Monday, January 19, 2009

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

Steve and Maria Spagnuolo call it divine intervention, some might say it was a simple twist of fate but through no intent of their own, the Spagnuolos were married at the world’s most famous Catholic destination four years ago.

The trip to Italy for a wedding had come as planned. When the pair had decided to get married, they had decided they didn’t want a big, fancy wedding. In fact, they wanted to get away to the country of their respective heritages.

So with much careful thought and planning, the couple opted to have the wedding in Italy. They wanted a simple ceremony in a Catholic church in Rome.

For their marriage to be acknowledged in the United States, there were plenty of obstacles including enough paperwork to put Mead out of business.

“Believe it or not, if you try to get married in another country, you talk about paperwork,” Spagnuolo said. “This paperwork around here is nothing.”

Indeed, the task of getting married in Rome proved too difficult and the Spagnuolos had to call an off the field audible.

As it turned out, that audible was as successful as any defensive call the Rams’ new head coach made in his two years as the wildly successful defensive coordinator of the New York Giants.

In his research of the various wedding opportunities in Italy, Spagnuolo recalled a rule that allowed for people to skip some of the inane paperwork and be married. Of course, to do this, the couple had to go through the easy task of getting married at the Vatican.

Sure, Vatican City is a country unto itself and was governed by its own rules but for most couples hoping to wed there, the nuptials were planned at least two years in advance.

“We are talking about the Vatican but this is my simple mind,” Spagnuolo said. “If you walk in the main basilica is right there but there are eight chapels, four on one side and four on the other. I’m saying to myself well how hard can it be? Just throw us in one of those chapels.”

Easier said than done. The Vatican only allows for two marriages a day, one at 10:30 a.m. and the other at 4 p.m. every day except Sunday.

Fortunately for the Spagnuolos, a priest who had worked with Steve with the Eagles in Philadelphia had relocated and had connections at the Vatican.

After forking over $200 for a best man and maid of honor to serve as witnesses, the Spagnuolos tied the knot.

“That was an act of God, divine intervention,” Spagnuolo said.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Growing up in Whitinsville, Mass., just outside of Boston, Spagnuolo was one of five children to mother Carol.

From an early age, Spagnuolo was pretty much the All American kid. He loved sports, playing quarterback on the football team, second base on the baseball team and center on the hockey team.

Like most kids in the area, he kept a close eye on the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Bruins and the Celtics.

While sports were his outlet and an area of great enjoyment, Spagnuolo also excelled in the classroom as a straight A student. Carol Spagnuolo was a teacher and had piqued Steve’s interest in academics at a young age.

Even as an eighth grader, Steve knew where his future would be.

“Me and a buddy of mine wanted to go the Springfield College, get a phys Ed degree and come back and coach high school football,” Spagnuolo said. “That was the dream. When you are in eighth grade, that was the dream.”

It was an attainable dream that didn’t seem far from Spagnuolo’s grasp considering his academic prowess and athletic ability. While he wasn’t the biggest kid in his class, Spagnuolo earned a reputation for his scrappiness whether it was running the wishbone as the Grafton High quarterback or buzzing around as the diminutive center for the hockey team.

In the end, it was football that held Spagnuolo’s affection. He accepted a scholarship to play football at his beloved Springfield College, where he would play wide receiver and earned that long coveted physical education degree.

One part of the dream was complete but when he took a job as an intern for the Washington Redskins in 1983, Spagnuolo’s dream began to evolve into something more.

“I did the internship with the Redskins, got a taste for that and always had it in the back of my mind,” Spagnuolo said. “But I always had a love for the game.”

It was in Washington where Spagnuolo first met a young scout named Billy Devaney. There, Devaney and Spagnuolo would engage in regular two-on-two basketball games against Wayne Sevier and Jerry Rhome.

Suddenly, Spagnuolo envisioned something more for himself than returning to the high school ranks as a coach.

THE BIG LEAGUES

Over the better part of the next 15 years, Spagnuolo found himself working in nearly every situation imaginable.

