Spaziani ready to make most of chance as BC's new head coach
As a PSU QB, Frank Spaziani learned things don't always go according to plan
Understanding how to adjust served him well as a player, assistant and coach
After decades on the gridiron, patience and loyalty earned Spaziani the head gig
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- The envelope, addressed to Boston College coach Frank Spaziani, arrived in the mail at the Eagles' third-floor football offices a few years ago. It contained a piece of paper and a DVD from an old friend. "The note told me I might want to take a look at the quarterback," Spaziani said.
It was not a highlight tape, per se. Mixed in with graduation moments and prom pageantry, the home video footage captured a true throwback from Arthur L. Johnson Regional High in Clark, N.J. The quarterback wore No. 14 and displayed a powerful arm. To gauge others' interest, Spaziani, then the Eagles' defensive coordinator, gathered his assistants in a meeting room, showed them the film and invited their evaluations. Recognizing their boss as a prep star some 40 years earlier, the coaches burst out laughing.
"None of them wanted me," Spaziani said after BC's April 25 spring game.
At least one recruiter kept a straight face while courting Spaziani in 1964. Then a 37-year-old associate coach with thin legs, thick-framed glasses and a penchant for procuring quarterbacks, Penn State's Joe Paterno visited Spaziani's working-class hometown multiple times. "He threw well enough, but couldn't move," said the former Brown quarterback, who made the 6-foot-2, 210-pound slinger his final signee before ascending to head coach. "He thought he could play baseball, too."
As a freshman, Spaziani would play on the first-year team and participate in spring drills. As a sophomore, he would play varsity football in the fall and then baseball in the spring. But as Spaziani found out then, and kept finding out later on at BC, things don't always go according to plan. In Week 2 of that second season, the Michigan State defense knocked starter Jack White out of the game with a bruised hip. Spaziani hurried into the huddle. That day Spartans fans wore buttons to encourage defensive end Bubba Smith's viciousness. To the wide-eyed Spaziani, the printed message was clear: "Kill, Bubba! Kill!"
By game's end, Spaziani had completed just 6-of-13 passes for 87 yards and rushed for -45 yards, a total which kick-started his career's downward spiral. Though Spaziani completed two more passes the rest of the year, Paterno asked him to focus on football that offseason. Spaziani refused, holding firm to his spring baseball ambitions, but made it clear he'd return to the gridiron in the fall. While pitching, though, Spaziani hurt his elbow and spent a silent spring away from both fields. "I needed Tommy John surgery before Tommy John," he said. "When I got back to football I was behind the cheerleaders, the trainers and the water boy."
His coaches presented Spaziani with two options: hold a clipboard or train that once-golden arm to perform swim moves against opposing offensive lines. "I went from being pampered to being thrown into the alligator pit and told to swim ashore," Spaziani said.
Used to shifting gears while driving his banana-yellow 1967 Corvette around campus, Spaziani silently switched to defensive end, swerving in and out of blocks, wrapping his arms around the new concepts, familiarizing himself with rush schemes drawn up so the ends could attack across the middle. "He was a true leader," said Paterno, who reached his first Orange Bowl in 1968 with Spaziani as a captain and his second in 1969 with his former player working as a graduate assistant.
Spaziani's team-first attitude did not go unnoticed. When George Welsh, who coached Penn State's offensive backfield while Spaziani was playing, needed an assistant at Navy in 1975, he listened to Paterno, who recommended Spaziani. "I liked that he didn't bitch about the position change," Welsh said.
A free-spirited Spaziani arrived in Annapolis shortly thereafter. By then, the mustache he still sports had grown atop his upper lip. He befriended fellow assistant coach Tom O'Brien, a former Midshipman player fresh off a tour of duty with the Marines in Japan. "He looked like someone you could have a beer with," O'Brien said of Spaziani.
The pair of twentysomethings got along famously. Walking into a piano bar, Spaziani would request Twist-and-Shout or Jumpin' Jack Flash. "I would tell people I was out with Tony Orlando," O'Brien said.
Welsh took the pair with him when he left for Virginia in 1982. As conservative as his flat-top haircut, Welsh instructed his assistants to dress up in shirts and ties and begin their workdays at 5 a.m. During many practices, Welsh felt Spaziani was the best coach on the field. He elevated him to be his first defensive coordinator in 1986. When Welsh decided to change defensive formations in 1990, Spaziani fled north for a five-year stint in the Canadian Football League during which his teams played for three Grey Cups. "We raised Molsons in his honor at a driveway tailgate," O'Brien said.