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Addazio the difference-maker for BC

12/6/2013

A lot can happen in a year.

Wednesday marked 12 months to the day since Brad Bates made the first big hire of his tenure as Boston College athletic director, picking Steve Addazio to replace Frank Spaziani as head football coach.

Considering the program’s position then and now, Bates is happy he did.

The administrator worked his connections hard during the coaching search, talking to many people about Addazio and how he would fit BC before offering him the job. Almost immediately, Bates said by phone Wednesday, two things told him it was the right match.

“The first week he was here, we had several student-athletes who’d had surgery,” Bates said. “Steve was going to their hospital rooms, calling their parents, even rearranging some of his recruiting travel to meet with their families. This is a guy who genuinely cares about the students he works with.”

For a new coach to make such an effort to reach out to players he had no prior relationship with might seem surprising, but it wasn’t to the BC athletic director.

“It didn’t surprise me because I had really done my homework on Steve,” Bates said. “The depth of it, though, was very inspiring. A lot of coaches really care about their students, but the way he extended himself to make sure these students knew he genuinely cared was really impressive.”

The second instance that indicated to Bates that he’d found the right man to lead his football program came on the first day of winter conditioning. The Eagles assembled for the first workout clad in a mismatch of athletic gear, each wearing whatever garb he cared to grab that day.

“They looked like a group of individuals and not a team,” Bates said. “Steve sent them back in the locker room and told them to come back out looking like Boston College. His attention to detail, not letting anything slide by, really was evident from the very beginning.”

His players have certainly seen that attention to detail firsthand. Fifth-year senior right tackle Ian White said that Addazio, a former offensive line coach, took instruction to a new level -- not only teaching scheme but position-specific things like hand placement and footwork.

After the Eagles beat NC State in the home finale, clinching bowl eligibility on senior day and prompting the crowd to rush the field to celebrate with the team, White was asked what the difference was between last year (when the Eagles finished 2-10) and this year (when they’re 7-5 and going to a bowl game).

“You’ve gotta say coaching,” he said. “Coaching has been big ... we’re playing to our strengths and we’re a team where the offense helps the defense, defense helps the offense, and we both help special teams. It was something that’s been harped on since [Addazio] got here and we all bought in 100 percent to exactly what he wanted us to do, and we’re seeing the rewards for it.”

Those rewards have seemingly come faster than even the most optimistic Eagles fans would’ve dared dream. From two wins to seven -- with a game left to play, in a yet-to-be-determined bowl -- in just 12 months, more wins in Addazio’s first season than the Eagles had in Spaziani’s last two seasons combined.

Asked if he could’ve expected his new hire to turn things around this dramatically this quickly, Bates said hindsight is always 20-20.

“It’s always easy to dissect in retrospect,” he said. “But I was very optimistic. I felt like Steve’s experience, his knowledge, his skill set, the people he’s worked with in the past put him in a position to really fit our programmatic needs a year ago.

“I was cautiously optimistic that we would have a quick turnaround.”

Energy infusion

Buckle up.

That was the message Bates had for those in attendance at Addazio’s introductory news conference. The at-times-bombastic coach didn’t disappoint, voice rising and falling like a preacher at a pulpit as he described his vision for the Eagles.

"I think that any time you're at an institution like this," Addazio thundered, "which has great tradition, has a beautiful campus, has a great education, in a city like we're in, in the city of Boston -- you can recruit, you can build, you can compete and you can win a national championship.

"It's been done. It's been done at a lot of places. That's the job, that's the mission, that's what we strive for. I've been in a couple of those. I've been there when that confetti comes down, and the feeling and elation and all the hard work that goes into it. There's absolutely no reason why that can't be accomplished at Boston College."

That statement seemed especially strong considering the circumstances. The Eagles had just lost double-digit games for only the second time in school history, and the roster was unlikely to change greatly before the next season began.

But Addazio wasn’t suggesting that BC would win a title in Year 1, just that theoretically it could win a title someday down the line. He was setting a bar, something for the program to shoot for long term.

And with his energy and enthusiasm, Addazio was also sending a message to his players: You should want to be the best, work toward that end and never settle for good enough.

At first, Addazio’s boundless energy and tough attitude was a shock to the system. Wideout Alex Amidon said before the season that the coach left him pumped up, ready to play a game, after every meeting. Surely, that level of intensity couldn’t last.

Not only has it lasted, it’s rubbed off on the players.

The Eagles have used a smashmouth, power run game -- Andre Williams piling up an FBS-best 2,102 yards to make himself a Doak Walker Award finalist and a Heisman candidate -- and an attacking defense to go 7-5 in the regular season and return to bowl eligibility.

People have taken notice, including perhaps the Eagles’ most famous alumnus.

“Credit Addazio for bringing in a change in the mindset of the kids,” Doug Flutie said. “Sometimes it’s not X’s and O’s, it’s a mindset of going out and being tough.”

Taking advantage of both has the Eagles back in the postseason, a far cry from where they found themselves a year ago.

“About a year ago today I was just kind of rolling in here,” Addazio told reporters Monday, according to a transcript of his weekly session provided by BC. “What a great opportunity that was. I’m really thankful and grateful for the opportunity that BC gave me, and I’m grateful for the players on our team and the administration and the season that we had. When you think about what has transpired in one year, relative to the football program, it’s been a good year.

“You have to be grateful for good years.”

They don’t come easily, and can never be counted on.

Laying a footprint

Change is hard. That’s a fairly basic statement, one that everyone can relate to on a personal level.

Have you ever tried to stop a bad habit, drop a few pounds with a diet, or start exercising regularly after a long period of inactivity? Then you know it’s not easy.

Addazio, who incidentally has been trying to lose a few pounds, exercise more regularly and eat better this season in part to take stress off a bad knee, illustrated that point in one of his weekly media sessions.

His chosen image? Open-heart surgery.

“One of the most dramatic surgeries you can have, literally, right?" he said. "And most people at some point go back to the old habits that brought them down that path to begin with. Because it’s hard. It’s hard. Just like I’m gonna go back there [motioning to the back of the media suite, where a lunch was laid out for reporters] and eat. It’s hard.

"So my point to you is this, here you are -- you don’t just change. You’re working every day. And I love these kids because they buy into all of that. They really want that. But you’re still changing everything. The work week, the amount of work that goes on beyond the practice field, the intensity of the meeting, the intensity of the practice -- the whole thing."

Led by a senior class that had been through a lot, experiencing highs and (extreme) lows under Spaziani, the Eagles bought in to that change this season. The coach believes they've laid the groundwork for future teams to build on.

But like patients who've had open-heart surgery, there's no guarantee the changes stick.

"Now, my hope is we can learn how to make that just a part of your habit, like getting up and brushing your teeth in the morning," Addazio said of the work ethic he preaches. "But that’s fatiguing.”

Luckily for the Eagles, Bates seems to have found the perfect coach to fight against that fatigue, keep the work going and push the program forward.

One can just imagine where they’ll be a year from now.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.