Kevin Armstrong
Tuesday May 5th, 2009

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.

The two were able to cheer together again when O'Brien took the Boston College job in 1997. Spaziani came in as running backs coach, but found himself in a familiar position after O'Brien shook up his staff following his second year. Again shifting from offense to defense, Spaziani instituted his base sets as defensive coordinator, fashioning a winning outfit based on interchangeable parts. "He downplays being a genius, but it's no mistake that we're always positioned correctly," said ACC Defensive Player of the Year Mark Herzlich.

On Thursdays, Spaziani worked on building team camaraderie. One week in 1999, Spaziani came upon graduate assistant Mike Siravo eating meatballs from Comella's, an Italian restaurant owned by a former Eagle player in nearby West Newton. Spaziani told Siravo to pick up more meatballs and a bucket of pasta. Soon, the meal became tradition. The staff-wide Thursday event always includes Sinatra songs from a coach's iPod and checkered tablecloths that make the meeting room look like an Italian restaurant. "When guys hear That's Amore playing at 11:30, they know it's lunch time," said Siravo.

Ten years after coming to Boston, O'Brien left for NC State three winters ago. Torn at first, Spaziani decided not to follow, but rather to care for his elderly mother, Regina, in New Jersey and put his name in for the head BC job. Named the interim coach for the 2006 Meineke Car Care Bowl, Spaziani briefly kept together a staff that would ultimately lose six coaches to O'Brien's Wolfpack and another who went his own way. Only linebackers coach Bill McGovern would remain, but the Eagles still won their 10th game for the first time since 1984. In the locker room afterward, McGovern watched his boss celebrate.

"Hip-hip hooray!" Spaziani shouted, pointing one finger in the air.

"Hip-hip hooray!" he repeated, continuing until all 10 fingers were in the air.

Jeff Jagodzinski, who served as an O'Brien assistant at BC in the late '90s, won the head coaching gig over Spaziani, but athletic director Gene DeFilippo encouraged Spaziani to stay on as defensive coordinator. "He was a company man," DeFilippo said.

When Jagodzinski interviewed for the New York Jets coaching vacancy in January, DeFilippo dismissed him for disobeying orders not to seek employment outside his current contract. Then, he finally rewarded Spaziani's patience by making him head coach. Knowing Spaziani was a likely candidate for the opening, former players had gone to bat for him. "He was the perfect fit for what we needed," former linebacker Brian Toal said.

At a January basketball game against Wake Forest, BC introduced the 63-year-old Spaziani, whose mustache is now dusted with gray hairs, as head coach. "Usually I tell people that he is the best Penn State quarterback to ever ... be switched to defensive end," DeFilippo said. "This time I was a bit more formal."

Spaziani was a bit more formal, too. He wore a pink collared shirt, navy blue blazer, khaki pants and white sneakers, but his maroon tie, which features four quarterbacks readying to throw, stole the show. The coach received the tie as a birthday gift many moons ago when, walking the streets of New York City's Little Italy, he and a friend happened upon a street vendor selling merchandise out of a suitcase.

"You got ties?" the friend asked.

"Yes," the vendor replied.

"Ones with footballs on it?" the friend asked.

"Yeah, right here," the vendor said. "It's got 80 percent wins in it."

"I'll take it," Spaziani said.

The friend purchased it, and Spaziani still wears it regularly. "I guess we're about to see," he said, "how many wins the old quarterback has in him now."

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