He waited his turn. He got his shot. And if his first season as head coach of the Eagles is any indication, it was well worth the wait.
Never forsaking his modest, hard-working, blue-collar roots, Frank Spaziani served as the loyal soldier for so many years before getting the opportunity to take center stage in 2009. When he was named head football coach at Boston College, the room was filled not only with media, but with family and friends from the Athletics Department who were thrilled to see their humble and dry-witted friend, simply known as “Spaz,” be rewarded for a career of loyalty and dedication.
The son of first-generation Italian-Americans Joseph and Regina Spaziani grew up in Clark, N.J., and never forgot his roots. The values of hard work, toughness, dedication, humility, loyalty and honesty he learned as a boy have formed the foundation for his coaching philosophy.
Although some New Englanders may consider Spaziani loyal to a fault – he is, after all, a devout and lifelong New York Yankees fan – few would fault a man for remaining true to his roots, especially when those values keep him grounded in a time of over-inflated salaries and egos in the football coaching world. His seriousness is balanced with a notorious sense of humor – he’s been known to crack a joke or two. When asked at the Emerald Bowl press conference for his reaction when he heard the Eagles would be playing USC, he quipped, “The good news was we got the bowl bid; the bad news was that we got Southern Cal. That’s like your mother-in-law driving off a cliff in your brand new Cadillac Escalade.”
Each Thursday when he meets with beat writers to discuss the upcoming game, he’s likely to start the conversation with baseball talk while the soundtrack of the hit Broadway show “Jersey Boys” plays in the background. But he knows when to get serious – and people know when he means business.
This Jersey boy would become the last player recruited to Penn State by a young assistant named Joe Paterno, who went on to become the head coach the next year. Talented in baseball as well, Spaziani was originally recruited as a quarterback but eventually became a defensive end and a team captain before serving as a graduate assistant for Paterno.
“He could be good at anything,” Paterno said. “If he had gone into business, he’d be the president of the corporation. He’s not afraid to work, and he’s not afraid to make decisions.”
His first season as head coach at Boston College required more than a few tough decisions. Although he hit the ground running, but there were more than few bumps in the road along the way. Senior linebacker and returning co-captain Mike McLaughlin tore his Achilles’ tendon during a routine drill in the spring and was out indefinitely. In May, the entire program was dealt a devastating and sobering blow when its star player, linebacker Mark Herzlich, discovered he had cancer and would be unable to suit up for the 2009 season. The Eagles then lost the only quarterback with any playing experience, leaving the cupboard bare in the team’s most important position.
By mid-summer, expectations were low; at the ACC’s Operation Football in July, the league’s media predicted the Eagles would finish dead last in the Atlantic Division. But a funny thing happened on the way to the cellar – the team overachieved. It finished with an 8-5 record, tied for second in the ACC Atlantic Division, and played in its 11th straight bowl game, giving national power USC all it could handle in the third-most-watched bowl game ever televised on ESPN.
Along the way, milestones were achieved and some young superstars emerged. True freshman linebacker Luke Kuechly was named ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year after coming out of nowhere to lead the league in tackles and averaging more tackles-per-game than any rookie since the NCAA began tracking the stat in 2003. Sophomore running back Montel Harris recorded eight 100-yard games and set the BC sophomore rushing record. Senior wide receiver Rich Gunnell and place-kicker Steve Aponavicius added their names to the record books.
McLaughlin battled to get back onto the playing field, and Dave Shinskie, the 25-year-old true freshman quarterback who came to BC after playing professional baseball, proved to be a consistent starter by season’s end. Off the field, Herzlich waged a very public battle against cancer – and won. And the Eagles continued their proud tradition of achieving in the classroom, becoming one of only six FBS programs in the country to receive a Graduation Success Rate score of 90 or better.
“What we accomplished,” Spaziani said, “where we started, all the potholes, all the situations, all the things we had to overcome, it was a testament to the kids and they should be very proud of what they did. To start with no quarterbacks who ever played in a game, no linebackers who ever played in a game, new staff, new coaches, new everything, to finish 8-5 is an accomplishment we should be proud of.”
