Thursday, November 22, 2012
BC players offer support for Spaziani
By Jack McCluskey
The Eagles are still backing Frank Spaziani, who has at least one more game as head coach.
NEWTON, Mass. -- Things haven't been this bad at Boston College in a long, long time.
There was the 0-11 season in 1978 that ended with a loss in Tokyo. There was the 2-9 season in 1989, sandwiched between a 3-8 season and a 4-7 season.
But since Tom O'Brien posted an 8-4 record in 1999, the Eagles hadn't recorded a single losing season and had played in 12 straight bowl games.
Until the past two seasons, that is. The bottom has fallen out on BC under head coach Frank Spaziani, who has seen the record fall from 8-5 in 2009, to 7-6 in 2010, to 4-8 in 2011 to the current 2-9 in 2012.
Yet during Thanksgiving week, a number of Eagles made it clear that there's still plenty they are thankful for.
"We all owe a debt of gratitude, both for the chance and then for his belief in all of us that we can go out and get it done," fifth-year senior and offensive co-captain Emmett Cleary said of the only head coach he's ever played for.
"It's been bad this year, but you have to believe in the process more than you believe in the results you're seeing. I think a lot of this isn't Coach's fault, and I just hope he has his job season opener next year."
They've heard the rumors that Spaziani won't survive the end of the season. How could they not hear them? After all, Cleary said, they're on campus, too.
After a second straight losing season and with a new athletic director (Brad Bates) in charge at Boston College, Spaziani might be coaching his last game at NC State on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN3).
A loss to the Wolfpack would produce just the second season with double-digit losses in school history.
Coming as it has on the heels of a 4-8 season in 2011, the 2012 season seems to show that there just isn't enough progress being made on Spaziani's watch.
But is Spaziani entirely to blame? His players aren't so sure.
"If I'm in position to make a block and I don't make it, I'm not gonna blame somebody for calling the wrong play," Cleary said, pointing out that the players are the ones on the field. "It's toughness, discipline and just kind of approaching the game the right way that he's instilled in this team. We've had a rough season but those lessons work for football and they work for life. Nobody's lost sight of that, I think.
"With all the criticism, frankly, it's been good watching Spaz kind of model what he's been preaching for years now. You just have to worry about the day-to-day things and just keep working and that's ultimately what causes success in this world."
It also would've helped if Cleary's class had stuck around after 2008.
"We've talked about this hundreds of times among the older guys," Cleary said. "I think a lot of these games were lost three or four years ago, when my signing class -- which was, I think, 36 including walk-ons -- [decided to leave BC, and now] there's nine of us left. It's hard to win when you don't have experienced players and experienced depth.
"We've had a lot of young players playing and they've really played their asses off these last couple years, but I think you'd prefer to have those guys redshirt and have experienced backups when injuries and losses happen."
When Jeff Jagodzinski brought in Cleary and the rest of this season's crop of fifth-year seniors, the program was riding high. Cleary's redshirt year, 2008, the team was in the ACC championship game -- just as it had been the year before.
Then Jagodzinski interviewed for a job in the NFL, former athletic director Gene DeFilippo fired him and hired Spaziani, who had been the defensive coordinator from 1999 to 2008.
While hiring Spaziani meant there remained some continuity on the coaching staff, whenever there's a coaching change there will be some impact on recruiting.
"The reality is this, when you chop up recruiting, it doesn't show right away," Spaziani said before practice Tuesday. "It has unintended consequences that happen later on. … At Boston College you have to identify talent, you have to develop it and you have to have some continuity with it. There's other issues besides that. [But] that's a contributing factor."
The Eagles don't like talking about this kind of thing. It's too close to an excuse, and making excuses isn't how they operate in the Heights.
But it's true that it was an issue that they've had to navigate. Last season, the Eagles had 12 seniors. This season, they have 16 -- only eight of them significant contributors.
That makes it hard to win.
It hasn't helped Spaziani that the trend in college football has been toward giving coaches less time to succeed, rather than more, in the age of information.
"I think social networking is terrible for head coaches these days," Chase Rettig said. "Maybe when I was growing up I was like, ‘I want to be a coach one day.' When coaches get an opportunity, back in the day they had a bunch of time in order to establish themselves.
"And now with our day of social media and everyone being able to know everything, all this information, really fast, it seems like coaches have like a year to do something great and if they don't it's on to the next person."
Indeed, while the hot-seat talk surrounding Spaziani at least makes sense because of the record there's even been talk about Auburn coach Gene Chizik's job security. All Chizik has done recently is win a BCS National Championship two seasons ago.
