Reunion at The Heights

Navy buddies finally engage

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / October 16, 2009

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The question was philosophical, about the similarities and differences between Tom O’Brien and Frank Spaziani, longtime friends who will be coaching against each other for the first time tomorrow afternoon when Spaziani’s Boston College team meets O’Brien’s North Carolina State team at Alumni Stadium.

For Spaziani, the Jersey guy whose in-your-face approach to football and life has finally taken him to the top level of college coaching at the age of 62, the inquiry was an opportunity to show a new side of his personality.

“Well, we are like snowflakes,’’ he said. “Everybody is different.’’

Say hello to Frank Spaziani, Zenmaster.

“You like that?’’ he said with a laugh. “It’s all in there, 62 years of nonsense. If you just keep shaking, some things will come out.’’

What comes out every time the subject of the two coaches is mentioned is the respect and friendship they have for each other in a world of big-time coaching that is far different from when the men first met 34 years ago.

“It was the summer of 1975, and I just came back to the Naval Academy [his alma mater] and was on George Welsh’s staff,’’ said O’Brien, speaking with the precision and focus that has defined his coaching style. “Frank had been hired in the winter and we just got along from the start.’’

Spaziani laughed when asked about it.

“Yeah, that sounds right,’’ he said. “He’s got a lot better memory than I do. I had gotten there in January or February.’’

The bond between assistant coaches is often strong, since they can wind up doing much of the heavy lifting at a much lower salary than the head coach.

For O’Brien, who turned 61 last week, and for Spaziani, 62 last April, that generally meant finishing their coaching duties in Annapolis in the afternoon and then heading to a place just off the Naval Academy grounds called the Little Campus Inn, which is now called Galway Bay. As it was then, it is an old-fashioned Irish pub, where stories are told every night.

For Spaziani, the Italian kid from Jersey, and O’Brien, the Irish Catholic kid from Cincinnati, one of the nightly rituals was talking about the future.

“The plan was, whoever got a head coaching job first would hire the other guy,’’ said O’Brien.

“It was something like that,’’ said Spaziani. “I’m sure drinking was involved.’’

It took a while, and longer for Spaziani than O’Brien. Spaziani seemed destined to be a career assistant as the years and jobs kept coming and going past him. When Welsh went from the Naval Academy to the University of Virginia, he brought both coaches with him. O’Brien eventually became the offensive coordinator, Spaziani the defensive coordinator.

But by the time O’Brien was hired as head coach at BC in 1997, Spaziani had left the Naval Academy and was in the Canadian Football League, spending time as defensive coordinator for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Calgary Stampeders.

When O’Brien was putting together a staff at BC, he thought about Spaziani.

“We were up in Calgary with the family,’’ said Spaziani, “and I had made the decision I wanted to get back into the States, but not just anywhere. When Tom got the Boston College job, I had already known a lot about Boston College, having recruited against them. I knew a lot about Tom and felt it was a good situation, so I made the call and the rest is history.’’

For 10 seasons, Spaziani and O’Brien worked together, rebuilding the Eagles into a solid Division 1-A program, clean and successful. Spaziani also awaited a call to be a head coach.

When O’Brien left for North Carolina State three years ago, Spaziani had an offer to go with him, but family commitments here overrode it.

Last January, when BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo fired O’Brien’s successor, Jeff Jagodzinski, Spaziani finally got his opportunity.

“He’s a perfect fit for the job,’’ said O’Brien.

The change in status for Spaziani has not changed the relationship between the two men.

Spaziani knows what O’Brien did for him and what he did for BC. When asked if he felt O’Brien was not getting as much credit as he should for what he did at BC, Spaziani paused before answering, “I appreciate what he did here. I understand what he did. Tom is meticulous and he is a hell of a head coach.’’

O’Brien says returning to BC this time will be no big deal in one sense, since he did his “coming home’’ stuff two years ago in his first season at North Carolina State.

But the pregame meeting the opposing coaches generally have at midfield will be different, much different. Both teams desperately need this victory to get their seasons headed in the right direction.

For O’Brien, there is no doubt BC made the right move in hiring his friend.

“I know he’s a good coach,’’ said O’Brien. “A great guy and a good friend, somebody you can trust.’’