By Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Tuesday, Jan. 20 2009
Everything looks good at a press conference. In the controlled setting of a
crowded auditorium on Monday morning, Steve Spagnuolo stuck out his lantern jaw
and calmly declared himself fit for the daunting responsibility of becoming the
24th head coach of the Rams.

If it was all about first impressions, then Spags nailed this one.

He walked up to that podium and said all the right things. He didn't stutter.
He didn't sweat. With an earthy New England brogue spicing his well-rehearsed
mission statement with plenty of extra vowels, Spagnuolo sounded like a
self-assured man who knew that this enormous moment was not too big for him.

"To me — and only because I think I have a little confidence in myself — I
think this has been a natural progression," the 49-year-old Spagnuolo said when
someone asked the question that is on the minds of everyone with a rooting
interest in the Rams:

How does he know he's ready to succeed as an NFL head coach?

A little smile seemed to curl up beneath that thick mustache, and a
matter-of-fact answer came out of his mouth. "I (coached) linebackers and
(defensive backs), then I progressed to (defensive coordinator) and the next
natural progression to me is to have the whole team."

Spagnuolo convincingly stated his case that he had arrived at this point not
like some anointed golden child being pushed too rapidly through the system,
but rather like an earnest craftsman who'd risen from apprenticeship to skilled
master artisan all in due time.

Spagnuolo talked about the daily lessons learned from his highly successful
coaching mentors Tom Coughlin and Andy Reid. He talked about how they carefully
prepped him, seasoned him, and then turned him loose only when they knew he was
ready to fly under his own power.

Now comes the hard part. Prove it.

NFL coaching annals are full of gifted assistant coaches whose résumés gave
them the appearance of can't-miss head-coaching commodities, but ultimately
exposed them as Peter Principle poster children. So there are no guarantees
that Spagnuolo will turn out any better than Scott Linehan or Rod Marinelli.

However, for the first time in nearly a decade at Rams Park, Spagnuolo at least
has a fair chance.

On Monday I heard something that I never thought I would hear someone say. A
few minutes before the press conference, the man who hired him — general
manager Billy Devaney — unraveled the biggest mystery in the history of Rams
Park.

He told me who was in charge.

Ever since I arrived in St. Louis seven years ago, I have asked a version of
that question a thousand times. Despite all my efforts, the best I could
determine is that there must be one very powerful mystery man within the Rams
organization named "Wazznn't Me," and his close right-hand man was "Hmmmmm ...
I Don't Know."

The Rams had a reputation as an organization run under the fuzzy cloud of
dysfunction, misdirection, political back stabbing and liability avoidance. But
over the past 24 hours, is it possible their reputation could have finally
shifted to transparent accountability?

If so, Spagnuolo will have a fighting chance to succeed where so many of his
predecessors had none. Let's begin with the symbolism of his initial press
conference. A lot of conclusions can be drawn from the absence of ownership
Monday. But whatever their personal reasons may have been for remaining in Los
Angeles (it was the one-year anniversary of the passing of their mother), the
absence of Chip Rosenbloom and Lucia Rodriguez may have sent an unintentional,
yet powerful message nonetheless.

There was Devaney as the lone management figure in the front of the room. What
that said to me was that this was the "new" Rams, where the general manager and
the head coach are the undisputed, readily identifiable faces of this
organization, and that is the way it ought to be.

"As much time as you spend in this business in those two positions, you have to
be attached at the hip," Spagnuolo told me. "I'm hoping that is part of the
foundation."

They will be like partners in a three-legged race, knowing if one man stumbles,
the whole thing goes down.

"That's exactly the way we envision it," said Devaney, who spelled out how he
would be in charge of the drafting of the players, but that Spagnuolo would be
responsible for choosing his roster and leading his men. "I'll be making the
call on draft day. ... But at the end of the day, the players need to
understand that there is one voice and that is the head coach, their guy, their
leader, and there can only be one leader."

An hour later, Spagnuolo sat in that same meeting room repeating the same
message as he talked about the circumstances that had brought two old pals
together again with a shared destiny they used to dream about as young football
grunts. "It's kind of exciting that it's all beginning at the same time for the
both of us," Spagnuolo said wistfully. "This business is too hard to succeed in
without people you get along with, without people you believe in."

Let's hope they both never forget that.