And while the Eagles have heard the rumors, they say none of that negativity has intruded on the locker room. They're all behind their coach.
"We try to stay close as a team," wideout Alex Amidon said. "You can't be having things like that. When that does happen, the team starts falling apart. So we just try to make sure that doesn't happen."
Through the downturn, the seniors have done all they can to ensure the young players in Chestnut Hill don't get used to this.
"It's so hard to win at this level. A lot of things have to work out and you can't leave any opportunities on the field and you can't short anything on the practice field," Cleary said. "We try and make sure that they all know -- just follow the method, just believe in the process, keep working and things will work out for you and for our team.
"That's why I'm still optimistic about our team, because we have a lot of good young guys going forward who I think know what it's gonna take."
Fellow fifth-year Bryan Murray agreed on the team's outlook.
"I think they'll keep on maturing," Murray said. "I think it's tough because a lot of guys in our class left. I feel like if we had more senior leadership it would be a lot better situation. I think that a lot of these younger guys have been playing together for a few years, and now they're gonna be juniors and seniors and fourth- and fifth-years, so I think they're just gonna mesh very well.
"So I have a lot of confidence in this team going forward."
For the season finale, the Eagles' two-deep depth chart has 17 sophomores, 11 juniors and 10 freshmen (true and redshirt) on it. Next season, those players will be a year older and more experienced.
Spaziani and others say those young players improving and learning how to win is the only way they'll get out of the mess they're in now.
"For us to be good, guys need to marinate a little bit," Cleary said, "and I guess my class didn't buy it."
Cleary laughed, wryly, before continuing: "And so they all took off. And this is what you get."
What you get is a roster lacking senior leadership, lacking that little something that teams need when times get tough and they just need to make a play.
Instead, you get postgame sessions spent ruing missed opportunities, praising another opponent for getting it done when it mattered. And more L's than W's at the end of the season.
Rettig said there are times, late at night, before he goes to sleep, that he thinks about what could have been. About all the close losses, about what he could have or should have done differently.
But then, the quarterback said, he forces himself to stop. To sleep. To get up the next day and do everything he can to win the next game, putting the past behind him.
"It's just said too much in too many programs, and we can't have it part of our program -- the could've and should've," he said. "We've just gotta find ways to put away games in the fourth quarter."
Just this season, the Eagles have had games slip from their grasp against Northwestern and Army, against Notre Dame and Virginia Tech.
And through it all, there's been Spaziani. He's always taken the blame, his players said, even when it couldn't possibly be his fault.
"He tries to be a players' guy," Amidon said. "He's one of our biggest advocates. When we do things wrong, he'll blame himself. When we don't hold each other accountable, he'll blame himself for that. I think that's something that's really admirable about him."
Spaziani is a football lifer, with an old-school, no excuses attitude. He's also relentlessly positive, forcing himself to keep his head up even when he's being buried under negative reaction from the public.
In season, Spaziani meets with the local media before each Wednesday practice. Whether the session is held on Shea Field or in Alumni Stadium, the head coach is almost always preceded by two sounds: the click-clacking of cleats as the team pounds out to practice, and a lilting whistle.
Even with the team on the ropes this season, Spaziani whistles his way to work because he believes in practicing what he's preached. And he still enjoys what he does.
"Stuff is gonna happen [that] you cannot control," he said, describing his message to the players. "Wake up and go to work every day. That's part of the great stuff about coaching -- it's X's and O's and winning and strategy, but it's [also] teaching young men.
"Hopefully they'll be able to use some of it, when they wake up one day and somebody's sick in their family and they gotta go to work."
For his part, Spaziani isn't dodging the slings and arrows aimed at him. He knows that ultimately he's the one who'll be held responsible for the performance of the program.
He's excited about the prospects for the team going forward, with 16 juniors and 32 sophomores headed for their senior and junior years in 2013, and another recruiting class -- his third full class -- rounding into form. (The Eagles have 16 commitments, 11 of them ranked as three-star prospects by ESPN Recruiting Nation, as of this writing).
And while he knows there will be more unexpected twists and turns in the road ahead, Spaziani believes he has a firm grasp on the wheel -- despite what many have said.
"Something unforeseen is gonna happen with a coach or a player or something like that," he said. "I haven't been able to manage my way through the problem. That's my job, to manage my way through it, right?
"You can't throw your hands up. That's what I'm teaching them: You don't throw your hands up."
You just get up in the morning and go to work, whistling all the while, until either the job is done ... or done with you.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.