Sports Columnist Bryan Burwell

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
05/03/2009

Trying to find Steve Spagnuolo out there on the sprawling Rams Park practice fields during Saturday's minicamp at times felt like a game of "Where's Waldo?"

One minute he was with the defensive backs, knees bent, arms flexed, coach's whistle violently flipping and bouncing from the long lanyard around his neck, giving some wide-eyed rookie the hands-on treatment ...…

Then he disappeared behind a phalanx of dark blue jerseys, walled off by giant linemen and linebackers on the far end of the practice field ...

Then he was over there, crouched on the edge of a seven-on-seven passing drill ...Then he disappeared again ...

Only to end up on the other side of the practice field, waving his arms and shuffling his feet as he back-pedaled to demonstrate a particular defensive maneuver to a cluster of linebackers.

The Rams new coach is a little man (5-foot-8) in an oversized NFL world, which in part explains the disappearing act. His practice garb is straight out of the minimalist school: He goes hatless with long khaki pants, short-sleeved wind shirt and a whistle. His practice routine is straight out of the minimalist school, too: nothing terribly flamboyant. He crouches a lot. He moves a lot. He ducks in and out of crowds all over the three practice fields almost like a mole popping out of a burrow. He's here ... then he's there ... quiet one moment, animated the next, observing and teaching, briskly moving from one cluster of position players to the next as he begins this daunting mission to resurrect an ailing franchise.

"I've been trying to get involved more with the defensive guys on the field, but it's kind of hard because sometimes I don't even know where I'm supposed to go on the field," he said early Saturday morning before practice. "But I like getting around and seeing all the spots, and I guess a lot of it is a learning experience for me too."

Spags laughs about this because he's smart enough to know that those wide-eyed rookies aren't the only ones learning on the fly. This is his first shot with the big whistle around his neck. It's no longer just about his defense. It's about his team, his vision, his dream.

He's been dreaming about this most of his coaching life, and now it's here, and everyone's eyes are on him, waiting to see exactly what sort of head coach Spags turns out to be, including Spags himself.

I ask him how it feels to be at this moment where the entire Rams organization is in his hands, what it feels like to finally be at that place where his lifelong dream of believing he COULD BE a head coach is butting up hard against the reality of discovering if he really IS legitimate head-coaching stock, and he gives me a knowing nod.

"It's funny you should say that because we all think we're ready to do the job before we get it," Spanuolo said. "When I first got to Philadelphia to work for (Eagles defensive coordinator) Jim Johnson as a position coach, I was 39 years old just coming from being a coordinator in NFL Europe and my thought process was'Oh, I can be a coordinator (in the NFL)!' "

The inflection in Spagnuolo's voice was the mocking bluster of youthful overconfidence. "That was the boldness and confidence I had," he laughed. "That's how you think when you're young. And then you find out later on — and I know this now — I wasn't anywhere near ready to be a coordinator then."

There is no mock inflection in his voice when you ask him if he had that same epiphany since taking over as the Rams head coach. Spags doesn't think he's ready. He knows he is. But the difference between the brash 39-year-old position coach and the confident 49-year-old first-time head coach is that the older man knows what he doesn't know.

"There are always things that come up where you're not expecting it and you just have to roll with it," he said. "I bet you that every head coach will tell you that everything's not in the book. Not everything you've experienced is going to prepare you for this. There are going to be some curveballs there and you just have to roll with it. That's part of the job. I haven't had any major curveballs come my way just yet, but we haven't played any games yet either. So far so good, but I gotta say, that makes me a little worried."

Spagnuolo's coaching book is a thick volume culled mostly from the brains of his old bosses in Philadelphia (Andy Reid) and New York (Tom Coughlin). He is a bit more Reid than Coughlin, mainly because he spent the most time in Philly. But he definitely has a little Coughlin in him, right down to his meticulous nature whereby he seems to be something of a detail-oriented freak.

He has taken the individual photos of players off the walls at Rams Park and will soon replace them with group shots that represent the team. "All of the pictures were about one individual, and that's not what we want to be about," he said. "We're going to replace them with team-oriented shots. A gang tackle, the whole offensive line. I think that's important."

There are other changes he is making that may seem strange for now, but Spags reminds you that there is a method to his madness.

"Hopefully it will make a little more sense to the players as we go along," he said. "I've asked them to embrace change, trust what we are doing in hopes that later on it might make sense."