Commentary

Spaziani already a BC crowd favorite

Originally Published: March 5, 2009
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- When a school holds a press conference to announce the hiring of a new head football coach, it is customary to say that the school "introduced" him. That is not what happened at Boston College on Jan. 13. Everyone on campus, and every Eagle fan who ever tried to park near Alumni Stadium, already knew Spaz.

About the nickname: Not everyone on campus calls Frank Spaziani "Spaz." The students, including the ones who play for him, call him "Coach Spaz."

Everyone else? He's Spaz. He's been Spaz going back at least to his days at Penn State, when he started at defensive end on Joe Paterno's first undefeated team in 1968, Spaz as an assistant coach at Navy and Virginia for 16 seasons under George Welsh, Spaz ever since he came to Boston College in 1997 with former head coach Tom O'Brien.

[+] EnlargeFrank Spaziani
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonFrank Spaziani is already a hit at BC.

For the last 10 seasons, under O'Brien and Jeff Jagodzinski, Spaz has been the defensive coordinator. In that time, to Eagles fans, Spaz became as well known as the head coaches. It might have been the thick mustache. It might have been the towel that he wears over his left shoulder on the sideline, a beacon for his defensive players on the field. It might even have been the way that his defenses have signed a long-term lease among the best in the nation.

But around campus, it might have been the way that Spaz treats people.

The deal with Spaz is, he's a golden-rule guy: Treat others the way you want to be treated. For most of us, it's a goal. For Spaz, it's a reflex, like breathing, or watching his defense force another three-and-out.

Spaz can't walk down the hall on any floor of the Yawkey Center without stopping to talk. He teases. He listens. He smiles. Mostly, he cares. He stops Maria Ferreira, the afternoon and evening housekeeper, in the hall and says, "New haircut? I like it!" Maria beams.

"She's nice," Spaz said. "I got her to teach me to say "Open the door" in Portuguese: 'Abra a porta.'"

Lt. Tom King of the campus police is in charge of team security. He travels with the Eagles.

"If you see him on the sideline, because he's a big guy and he's got good pipes, he can be intimidating," King said. "One on one, you won't meet a nicer guy."

King brought up the night that BC "introduced" Spaz at halftime of a basketball game. Spaz saw him and came over to say hello. As they talked, a football team manager leaned out of the stands and shook his hand.

"One of the team managers leaned down and shook his hand," King said, "and Spaz said, 'I just wanted to tell you, you guys are doing a great job.' He congratulates the managers."

Assistant athletic director Joe Shirley is in charge of facilities. One of the first things that Spaz did as head coach was to ask Shirley to take the conference table out of his office and replace it with a sofa and chairs.

You can't talk around a conference table. You kidding me? Too formal.

"He wants to make it like a living room," Shirley said, "so when parents [of recruits] come to campus, they're comfortable like in their living room."

Men's basketball assistant Mo Cassara mentioned to a friend that Spaz had come by the basketball office in Conte Forum three times to congratulate the staff on victories this season.

[+] EnlargeFrank Spaziani
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonThe Eagles hope to hoist many trophies during Frank Spaziani's tenure.

"I can't tell you how much that means to Al and our staff," Cassara told the friend, a guy by the name of Gene DeFilippo. He is the athletic director at Boston College, the man who gave the head coaching job to Spaz nearly two months ago. DeFilippo is convinced Spaz is the right hire. But he also knows if he hadn't promoted Spaz, the entire Boston College campus would have mutinied.

"That was probably my best Christmas gift, having Spaz hired," Shirley said.

"Oh, God, I hope Spaz gets the job," Chris Cameron, the assistant athletic director who deals with the media, recalled thinking.

Senior All-ACC linebacker Mark Herzlich went to bat for Spaz, calling DeFilippo at home to make his case. "He's a guy that everybody loves," Herzlich told DeFilippo. "He's a great coach. He's a great person. He's a terrific motivator."

Spaz's friends fretted because they had been through this before. When O'Brien lit out for NC State after the 2006 season, DeFilippo narrowed the field down to Spaz and Jagodzinski, a former Eagle assistant and the offensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers.

"We are more than close friends," DeFilippo said of Spaz. They walk together at lunch. DeFilippo has been on the receiving end of Spaz's sense of humor. Back when the George O'Leary scandal at Notre Dame caused every athletic director in America to check every résumé, Spaz called DeFilippo and said that he had to see him immediately.

DeFilippo braced himself.

"It's about my résumé," Spaz said. "I just want you to know. I did not take Pork Chop Hill all by myself."

DeFilippo is still laughing. He loves Spaz. But in December 2006, when O'Brien left for NC State, DeFilippo did not promote Spaz. He picked Jagodzinski. On the field, Jagodzinski proved DeFilippo right. In two seasons, he won 20 games and consecutive ACC Atlantic Division championships.

And Spaz?

Gene DeFilippo
AP Photo/Lisa PooleAthletic director Gene DeFilippo is convinced Frank Spaziani is the right man for the job.

"Was he disappointed?" DeFilippo asked. "Sure he was. Did he pout? Did he become negative? Did he do anything like that? No."

