Sixty-one years is a long time to wait, but patience had never been one of Frank Spaziani’s issues.
He spent eight years at the University of Virginia under George Welsh, an unfathomable lifespan at a time when college coaches have the life expectancy of an insect.
Every so often, reporters would wonder about Spaziani and the coaches on Welsh’s staff.
“It’s kind of a philosophical thing,” Spaziani said. “Everybody has different ways they go about things, grow into stuff.’’
Reporters at Virginia would ask him, “Why are you guys still with George Welsh? Don’t you have any ambition?”
He could have taken it as an insult. It wasn’t like he didn’t have a good thing going with Welsh. They went to four bowl games at Virginia on top of the three they reached with Navy.
But the matter was more philosophical for Spaziani, “a Nietzsche thing,” he calls it. He could look around the country and point to schools, be it Penn State or Virginia Tech, where staffs had been together for decades.
“Staffs stay together, it’s a value thing,” he said. “Some of them had opportunities and balanced and weighed things out. The grass is always greener. If that’s what you want to do, and that’s what you need to fulfill yourself, then that’s how you have to think. But you can fulfill yourself other ways, too. That doesn’t mean anything more than that.
“What’s it worth to uproot your family? Where’s the balance to it? Are you willing to take that chance, not take it? Somebody will look at it and say you don’t have ambition. Somebody will say you have reckless ambition.”
Nothing about Spaziani has ever been reckless. He is loose and casual, but still measured with an even temperament. Above all else though, he was loyal.
It’s the signature of the 16 years he spent at Boston College. It was the reason he was hired in 2009 by then-athletic director Gene DeFilippo. He was the antithesis, in DeFilippo’s eyes, of his predecessor Jeff Jagodzinski, who was fired after two seasons when he tried to test the NFL waters.
But the program declined during each of his four seasons. He came into this season with his job security in question and once a season-ending loss to North Carolina State dropped the Eagles to 2-10, it was all but a formality he would be relieved of his duties, even with his years of loyal service to the university.
When he spoke to his players in the locker room at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, there was never a hint it would be his last words to the team.
“He just told us we’ve got to keep our heads up, we’ve got to keep trying to make strides forward and we’re going to get this thing turned around,” said junior receiver Alex Amidon. “Just positive things. He always tried to stay positive.”
But the writing was on the wall. The résumé Spaziani left was damning. BC lost to all 11 ranked teams they faced during his tenure. The defense was a shell of the units he took pride in building for 10 years. Only one team in Eagles history lost more games than this year’s team.
He inherited more than his share of instability, watching Jagodzinski’s 2008 recruiting class whittle down from 29 to the nine that remained this season, leaving him with little senior leadership.
Spaziani also created some for himself on his coaching staff. He parted ways with Gary Tranquill and Kevin Rogers, who took some of Spaziani’s assistants with him to Temple. Spaziani hired five new assistant coaches before the start of this season.
It was also obvious that he was still very much a defensive coordinator at heart. It wasn’t unusual to hear players say their conversations with Spaziani were minimal if they had them at all.
In practice, he would watch from midfield, disconnected from the defense he used to coach and uninterested in imposing on the offense that Doug Martin was fine-tuning.
He didn’t realize how important his old job was until he took on his new one.
“You learn how important assistant coaches are,” he said. “Man, it’s really important.”
Spaziani wasn’t afraid to discipline players, even if it was to the detriment of his record. He suspended senior receiver Colin Larmond for four games for disciplinary reasons and sat his top returning rusher, Deuce Finch, because of personal issues.
“Losing both of them hurt,” Amidon said. “But you can’t ever question a reason for the coaches doing what they do. That’s the way I look at it. It definitely hurt, but they had their reasons.”
The bonds Spaziani built with some players were tighter than others. Naturally, he connected more with the defense, where he tended to be more hands-on. Senior defensive back Jim Noel got to know Spaziani when he was at Everett High. Spaziani came to his basketball game. From that point on, Noel said, they had a great relationship.
“Spaz was one of the main reasons I came here,” he said. “I believed in the feelings he had for the people on the defense and just people in general.”
He saw the toll losing took on Spaziani.
“Spaz cares tremendously for this program,” Noel said. “I think he’d give his own life for this program and that’s what people don’t see on the outside. That’s what players see on the inside.”
There’s a den in the office Spaziani will leave behind lit dimly and decorated to entertain. The flat-screen television was rarely on. But his iPod played a lot of Springsteen, some Beatles, some Beach Boys.
He kept a few books scattered across a long coffee table. Terry Taylor’s “Stache” seemed to be there for laughs. Joe Torre’s “Yankee Years” and Tony Dungy’s “Quiet Strength” seemed to be there for wisdom. Laurence Gane’s “Introducing Nietzsche” seemed to be there for reasons somewhere in between.
Spaziani would pronounce it Nitschke, like the linebacker, and even though it sounded like he was joking, you were never quiet sure.
Every now and then, he’d delve into the existential, like when he thought of those reporters in Virginia and ambition versus complacency.
He started to tell a story about an uncle who used to say, “You’ve got to learn to be satisfied.” The thing about that philosophy, Spaziani said, was his uncle was a junk man.
“But the guy was the happiest guy I know,” he said. “He was the kind of guy that traveled to Germany with his wife, stayed 36 hours, and said, ‘Ok, I’ve seen it.’ ”
The parallels between that trip and Spaziani’s 61-year journey to becoming a head coach are vague, but they’re there.
“I know a lot of coaches that have moved around chasing their tail and regret it,” Spaziani said. “Is that wrong? You don’t know,” he said. “You’ve got to live it yourself.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org