to break into professional football, and Spaziani spent five years in the CFL, two with Winnipeg and three with Calgary. When friends asked Spaziani what Canada was like, he told them about the time he was driving in his car and heard a radio announcer proclaim the airport had closed because a moose had run loose on the runway. "I tell people it was like being in the Witness Protection Program," he said.

But he and his wife, Laura, loved the experience. Calgary was beautiful. Spaziani returned home from the office each night by 6, in time for him and Laura to play golf or hike. They had yet to have children, and they did not own their home.

"It was like a big adventure," Laura said. "We had no responsibilities except for one another."

Football felt pure and fun. The innovation of Canadian football surprised and challenged Spaziani. Teams used 12 players, and the structure of the game - three downs instead of four, a longer field - invited new, wild offenses. Teams utilized six wide receivers, constant shotgun, empty backfields, strategies that provided more than novelty. In Canada, Spaziani developed defenses to stop the shotgun spread offense, now the dominant method used in college football, years before coaches in America had heard of it.

"He was exposed to another kind of football," said Wally Buono, the head coach at the time in Calgary. "I don't want to sound bold here, but when you look at what was played - one-back, no-back, all-receiver offense, quarterback in shotgun - that's what was played the majority of the time. So when Frank comes down to BC, I think his exposure to that style of offense was already had. He knew more about that than a guy who hadn't seen that. It's made everybody adapt. All that stuff, honestly, was done in Canada in the early '90s before it was en vogue."

They might have never left Canada had O'Brien not been hired at BC in 1997. Laura had always wanted to live in New England, and Joseph, their first son, had just been born. They wanted to raise him in America.

Feeling at home
The Spazianis fell for Boston immediately. The school offered a stable environment similar to Navy and Virginia, and there was a major city. In Charlottesville, Va., angry fans sometimes called the Spazianis to complain after losses, Laura said; that never happened in Boston.

Frank decided he would never leave, even after DeFilippo chose Jagodzinski over him when O'Brien left for North Carolina State. Spaziani was disappointed, but "you get over it," he said.

"I wasn't going to be a gypsy coach to become a head coach," Spaziani said. "The lifestyle, the place I'm at, people I'm working with, was all a priority with me. I've always been at real good schools.

"If it didn't happen, it wasn't going to not fulfill my ambition. I wouldn't feel unfulfilled if I didn't make it."

Now Spaziani has made it, the apex of his career, into the big office on the third floor. His three children were excited because it has three TVs; they want to put an Xbox with one.

On the Monday night before his hiring became official, Spaziani laid in bed with Laura and told her something special might happen the next day. The next afternoon, well-wishers packed a meeting room and watched DeFilippo introduce Spaziani as BC's head coach. One of them, a woman, found Spaziani afterward and hugged him.

"Frank," she said. "How lucky are we?"

Spaziani smiled, like a man who had done his job and got what he deserved.

"Blessed," Spaziani said. "We're blessed."

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com

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