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Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Coaching is in Pat Narduzzi's blood

By Adam Rittenberg
ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- Before every Michigan State kickoff, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi sits in the coaches' booth, looks down at the field and makes one final pregame request.

"You better be right there," Narduzzi says to his father, "helping me out."

Bill Narduzzi died 25 years ago after a long fight with Hodgkin's disease, but his presence remains with the second of his three sons, the only one who followed his father into coaching. Pat Narduzzi is his father's son: same eyes, same build, same intensity, same work ethic and same uncompromising standards for defense.

Pat and Bill Narduzzi
Bill Narduzzi coached his son Pat for one season at Youngstown State.

Bill died while Pat was still playing college football, so he never saw his son become one of the nation's top defensive coaches. The Spartans' defense that he oversees ranks No. 1 nationally this year and has finished in the top six in each of the past three seasons (only Alabama and Florida State carry the same distinction). MSU is one of three programs (Louisville and Virginia Tech are the others) to rank in the top 10 in total defense, scoring defense, rush defense and pass defense for the past three years.

Earlier this month, Pat Narduzzi earned the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant. It continued a family tradition, as Bill won Division II National Coach of the Year honors at Youngstown State in 1978. Bill's plaque hangs in Pat's office at Michigan State.

"I think about him every single day," Pat said.

Bill will be in Pat's thoughts Wednesday afternoon when he scans the iconic Rose Bowl field before Michigan State faces Stanford in the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

"Obviously his dad was a great role model for him," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said. "A lot of us who have fathers that have passed [Dantonio's father, Justin, died in 2011] wish they could be experiencing this day with us."


Bill began his coaching career in the high school ranks before moving to the collegiate level and making stops at Pitt, Miami and Brown. He served as defensive coordinator at Yale when Pat was born in 1966.

The family then moved to Kentucky, where Bill led the Wildcats' defense before becoming Youngstown State's head coach in 1975.

"When he was at Yale, we were running around the practice field," said Pat's brother, Bill Jr. "When we were at Kentucky, we lived a block away from the university. We had keys to the university and we'd run around every facility they had.

"It was fun."

All three of Bill Narduzzi's sons -- Pat, Bill Jr. and Bradley -- played football, but Bill Jr. and Bradley topped out at 5-foot-9, 170 pounds, while Pat, like his father and grandfather, kept growing. He became an all-state linebacker at Ursuline High School in Youngstown, Ohio.

"A determined, motivated young man," said Dick Angle, who coached Pat at Ursuline. "Great athlete. He hated to lose. He was always well prepared as a high school player for me, went overboard on watching film."

Pat went to Youngstown State to play for his dad, who not only served as head coach but also oversaw the defense and specifically coached the linebackers. Pat led the Ohio Valley Conference in tackles as a freshman in 1985.

But his dad demanded more. Sunday film review wasn't much fun for the younger Narduzzi.

"He was a tell-it-like-it-is type guy and he was harder on his son than anybody," Pat recalled. "I might have led the team in tackles and could have been the player of the game, but if you walked out of those meetings, you would have thought I was the worst player on the team."

Pat quickly added that he learned more about football that season than any other in his playing or coaching career.

Bill went 68-51-1 at Youngstown, twice made the Division II playoffs and guided the program through its transition to Division I-AA.

"Bill was special," Angle said. "He was a strong guy, strong-willed and a players' coach. I see that in Pat."


Bill and Pat should have had more days together at Youngstown State, but the school didn't renew Bill's contract after the 1985 season, in which the Penguins went 5-6. Bill was just one year removed from winning his second Ohio Valley Coach of the Year award. He also had cancer, often receiving chemotherapy treatments and running football practices on the same day in 1985.

Pat Narduzzi
Pat Narduzzi is in his seventh season as Michigan State defensive coordinator.

"A lot of politics and there were some bad people in Youngstown that just wanted a changing of the guard," Bill Jr. said. "My dad was dying of cancer at the time, and it left a bitter taste in all of our mouths."

Pat said of the dismissal: "It wasn't over coaching, it was over integrity, and that's what my dad had."

Despite Bill's coaching accomplishments, teams shied away from hiring him because he was ill.

He eventually landed at Columbia, which hadn't won a game since 1983 and wouldn't again until 1988. The family moved from a comfortable home in Youngstown to a small house in Teaneck, N.J.

"It took some courage on his part to come in," former Columbia coach Larry McElreavy said. "The players absolutely loved him. Here's a tough, Youngstown guy, tough as nails, physically and mentally."

Bill struggled through the 1986 season and was unable to go out on the recruiting trail because of his health. He used a cart to get around the field and had to carry around an IV bag that provided nutrients. He never missed a practice.

While hospitalized in 1987, Bill once sneaked out of the hospital, putting an overcoat over his IV bag.

"He had no desire to be there," said McElreavy, who tracked down Bill walking the street in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. "All he wanted to do was coach football."

Bill's cancer appeared to be in remission during the 1987 season. His hair grew back, he gained weight and spent less time on the cart. But he developed an infection around Thanksgiving and died on Feb. 4, 1988. He was 51.


The way his father's coaching run ended at Youngstown State steered Bill Jr. away from a coaching career.

"I saw how it tore up our family, and I didn't want any part of that," said Bill, a financial advisor in New Jersey. "But it was always in Pat's blood to coach."