Spagnuolo moved on to the University of Massachusetts as a graduate assistant, earning his Masters degree in sports management in two seasons there.

From there, Spagnuolo bounced from college to college, mostly on the east coast with stops at Lafayette, Connecticut, Maine, Rutgers and Bowling Green.

One decade after meeting Devaney, Spagnuolo finally got his foot back in the door in the NFL when Devaney hired him as a scout.

Spagnuolo’s coaching ascension wasn’t limited to east coast colleges and NFL scouting departments, though. He spent a season as the defensive line and special teams coach of the Barcelona Dragons of the defunct NFL World League in 1992. In 1998, he returned overseas as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach of the Frankfurt Galaxy.

Finally, after about 16 years of waiting, Philadelphia coach Andy Reid brought Spagnuolo aboard as a defensive assistant.

Spagnuolo wasted no time in soaking up every bit of information he could get from Reid and quickly rose through the ranks. Working with Reid and legendary defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, Spagnuolo learned the ropes of NFL defense and earned a reputation for his willingness to do whatever it took to win.

“Jim was a mentor and is a mentor for me, because of who he is and how he coaches defensive football,” Spagnuolo said. “I wouldn’t be the coach that I am, I wouldn’t have had even a chance to have any kind of success as a defensive coordinator had I not worked with Jim. Just his passion for the game, the way he goes about it, his aggressive style certainly is something that I’d like to adopt.”

Apparently, Spagnuolo adopted that philosophy quicker than he thought. After a brief flirtation with Minnesota’s defensive coordinator position, Spagnuolo accepted that same position with Philadelphia’s NFC East Division rivals, the New York Giants.

Installing the same type of attacking, aggressive, exotic defense he learned under Johnson, Spagnuolo transformed the Giants defense into one of the league’s most feared units.

And instead of simply falling in line with the basic tenets of Johnson’s pass rush packages, Spagnuolo took those basics and expanded on them.

For example, Spagnuolo took the idea of third down pass rush specialists a step further, regularly employing four speedy defensive ends all across the defensive line so as to create mismatches across the line.

“You could see when he first came in here, early on, that he is a stand-up guy,” Giants cornerback Corey Webster said. “We all had to earn his trust, but once we did, we began to play the aggressive style defense we all love to play. He is an aggressive coach by nature and that’s what makes him fun to play for.”

By the time Spagnuolo’s defense had harassed and stunned the heavily favored Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl, he was one of the hottest coaching candidates on the market.

Spagnuolo had a pair of interviews with Washington before withdrawing his name from consideration.

“WE DIDN’T THINK WE COULD WAIT THAT LONG”

As Spagnuolo’s defense put the cap on another strong season in 2008, finishing fifth in the NFL in total defense, the Giants earned the NFC’s top seed.

Meanwhile, in St. Louis, the Rams and new general manager Devaney had begun the search for a new head coach.

One of the first names to come to Devaney’s mind was Spagnuolo but it never really occurred to Devaney that Spagnuolo would even be available because of New York’s winning ways.

“I just assumed the Giants would be in the Super Bowl again,” Devaney said. “We talked about every conceivable candidate, coordinators, coaches that had been fired, college coaches. We went over every conceivable name. When his name came up, we thought he’d be great, he’d be a finalist right away but chances are I don’t know if we can wait that long. Chances are they are going to be in the Super Bowl. We didn’t spend the initial phase a whole lot talking about Spags.”

When the Eagles upset the Giants in a NFC Divisional Playoff game on Jan. 11, Spagnuolo was suddenly available.

While the Rams were interviewing candidates all over, Spagnuolo had already had preliminary discussions with Detroit, Cleveland, the New York Jets and Denver about their coaching vacancies.

All the while, Spagnuolo was torn between assuring his coaching duties were tended to because of his responsibilities to the Giants.
But with New York’s season at an end, Spagnuolo was free to speak with any team he wanted.

