After a crushing 24-17 loss to the Northwestern Wildcats on opening weekend at Alumni Stadium, Frank Spaziani descended to the media room for his weekly post-game press conference. The questions eventually turned to what had happened to his usually stout defense that struggled so badly throughout the afternoon.
"I think some of the down linemen, their metabolic pace looked like it ..." Spaziani pantomimed a line rising, then falling, "... dropped off a little bit there. We had to substitute some guys. That happens with inexperienced guys, but I think it might've been magnified [by the pace]."
Translation: Our guys were not in good enough shape to play against a team that runs the no-huddle offense for an entire game.
For many fans of the Boston College Eagles football program this was the final strike against the man affectionately known as Spaz. Regardless of the switch at quarterback from Dan Persa to Kain Colter, the team had known about this game and Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s up-tempo offense for eight months. Yet, somehow they still weren’t ready to play the game? That’s on the coaching staff, not the players who valiantly battled uphill all afternoon.
Later that same night in Dallas, Texas, the LSU Tigers had just finished grinding the Oregon Ducks and their similar up-tempo offense into the ground. Yahoo! Sports writer Dan Wetzel was on hand that night at Cowboys Stadium and wrote a brilliant piece detailing what went into preparing the Tigers for the grueling pace that Oregon employs.
LSU began preparing its defense to handle Oregon’s fast-break offensive timing just days after last year’s victory in the Cotton Bowl. Throughout spring practice, and then into fall camp, Miles and his staff dreamed up a drill called "tempo" that would condition the Tigers for the challenge.
It featured one defense facing two offenses. One offensive unit would line up and run a play while the other huddled. When the play ended, the second offense would sprint into formation and snap the ball as fast as possible and the defense would have to scramble into position. Then the first offense would huddle and repeat the cycle.
It caused defenders minds to spin and their muscles to burn. It also got them ready to stuff the Oregon offense and negate the Ducks’ usual schematic advantage.
So on the one hand, we have Frank Spaziani telling us his team wasn't adequately prepared to play the game against Northwestern, and then we have Les Miles inventing new drills the day after a bowl win in January to prepare for a game eight months later without its starting quarterback and leading wide receiver.
I'll give you one guess which team is currently undefeated and ranked in the top three and which is currently 0-2, was just blown off the field by a mid-major conference opponent, and is going to be battling to stay out of the cellar in its division.
So how did we get here? How did we go from winning Atlantic Division championships and perennial Top 25 rankings to soft, unprepared football teams that can't even COMPETE on the same field as Conference USA representative Central Florida?
The truth is that the seeds for this disaster were sewn almost the day after former coach Jeff Jagodzinski was fired for interviewing for a job he never truly had a chance to win. Jagodzinski had left egg on the face of the program by openly defying BC Athletic Director Gene DeFilippo's televised request that he not interview for another position for at least three seasons. DeFilippo was right to push him out the door as it would have made him look weak had he shrugged it off after the fact.
Where the Athletic Director made his mistake was when he announced that he wanted loyalty above all else in his new coach. He wanted someone that would be at the school for the long term, and while that's an admirable goal, DeFilippo overplayed his hand. BC isn't and likely will never be a final destination for coaches in the way that Florida, USC, Texas or Ohio State are. He had essentially painted himself into a corner by limiting his search to a coach that would have few aspirations beyond the Boston College football program.
Enter Frank Spaziani, the man who had faithfully served under both Tom O'Brien and Jeff Jagodzinski for well over a decade before finally getting the call to be the head coach of the program. Spaz fit the bill as someone who would never leave for another job. He had been at the school 12 years and been passed over for the position once already and has never had a single recorded interview or expression of interest from an outside source during that time.
(For the record, Spaz was chosen to be the head coach at Boston College over the following: Mike London (now at Virginia), Randy Edsall (Maryland), Al Golden (Miami), Steve Addazio (Temple), Skip Holtz (South Florida), and Steve Logan.)
The first mistake Spaz made came just weeks after his introduction as the new coach when he hired his buddy and former colleague Gary Tranquill to be the offensive coordinator. Spaz and Tranquill immediately decided to move away from the spread/west coast offense that had been employed the past two years under Jagodzinski and his offensive coordinator Steve Logan and move back toward the pro-style set that was the norm under Tom O'Brien.
The second mistake was the hiring of Sean Devine from New Hampshire to coach to the offensive line, and the decision to return to the man blocking scheme from the zone scheme that was used under Jagodzinski.
When a new coach takes over at a program, there is almost always a change in philosophy on playing style. Typically though, there is at least an adaptation or integration process, where both philosophies are merged over the course of a season or two while the new coach recruits players toward his new style. There was no such transition period with Spaz.
