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Bernie: Spagnuolo ready to tackle season ..
By Bernie Miklasz Thursday, September 9, 2010 12:35 am
Steve Spagnuolo is absolutely, positively ready for his second season as the Rams' head coach.
We know this because he's sleeping in the bathroom again.
Umm ... the bathroom?
Yes, it's tucked in the back of his office on the second floor at Rams Park. The bathroom has the usual amenities, including a shower, a lavatory and toiletries. But last season Spagnuolo added a single bed.
And when the coach stays up late at the office, reviewing video, he tries to sleep in the bathroom for a few hours to save time and make a quick pivot back to work in the morning.
Not that a 1-15 rookie coach can sleep peacefully. When I asked Spagnuolo what it was like to go 1-15 last season as a rookie coach, he laughed and pointed to the bathroom. "You see that small little room? I spent some time back there," he said.
Probably getting sick to his stomach from the pain and anguish of losing. Or perhaps it was his refuge. Spagnuolo would close the door and try to sort everything out in his mind.
Emotionally and mentally, Spagnuolo absorbed quite a beating last season. His relentlessly upbeat nature was tested as never before. He won a single game. In the 15 losses, his team was outscored 426-148. Some of his friends wondered if Spagnuolo had made a career-smothering mistake by leaving his post as the New York Giants' successful defensive coordinator to take on such a thankless, hopeless job.
"I don't think this way," Spagnuolo said. "I don't know about people saying that it might kill my career, because I simply don't think that way, go through life that way. I've always had to do things this way."
Spagnuolo smiled, noted his diminutive stature and added, "At 5-8, and always having to overcome things, it's never been easy for me. I wouldn't know how to go into a situation where it was easy. I only know about starting from a tough situation and working from there. Maybe I function better that way. It hasn't been easy. It's been trying. Have I even wavered at times? Sure, I'm human. But I've never let it last long."
It explains why Spagnuolo became a buzzsaw center on his high school ice hockey team at Grafton, Mass. He was an aggressive pest who would torment taller and more skilled opponents. He played second base on the state championship baseball team. He was a quarterback who ran the wishbone offense. Go ahead. Try to knock him down.
This resolve carried Spagnuolo through coaching stops that took him around the world over a 27-year period before he became the Rams' coach. The odyssey took him to three countries, six colleges and four professional teams in small towns and big cities.
When asked why he hired the largely unknown Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator, Giants coach Tom Coughlin said: "His background is what attracted me. His attitude. He never had a high-profile job. He worked his butt off."
So if you suggest to Spagnuolo that he's in over his head at Rams Park, then you are probably insulting the wrong soul. He is used to being doubted. Remember how Spags' Giants defense had no chance to take down Tom Brady and the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII? The Patriots, who averaged 37 points a game, were held to 14 points and 274 yards. The Giants sacked Brady five times and pulled off a 17-14 upset.
Last season Spagnuolo earned respect for keeping the players focused and playing hard despite the stark futility of 1-15. There were no revolts. The players noticed how Spagnuolo avoided taking gratuitous shots at them through the media to score cheap points with the fans.
Spagnuolo saved his criticism — some of it withering — for private meetings, in team settings and in one-on-one visits. And when Spagnuolo had to make the difficult decision to fire a player he liked personally — bad-boy guard Richie Incognito — he didn't hesitate. He hated to do it, but he did it.
Fans and media like to see a coach go off, lash out, throw a tantrum. That act plays very well on the Internet, on the talk shows and in the stands. Spags came across as a nice guy. Too nice, perhaps. But he wasn't going to sell his guys out to cover his own backside. And that commanded loyalty in the locker room.
"I do have my moments," Spagnuolo said. "We're human. I was probably harder on the coaching staff than anyone, but they can handle it. But I don't think you get anywhere by taking your personal frustrations out on players. There were a couple of team meetings where I hit them square in the face with the reality of it. And what had to change. And I've done it this summer, too. Sometimes you need to do that. But I don't think you need to do it through the media. And I think players respect that."
Spagnuolo was able to navigate through the adversity with the considerable support of his best friend, his wife Maria. She's a volunteer at the St. Louis Dream Center, which offers assistance on a variety of levels to the city's poor, with a special emphasis on children.
"It's probably because of the wife I have," Spagnuolo said when I asked why he was able to remain so undeterred in 2009. "And I still believe that Maria and I are here for a reason, and it might not just be to win football games. It might be bigger than that. And so we hang onto that and by doing what we're doing."
Spagnuolo still has a lot to prove as he enters his second season, which begins Sunday at 3:15 p.m. against the visiting Arizona Cardinals.
Among the questions:
Is he a shrewd judge of personnel? Will he put the right players on the field?
Are his assistants capable? If not, will he make necessary staff changes after the season?
Will his game management improve?
Can Spagnuolo develop a rookie quarterback, Sam Bradford?
And all coaches must show improvement where it matters most, in the standings. Not many NFL coaches have survived, let alone thrived, after winning one game in their first season. But it has been done. Chuck Noll was 1-13 in his first season (1969) with the Steelers, and they went on to win four Super Bowls. Jimmy Johnson went 1-15 in his first year (1989) with the Cowboys, and he later won two Super Bowls. But there are also dozens of examples of career coordinators who couldn't make a successful transition to head coaching. It's too soon to know about Spags.
Spagnuolo says he learned a lot through his rookie season of trial and terror. He says he spent too much time installing and obsessing over the defense. He tended to withdraw to his office too often, instead of remaining visible throughout the building. He believes he needs to interact more with players. And devote more time to the offense. And Spagnuolo has worked on that checklist this summer.
"Basically I've learned to spread myself around more," he said.
Yes, Spagnuolo is sleeping in the bathroom again. But that means he's working late hours, getting ready for the new season. His goal in 2010 is to have fewer sleepless nights and be liberated from the insomnia of losing.
Re: Bernie: Spagnuolo ready to tackle season ..
If this was a Facebook message I would press the like button. This article has me jacked for the season
Re: Bernie: Spagnuolo ready to tackle season ..
Another well written article by Bernie in the last few days. Its hard not to like what I read about Spags. I hope Devaney can give him enough talent to succeed. Reading these articles make me pumped for Sunday!! I can't wait for football to start again.
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