The 2010 season will mark Spaziani’s 14th year on the BC coaching staff, having spent his first two seasons as the Eagles’ running backs coach before serving as defensive coordinator for 10 seasons. Spaziani’s reputation as an outstanding coach, in fact, was built upon a decade of producing one of the toughest defenses in college football. In 2008, the Eagles ranked in the top 10 in the nation in seven defensive categories, including interceptions (first, 26); turnovers gained (second, 36); total defense (fifth, 268.14 ypg.); red zone defense (sixth, 72%); first downs allowed (sixth, 14.71 pg.); rushing defense (seventh, 91.2 ypg.), and pass efficiency defense (98.81). The Eagles advanced to the ACC Championship Game for the second consecutive season. In addition, Herzlich was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
In 2007 Spaziani’s defense ranked second in the nation and led the ACC in rushing defense, allowing just 75.5 yards per game. The BC defense also ranked second in the ACC in red zone defense, keeping opponents from scoring nearly 72 percent of the time. Senior free safety Jamie Silva was a consensus All-America first-team selection and was one of three finalists for the 2007 Jim Thorpe Award, which is given to the nation’s top defensive back. Silva was MVP of the 2007 Champs Sports bowl, in which he had two interceptions. Spaziani was part of a staff that led the Eagles to an 11-3 finish, the first BC team to win 11 games since 1940. The 2007 Eagles began the season 8-0 and were ranked No. 2 in the nation in both major polls. The team won the Atlantic Division of the ACC and went on to win an eighth consecutive bowl game, the longest active bowl game winning streak in America. The Eagles finished 10th in the final AP poll, BC’s best finish since the 1984 season.
Spaziani was credited with BC’s 25-24 win over Navy in the 2006 Meineke Car Care Bowl as he served as Interim Head Coach following the departure of Tom O’Brien. In 2006, Boston College led the ACC with five defensive touchdowns. The Eagles were third in the ACC in scoring defense and Jo-Lonn Dunbar was named National Defensive Player of the Week when he scored two of BC’s three defensive touchdowns vs. Maryland. In 2005, BC led the ACC in rushing defense (90.8 ypg.) and red zone defense (25-39, 64.1%) and were third in scoring defense (15.9 ypg.). The 2004 Eagles were ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense, top 20 in rushing defense and top 25 in pass efficiency defense. In 2003 BC was ranked second in the Big East in total defense and rushing defense. During the 2002 season, the Eagle defense was ranked 13th nationally in passing defense, 25th in pass efficiency defense, 23rd in scoring defense and 37th in total defense.
Spaziani joined the BC coaching staff after three seasons with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. During his coaching tenure at Calgary, he served two seasons as the defensive coordinator. Prior to his coaching stint at Calgary, he served as the defensive coordinator for two years with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Spaziani spent nine years as a member of the Virginia coaching staff, where he was defensive coordinator for his last five seasons in Charlottesville, after having been defensive backs coach for the first four.
Spaziani has been a member of coaching staffs for teams that have reached 21 bowl games, including the 2009 Emerald Bowl, the 2008 Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl, the 2007 Champs Sports Bowl, the 2006 Meineke Car Care Bowl, the 2005 MPC Computers Bowl, the 2004 Continental Tire Bowl, the 2003 Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl (BC), the 2002 Motor City Bowl (BC), the 2001 Music City Bowl (BC), the 2000 Aloha Bowl (BC), the 1999 Insight.com Bowl (BC), the 1990 Sugar Bowl (Virginia), the 1989 Citrus Bowl (Virginia), the 1987 All-American Bowl (Virginia), the 1984 Peach Bowl (Virginia), the 1981 Liberty Bowl (Navy) and the 1980 Garden State Bowl and 1978 Holiday Bowl (Navy).
Spaziani is a 1969 graduate of Penn State, where he was a star defensive end on the Nittany Lions teams that tied Florida State in the 1967 Gator Bowl and defeated Kansas in the 1969 Orange Bowl. He began his coaching career in 1969 as a graduate assistant to Joe Paterno at Penn State. After three years as an assistant high school coach, he became head coach at Hempstead (N.Y.) High School in 1973, and, a year later, at Raritan (N.J.) High. He joined head coach George Welsh as an offensive assistant at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1975 and went with Welsh from Annapolis to Virginia in 1982.
Frank and his wife, the former Laura Heikel, are the parents of three children, Joseph and twins Avery and Andrew