By moving back to a pro-style offense with no integration of the previous playing style, Spaz was essentially forcing the players that had been recruited by Jagodzinski to make a choice. They could either choose to stay and learn a new system for which they hadn't been recruited for, or they could transfer, lose a year of eligibility, and find another school. The results weren't surprising. More than 20 players either transferred or were released for a variety of different reasons.
The most noticeable hole was at the quarterback position where Justin Tuggle was expected to replace the departed incumbent Dominique Davis under Jagodzinski. Tuggle, known for his elusiveness in the pocket and strong arm down the field, seemed to be the perfect fit in the spread/read-option system that BC used to great effect in 2008. Under the pro-style system that Spaz wanted to employ though, Tuggle's athleticism was stymied and he struggled mightily, transferring (to Kansas State) after just two games when he was benched in favor of the 26-year old former minor league baseball player Dave Shinskie.
The offensive line struggled as well under Devine, though to be fair, this might not have been entirely his fault. Spaz was handed perhaps the best offensive line in the conference in 2009, but because of the return to man-blocking, he was essentially trying to pound square pegs into round holes. The results were predictable, as Montel Harris was forced to dodge defenders in the backfield for 350+ carries and quarterback after quarterback spent the better part of games picking themselves up off the turf.
The growing pains under Spaziani were evident as the team was soundly beaten by 10+ points on four occasions in his first season, more than the previous four seasons combined. The results were a big step back from the ACC Atlantic Division Championship seasons, but fans were willing to give Spaz a chance as the team was going through a clear transition.
A weak recruiting class and more defections during the off-season though began to wear on fans patience. The trouble for Spaz really began though in Week 3 of the 2010 season when Dave Shinskie demonstrated that he had made no improvements from year one to year two, making a variety of mistakes that led to an ugly home shutout loss against Virginia Tech, the teams first since 1998.
That would be just the first in a streak of five consecutive losses, including another embarrassing double digit home loss, this time to Notre Dame. It was the first time the Eagles had lost five straight games since the mid-90's, and the first time they'd lost back to back games to the Irish since the late-90's.
Spaz was wracking up negative accomplishments and being criticized for his lack of preparation and passion for the games. In addition, his players didn't seem to be getting any better (some in fact were regressing) and his choices for assistants were being rightly called into question. From the bland play calling of offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill to the regression of the offensive line under Sean Devine to the poor recruiting at the skill positions by Mike Siravo, the team continued to fade into mediocrity. The one thing everyone on the staff had in common was that they were either hired or retained by Spaz.
All of that background noise subsided though when the Eagles ran off five straight wins to close the regular season last year. The staff touted the winning streak as evidence that they had turned the corner and had things on the right track and that the team was improving.
Anyone who looked a little deeper could tell you that it was a mirage. The five teams that Boston College beat down the stretch last year had a combined record of 26-38 and only one finished with a winning record (Syracuse, 8-5). The team hadn't gotten any better, the opponents simply got worse. The Eagles finished their season at 7-6 after an ugly bowl loss to Nevada, their worst record in a decade.
What followed was another mediocre recruiting class, yet still more defections, a wave of injuries, and Frank Spaziani, the third year head coach at a major college football program, telling us that his team simply wasn't in shape to play its season opener despite eight months of preparation time.
Anyone who's played competitive sports can tell you that injuries can often be traced to a teams lack of conditioning. Worse yet, even with the lack of depth because of the injuries, Spaz has bizarrely continued to play his top guys on special teams where injuries are more common. In the first two games alone, starting wide receiver Ifeanyi Momah and starting cornerback CJ Jones were both lost for the season thanks to knee injuries suffered on special teams. It's another in a string of poor decisions at the coaching level.
After two plus seasons at the helm, Spaz has managed to cobble together a record of 10-11 against teams from BCS conferences, eight losses by 10 or more points, a home shutout loss, two consecutive losses to Notre Dame, no bowl wins as an official head coach, no depth at the skill positions, sharp drops in attendance, seemingly unprepared, uninspired, one-size-fits-all gameplans, and a laundry list of excuses for all of it.
The Eagles return home this weekend where they will likely be greeted by a half-full Alumni Stadium when they take on the Duke Blue Devils. As we watch this team struggle to subdue the perennial ACC doormats from Durham, it's time to acknowledge reality. Frank Spaziani is simply another in a long line of career coordinators who wasn't cut out to be "The Man", and if he's allowed to continue on his current pace, mediocrity won't seem so dreary anymore.