Frank Spaziani is entering his third year as head coach of the Boston College Eagles football team - a critical season for growth. Will he and the Eagles improve enough to keep him off the hot seat, or could this be the end of an era in Chestnut Hill?
Media pundits from around the country descended on Pinehurst Country Club this past weekend for ACC Media Day and the unofficial kick off of another NCAA football season. With everyone's record still at 0-0, two representatives from each of the 12 teams proudly touted their teams' improvement in the offseason and boasted that they all could win an ACC Championship this year. Coaches spent their time downplaying expectations, fending off questions about inquiries from the NCAA or simply bantering about what their teams needed to do to be better in 2011.
But, absent from the bulk of the weekend festivities was Boston College head coach Frank Spaziani. The man affectionately known as Spaz arrived casually late and left curiously early, seemingly uninterested in putting his face out there to promote the program the way so many of his colleagues have done in the past.
Normally I wouldn't be concerned with this, as it's become a Spaz trademark over the past three years, but this season is different. This may be the defining year for both coach Spaziani's nearly 20-year legacy at the school as well as the defining year for the program as a whole.
BC fans as a whole are not particularly boisterous, aren't prone to swarming message boards on the web and don't travel in droves the way fans of many of the elite schools do, which gives way to the idea that there simply aren't very many of them. This is simply not true.
Despite the well documented parking and tailgating issues the school faces, most are content as long as the product on the field is fun to watch and the team is competitive. The fact that there have been more than a few rumblings about the state and direction of the football program should be cause for alarm inside the Athletic Department on the Heights.
Since those two magical seasons where then head coach Jeff Jagodzinski led the Eagles to almost unprecedented heights (#2 ranking, two ACC Championship games), the program has fallen into a rut. The win total has declined in each of the last two seasons, with this past season representing their worst statistical season in the last decade (just seven wins), which included an unprecedented five-game losing streak (along with several embarrassing home losses).
Spaz has been quick to point out that he was saddled without any experienced talent at the quarterback position and was forced to play underclassmen (read: true freshmen) at a number of key positions. Both of those are true, but in his third year, both excuses are out the window.
Perhaps more importantly, stability appears to have returned to the QB position. After two seasons of juggling as many as five different players at the position, the laser armed but erratic Chase Rettig has taken hold of the starters job and should be under center when Northwestern visits on Labor Day Weekend.
In addition, almost every player on the roster who caught a pass is back including leading receiver Bobby Swigert. He'll be flanked by Alex Amidon, Ifeyani Momah, Chris Pantale and deep threat Colin Larmond, Jr. If Larmond is fully recovered from his torn ACL (suffered during training camp last year), he'll provide the ideal long ball target for the powerful arm of Rettig.
Defensively, BC should be stout again with their back seven boasting as much talent, experience and depth as almost anyone in the country. In addition to Kuechly, Kevin Pierre-Louis, Donnie Fletcher and hard hitting Everett native Jim Noel all return and should once again make the defense among the best in the nation.
With all this returning talent, why is there so much concern and grumbling about the program? Well, for starters, the schedule is very unforgiving. The Eagles open up with a pair of difficult non conference games with Northwestern at home and then a visit to the defending Conference USA champion UCF Golden Knights. After that, the schedule eases for a few weeks with a slate of weak conference foes and the annual 1-AA lay-up game.
After that though, it's a veritable murderer's row of top ACC contenders and rivals including road games against Virginia Tech, Clemson, Notre Dame, Maryland and Miami as well as home tilts with highly rated Florida State and North Carolina State.
But the real reason a growing minority of Boston College fans have begun to make noise about the direction of the program is the lack of excitement generated by its head coach both on the field and in the media. The addition of new offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers should help take care of the on the field portion of things, but Spaz has never been one for boastful predictions of BCS glory, he doesn't pander to the media and yes, he's prone to trying to quell rising expectations, but would it kill him to at least try and excite the fan base a little?
Being a head coach at a power conference program is more than just X's and O's, wins and losses. In a world where you can add 20 plus new faces every year, it's also the job of the coach to energize the paying customers and be the face of the program to the media as the one constant. Following in the lofty footsteps of the departed Jagodzinski, it is in this regard that Spaz has been an unmitigated failure during his tenure as coach.
One of my philosophies on big-time college football is that if you're going to lose games, you'd better look good and be exciting when you do it, especially at a school like Boston College. BC doesn't boast the same devoted fan army of say, Florida, Texas or Notre Dame.
As such, they aren't able to easily weather a mediocre season or two as those schools have done in the past three years or longer, MUCH longer in the case of the Irish (obligatory knock on Notre Dame).
With that in mind, this season is crucial for BC because, quite frankly, they can't afford to regress any further than they have in the past two years. Another poor season could mean long term damage to the program in both ticket sales and recruiting.
It's also a crucial year for Spaz as he starts to shape his lasting legacy at BC. He was chosen to be the head coach over a number of other (some would say better qualified) candidates such as former BC staffers Mike London, Al Golden and Randy Edsall. All of whom now hold the head jobs at other ACC schools.
Will Spaz be simply another in a long line of career assistants who, when given the big job, were simply overwhelmed by the position? A coaches third year is typically where you begin to see the imprint of the new staff. The initial recruiting classes are major contributors, and the team philosophy is fully embedded. Despite the rough schedule, better results should be expected this year.
With the talent in place, much of it of the veteran variety, Spaz needs to begin to justify his selection over the above candidates. It's time to table the excuses and win some football games.