Spaziani relishing new role

1st-year head coach thinking long-term

Frank Spaziani waited for his chance, and has BC in a bowl to finish off his first season. Frank Spaziani waited for his chance, and has BC in a bowl to finish off his first season. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / December 23, 2009

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It’s different now. Just as intense, but less frenetic. More purpose to it, more of a “big picture’’ feeling. Frank Spaziani says it’s been that way from the beginning, but no one noticed.

“I’ve always had a plan,’’ said the first-year Boston College head coach. “What everyone else sees is the day-to-day stuff, but I have to look beyond that. I know what I want to do, and I know how I want to do it. Now I just have to go out and do it.’’

BC did exactly that this year, finishing the regular season 8-4, which erased the doubts about Spaziani’s credentials as a rookie head coach at age 61. He’ll lead his team Saturday night in San Francisco, facing Southern Cal in the Emerald Bowl.

The Eagles started the season with no experience at quarterback, two of their best defensive players out (linebackers Mike McLaughlin and Mark Herzlich), and a new coaching staff adjusting to the players as much as the players were adjusting to them.

Even though Spaziani and many members of the staff were carry-overs, the philosophy of the head coach had changed, as had the method of doing things.

“Spaz is still Spaz,’’ said BC associate athletic director Barry Gallup. “He still has the touch with players.’’

The Eagles’ offense sputtered at times early in the season, losing one-sided games at Clemson and at Virginia Tech.

But the offense, led by running back Montel Harris and the slow development of 25-year-old freshman quarterback Dave Shinskie, eventual ly caught up with the defense and started to win games.

The Eagles were picked last in the Atlantic Division in the preseason media poll but remained in the hunt until the next-to-last weekend of the season, finishing second to Clemson.

“A good year?’’ said Spaziani, when asked about an assessment. “Sure, but in my mind, you always want to win more. The goal we had every week was to win and to win the division. That’s how you view things. But what I see is something beyond this season. There are steps that you have to take to build what you want to build.’’

Spaziani wants to build the Eagles into a BCS contender every year. He wants the same thing that Pete Carroll wants at USC, although the Trojans start with the national championship in their sights, then adjust as the games play themselves out.

BC never has been to a BCS game, but that does not diminish the size of the dream. It was only two seasons ago that the Eagles, led by quarterback Matt Ryan, were No. 2 in the country. They’ve since dropped back into more familiar territory of being a team that contends for a division title, but that does not diminish what can be possible if everything is working.

This season, more than ever, BC has been a work in progress. One step forward, two steps back. Two steps forward, one step back.

Spaziani recognized what was going to happen before it happened. “You have to look at the full body of work,’’ said Spaziani, who got the chance to be a head coach in January when Jeff Jagodzinski was fired. “It’s not just one game and it’s not just one season.’’

Spaziani says the process will take time. “If we get a couple kids, we have a chance to be real good in a couple of years,’’ he says. “The important thing is that we get the right kind of kid.’’

Spaziani is finally in charge, after a career-track that seemed to indicate he would be an assistant coach for life, with stops at the Naval Academy, Virginia, and the CFL along the way.

Spaziani did what all assistant coaches do - he played “what if’’ in his mind as he watched mentors such as George Welsh at Virginia and Navy, then Tom O’Brien at BC - who is also a close friend - go about their business of not only coaching teams, but building programs.

When Jagodzinski was fired, Spaziani was hired at the end of the recruiting season. He had to scramble, but still signed All-ACC linebacker Luke Kuechly and, at seemingly the last instant, Shinskie.

Even the bowl game, which is hardly a marquee attraction, despite the site, will increase BC’s profile because it is USC. “Forget [USC’s 8-4 record], they can play,’’ said Spaziani, “and that will and should get our players’ attention.’’

Spaziani recognizes the opportunity - national exposure on ESPN, big-name opponent, prime-time slot (8 p.m. EST). “We’ll see how far we can take it,’’ he says. “Hopefully it’s not a 76-second knockout.’’

BC’s track record in bowl games - the Eagles have won eight of their last nine - suggests that won’t be the way the game unfolds. “If we win,’’ says Spaziani with a laugh, “I’ll head to Hawaii and finish recruiting from long distance.’’