At his father's urging, Pat stayed with Youngstown for spring practice in 1986, playing for a young head coach named Jim Tressel and a younger defensive coordinator named Mark Dantonio. But after injuring his knee in the spring game, he transferred to Rhode Island, where he started three seasons.

He began his coaching career at Miami (Ohio), where his dad had been a lineman, and returned there as defensive coordinator before reuniting with Dantonio at Cincinnati in 2004. He has been with Dantonio, as well as defensive assistants Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel, ever since.

"

I saw how it tore up our family, and I didn't want any part of that. But it was always in Pat's blood to coach.

" -- Pat Narduzzi's brother, Bill

"We're like brothers for life," Barnett said. "His energy, his passion, his attention to detail really goes throughout our defense. There's no secret why we are where we are."

Narduzzi's passion endears him to players in both practices and games. He typically moves from the booth to the sideline in the fourth quarter, but after Michigan State squandered a 17-0 lead against Ohio State in this year's Big Ten championship game, Narduzzi, at Dantonio's request, came to field level in the third.

The defense shut out Ohio State for the final 20 minutes, and Narduzzi made the call of the game with a double-edge blitz on fourth-and-2, as linebacker Denicos Allen dropped Braxton Miller shy of the marker. MSU won 34-24.

"He pumps up the team, and if you're on the field or at practice and you see the passion within his eyes, you understand that you want to get the job done even more," defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. "The worst thing is letting him down."

Defensive end Marcus Rush calls Narduzzi the "soul of our defense" and considers him a second father. But like his own father, Narduzzi is hard on his players.

"He wants perfection," Allen said. "If you make a good play, OK, it could have been better. He wants to dominate. I love that attitude about him."

Narduzzi isn't a coaching caricature, all intensity and attitude and yelling and facial contortions. He's an incredibly sharp game coach who devotes countless hours to self-study and opponent evaluation.

Game plans are painstakingly crafted.

"I don't know how anybody can spend more time," he said. "We usually know what we're going to do defensively. We're still going to watch the tape and put it together piece by piece."

Narduzzi isn't stubborn about his scheme, a 4-3 alignment with Cover 4 and myriad blitzes, and he's always looking for ways to improve. Barnett ticks off the places MSU's defensive staff has visited during past offseasons: LSU, Cincinnati Bengals, Georgia, Nebraska (pre-Big Ten), Tennessee, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, Pitt and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"He's always trying to learn," Barnett said. "We never stay stagnant."

Narduzzi's defense has elements from the great University of Miami teams of the early 1990s, or the colleges he has worked for in the past 24 years. But the base fundamentals -- the stances linebackers take before the snap and so forth -- stem from Bill Narduzzi.


As Pat's career has grown, more of his father's former players are contacting him. While attending the college football awards show in Florida with cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who won the Jim Thorpe Award, Narduzzi was approached by Calvin Hill, the former Pro Bowl running back who attended Yale and played some linebacker.

"He didn't know who Pat was," Bill Jr. said. "He goes, 'There can't be very many Narduzzis out there.' He went on to say, 'As a young black man in Connecticut playing in the '60s, I didn't have a lot of people I could relate to, but I could always go to your father.'"

Pat Narduzzi
Narduzzi was offered the UConn job after the regular season ended but turned it down.

After winning the Broyles Award, Pat told his wife, Donna, how proud he had been of his father's national coaching honor. He told her he wanted to become a head coach and win national coach of the year, just like his dad.

Pat has been a candidate for head-coaching vacancies the past few seasons. He interviewed at Connecticut after the Big Ten title game but opted to remain at Michigan State, which last year more than doubled his salary ($558,908).

MSU soon will offer another raise.

"I'm OK waiting for the right spot or I would have taken the job a couple weeks ago," he said. "It's got to be a slam-dunk decision for me. Like I told my wife, 'If we don't take this one, there may never be another opportunity.' You never know."

Narduzzi, 47, seems ready to make the jump. In the past, his personality occasionally crossed the line, such as when he talked about playing "60 minutes of unnecessary roughness" against Michigan in 2011, drawing a reprimand from athletic director Mark Hollis.

He's still candid and quotable but also more measured, which major-conference head coaches need to be.

"He doesn't believe his own bull," Angle said. "He knows what he's doing and he listens and he grows every year. The opportunities for him to climb in the profession are unlimited, really."

Narduzzi understands the business. Bill Jr. remembers he and Pat eavesdropping on conversations between their father and athletic directors or university presidents who came to the Narduzzi home.

"I remember the opportunities [Bill Sr.] had that he waited too long on and regretted not taking, and the ones he's glad he didn't accept," Bill Jr. said. "Pat has to go through that process."

The process can wait, at least until after the Rose Bowl. About 20 Narduzzi family members will be in attendance, including Pat's 79-year-old mother, Angie, who flew out from New Jersey.

There's someone missing, but his spirit remains very much with a family who still talks football whenever they're together.

"He died 25 years ago, and 10 years, 15 years ago, we didn't want to talk about it," Bill Jr. said. "It was a sad part of our lives. It was kind of a downer. But as we get a little bit more mature, we enjoy reflecting on it.

"Everything roots from my father. Seeing Pat become who he is, my father would be really proud of him."

Around 2 p.m. Wednesday, Narduzzi and Barnett will make their way to the press box. They're the only two MSU defensive coaches who work from the booth.

When the game kicks off, there will be three.