Most assumed Spagnuolo’s was too sought after for the Rams to reel in but soon after the Giants’ elimination, his old friend Devaney had set up a “finalist” interview in Los Angeles.

When Spagnuolo entered the interview room with Devaney, director of player personnel Lawrence McCutcheon, owners Chip Rosenbloom and Lucia Rodriguez and senior adviser John Shaw, he only knew Devaney.

It was his job to win over the rest of the contingent. Four to five hours later, that’s precisely what he’d done.

“It was a plan, it was a confidence,” Devaney said. “The leadership part came out. That was the thing everybody felt good about that was obvious. He was sincere and the biggest thing was he wanted to be a coach of the St. Louis Rams. That kept coming through. He was excited about it; he was going to embrace every facet.”

Less than 24 hours after that interview, Devaney made his recommendation to ownership that Spagnuolo should be the next head coach of the St. Louis Rams.

By Saturday, the sides had come to an agreement on a four-year deal for just under $3 million a year to make Spagnuolo the 23rd head coach in franchise history.

THE FOUR PILLARS

Upon his introductory press conference on Monday afternoon, Spagnuolo represented everything Devaney had looked for in a head coach.

As he set out on the search, Devaney had identified 11 traits he was looking for in a head coach. At the top of the list was leadership.

A confident Spagnuolo stepped to the podium and laid out pieces of his plan for returning the Rams to past glory.

The foundation for that turnaround? Something Spagnuolo refers to as the four pillars.

“As a head coach, I will be committed to doing everything possible to bring success to this franchise,” Spagnuolo said. “I’m not about predictions, I’m not about bold statements, but we hope that we’re going to be about faith, character, core values and team first those will be the four pillars that we will hang our hat on.”

In that one, Vermeil-esque moment, Spagnuolo had made it clear what he wants to accomplish as the head coach of the Rams. The emphasis will be on team, one group working as one toward a common goal.
The task for Spagnuolo won’t be easy. But he and Devaney are the faces of a franchise that has needed someone to step forward and take the organization back to the heights it once reached.

Spagnuolo will hit the ground running Tuesday as he and Devaney travel to Mobile, Ala. for the Senior Bowl. There, Spagnuolo will spend most of his time searching far and wide for a coaching staff as he will likely not get many opportunities to leave his room.

And though Spagnuolo and Devaney have a good idea of some names they are interested in and they’d prefer to get the coordinators in place first, they don’t plan to rush into anything.

Included in that process will be formal interviews and discussions with each member of the current coaching staff.

“That will be the first and foremost thing that we do,” Spagnuolo said. “To put a timetable on it, I think the bottom line is that we want to be able to get the best coaches that we can get. Sometimes, that means waiting. So, we’ll be patient. We’ll go through the process and hopefully get it done as soon as we can.”

A BLESSED AFFIRMATION

Last summer, Steve and Maria Spagnuolo took a weekend trip to Newport, Rhode Island. After getting settled into their hotel room, the Spagnuolos flipped on the television to catch the news.

There, on the screen, was a familiar face being ordained as a minister in town. Spagnuolo instantly recognized the young man.

“This is how you know God is in everything,” Spagnuolo said. “We just happened to be in Newport, Rhode Island. We turn the news on in the hotel room and my best man is being ordained on TV in Rhode Island.”

Indeed, the best man Spagnuolo had never met but paid $100 for as a witness was right there on his television.

Call it fate, call it destiny, call it whatever you want, Spagnuolo couldn’t help but get that same feeling he had when he saw his best man on that television when he found himself in that room interviewing to potentially become the next head coach of the St. Louis Rams.

With one of his oldest friends in the league as the general manager and the opportunity to rebuild, Spagnuolo couldn’t help but think he was anywhere but the exact right place at the exact right time.

“Things happen for a reason, you make decisions along the way as what you have laid out in front of you,” Spagnuolo said. “You will find that my wife and I are strong Christians and believe that God has directed us here. It’s not just about X’s and O’s and football. I think everything has happened in a way that is exactly the way it was supposed to happen.”