Cameron is one of the few who heard Spaz say anything. Cameron called Spaz to commiserate. He got a joke in return.

"Yeah," Spaz said. "I wanted to let you know. My coronation has been canceled."

Spaz wouldn't have been the first coach to get passed over and make waves all the way to another job. He could have gone to NC State with O'Brien.

"A tremendous personality," O'Brien said the other day. "He's got a great ability to lead and motivate. You can see it in the way his players have played for him. We made a living at Boston College recruiting character kids who played hard and played smart and were willing to do whatever it took to win a football game, certainly within the rules."

Spaz returned to his defensive coordinator job as if nothing had happened.

Spaz's wife, Laura, and their three kids loved living in the Boston area. His mother, living where Spaz grew up in New Jersey, needed attention he couldn't have provided from Raleigh. "He stays the course," said new defensive coordinator Bill McGovern, Spaz's defensive sidekick for the last 10 years. "He goes back to what he believes in. He'd be willing to step back and evaluate things each and every day. 'Hey, this can be good. We can make something out of this.'"

These days, Boston College is knocking on the door of the college elite. An applicant who doesn't run a 4.6 40 needs a 1900 on his SAT to get the admissions office to answer the phone.

Spaz is a bridge to the school's heritage, the time when Irish- and Italian-Americans arrived in Chestnut Hill as the first in their families to go to college. Boston College served as the blue-collar, middle-class alternative to the Harvards and Radcliffes across the Charles River. Many of the men and women who work at BC, the people who run the school and make it run -- the vice presidents and the secretaries and the brass in the police department and the assistant athletic directors -- are of that generation.

"BC is middle-class, hard-working people," Shirley said. "Spaz portrays that better than anybody I've ever been around."

The values he espouses are the values he learned in the Clark, N.J., home of Joseph and Regina Spaziani.

"My dad, he never had a vacation," Spaz said. "That was the kind of work ethic I was around. I tell my kids. I didn't go on a plane until I was 18. I don't think I left New Jersey until I went to college. There were no vacations, no sick days. My mother worked in a factory. When she had her two-week vacation, she cleaned the house. That was her vacation.

"I jerk around, kid around with everybody all the time," Spaz said. "Practical joke, laughing, sarcastic Jersey humor. … It goes back to my upbringing. That's my roots. My parents, they trusted. It was that generation. The policemen were right. The teachers were right. The politicians were right. The firemen. The doctors were right. Doctors said, 'Cut your toe off,' you cut your toe off. You go, 'Hey, I have a headache!' My mother says, 'The doctor thinks you should cut your toe off.' I'm exaggerating, but that's what happened. That's the way I was brought up. They didn't know what was going on in the country. They were trying to fit in. Don't make waves."

[+] EnlargeFrank Spaziani
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe BC community is rooting for Frank Spaziani.

Spaz didn't make waves. He never has. After his football career at Penn State concluded in 1968, Spaz, thinking himself free from the social shackles of Paterno, grew muttonchops and a Fu Manchu. That lasted until Paterno saw it. Paterno told Spaz to shave. Spaz lashed out at Paterno. He did not play football anymore, and he could grow hair anywhere he damn well pleased.

Then he went home and shaved.

Two years later, he grew a mustache. He still has it.

"I was out of Joe's shadow," Spaz said. "That's the kind of power he had over me. It took me two years. In fact, I'm waiting for him to call me and tell me to shave now."

He is the same Spaz who played defensive end for Paterno.

"God, he was such a great teammate," said Mike Reid, the 1969 Outland Trophy winner and All-America tackle who lined up alongside Spaz. "A lot of guys had more ability. Absolutely no one on the team had more heart. On the field, you had to drive a stake through his heart to stop him."

There are players like that today. They are harder to find.

"There's the expectations," Spaz said. "It's just like our society. There's no sittin' and waitin'. Pay your dues, and learning, being taught, understanding that you're not going to be a star right off the bat."

He says it without even realizing he is talking about himself. Forty years ago, Spaz began his coaching career as a graduate assistant for Paterno. He sat and he waited, paid his dues, learned. No one ever had to tell him he wouldn't be a star right off the bat. He never expected to be.

"He isn't one of those self-promoters who was going to get out there," O'Brien said. "God has plans for all of us. It was a great decision for Frank to stay there."

And so Boston College had a decision to make for that Jan. 13 press conference.

"We were wondering whether we would have to do it in Conte Forum so that we could let 9,000 people come to the press conference," DeFilippo said, "or were we going to do it in Yawkey and pack everybody in like sardines. … We decided we'd all inhale and fit as many people as we could into Yawkey."

The sardines watched DeFilippo make the announcement. DeFilippo did what was only natural. He draped a towel over Spaz's left shoulder. The crowd -- Spaz's crowd -- laughed with delight.

"They absolutely saw him as one of their own," McGovern said. "One of our guys. He made good. One of the boys from the neighborhood. Hey, he got out. He made it to the top floor, right? We're down here in the back boiler room. He made it to the top floor. That's great. He's got the key to the executive washroom."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com