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Man in motion
The best part of Steve Addazio’s day
It was the last Saturday in March, early in the morning and frosty outside, and Alumni Stadium was still being referred to as “the Bubble.” Invited to watch the Eagles practice, more than a dozen high school football players and twice as many parents had assembled in the lobby of the Yawkey Center. The players and coaches were finishing their morning meeting, I was told, as I claimed my press credential at Yawkey. Practice would start shortly “over in the Bubble.”
Just after 8:00, we made the quick walk to the stadium, moved through a revolving door, and entered the Bubble. It looked as if a giant white-and-maroon parachute had descended over the field and kept its shape. (First set up in 1998, the Bubble turns the stadium into a year-round facility, not just for football but for nine other varsity sports as well.) A couple of kickers were already at work, blasting footballs through the uprights. As the guests spread out on the near sideline, the rest of the team trotted in, wearing full pads and uniforms, and the players fell into a series of light jogs and stretches.
Suddenly an air horn sounded. The coaches converged and herded the players toward the end zone closest to the guests. “Circle drill!” someone called out. The players started clapping and bouncing, forming a large circle pulsating with energy. In the middle, wearing a gray track suit, was Head Coach Steve Addazio, 55 years old, bald, mustachioed, gripping his clipboard, looking like he’d just morphed into a pro-wrestling promoter. He bellowed out the name of one player, stretching the syllables, and then another. The two players jumped into the circle, assistant coach Justin Frye blew his whistle, the gladiators grappled and shoved, and the noise level escalated. The whistle blew again when one player was pushed back to the edge of the circle. Then Addazio called two more names and another match was on. After that, another.
When I later asked Addazio about the “circle drill,” he responded: “Circle of life. No place to hide. You’re in the middle of the thing, in front of your peers, and you’re competin’. It’s kind of like the Teddy Roosevelt quote: It’s the man in the arena that counts. You’re in the arena, here it is. Someone’s gonna win, someone’s gonna lose.”
Within five minutes the circle drill was over. Addazio uses the drill as a way to set the tone for the day, but the results count, too. Frank Piraino, the strength and conditioning coach, was in the middle of the action, recording the wins and losses. Addazio concluded the exercise by pulling the players into a huddle and telling them, “We’ve got to take care of each other but we gotta compete. We gotta have a good practice—a lot at stake today!”
At that moment, the Eagles squad was 155 days away from the opening kickoff of the 2014 season, set for the last Saturday in August on the home field of the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium, against the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. But everything about the high-energy practice that Addazio leads is designed to keep the players focused on competing now. In the moment. Like most of the 15 spring practice sessions, this one was designated a “winner/loser day.” When the offense faced the defense in scrimmages, tallies were kept over the two-hour session. At the end, the losing squad did extra calisthenics. And at the far end of the field, there were two skyjack lifts with four video cameras filming from about 40 feet above the artificial turf. If coaches weren’t immediately sure who was having a good day or a bad one, they’d know later when looking at the film.
Meanwhile, the spectators along the sidelines were trying to imagine the future. The high school athletes and their parents were there to imagine themselves as part of the Boston College experience two, maybe three years down the road. And the several of us scribbling in notebooks were looking for signs of how this team might look in the coming season.
Addazio was brought in soon after the Eagles ended the 2012 season with a 2–10 record, the worst showing since 1978. After four years as head coach (16 years on staff), Frank Spaziani was shown the door. In his first season last year, Addazio led the team to a respectable 7–6 record (4–4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the ACC). Was this the beginning of a major turnaround? Could Boston College return to its high standard of fielding a bowl team every year (as it did for the 12 years 1999–2010)?
To get an understanding of the Steve Addazio School of Football, I dropped in on a couple of spring practices, as well as the Jay McGillis Memorial Spring Game on April 5. I spent some time that month with a staff member reviewing film and talking football strategy. Then I sat down with Coach Addazio in June for an hour-long talk. I wanted to know how the team was shaping up, but also what he thought about certain controversies swirling around the sport of football—the concern about concussions and whether student-athletes ought to be able to unionize. On all matters, I got an earful, strong opinions delivered in what seems to be Addazio’s default mode: hortatory, energetic, adamant.
He said he saw himself involved in a five-year rebuilding project and that it was his goal to see the Eagles eventually compete for an ACC conference championship. “This is a tough program. And that’s what I want,” Addazio told me in June. “It’s tough to coach here, it’s tough to play here. We talk about being tough, we want a tough environment. That’s our philosophy. Someone else can do it differently. That’s how we do it.”
There were a number of things that surprised me when I watched the spring practices. One was the energy level—not just among the players but among the 10 coaches on the field. Things run quickly, according to a detailed plan. Players would be in individual position drills, then an air horn would sound and players were lining up for an offense vs. defense scrimmage. Then more drills, then scrimmage again. The scrimmages I saw had a full complement of uniformed referees on the field, with assistants moving yardage markers, and players up against the clock. The one break from game conditions was that these were “thud” practices. Players were allowed to make contact, but not to tackle to the ground.
Addazio was usually on the field about 10 yards behind the offensive line. He would watch the plays, but seemed to be watching his coaches intently, too. They all do a fair amount of yelling. Addazio has a bellow that comes from deep in his gut. At one point he leaned into the offensive huddle and exhorted, “Better get your ass goin’!” Another coach was upset at someone on the defensive line. “Technique! Technique! You don’t have any technique!”
At the same time, Addazio was the one coach who multitasked his way through practice. In lulls he would pull his cellphone out of his pocket and check messages. At the Saturday practice, when the sideline was full of potential recruits, he’d take breaks to have short conversations with high school players, parents, and visiting coaches. I spoke with a high school junior who plays quarterback for a Catholic prep school in New Jersey, who had made the trip with his much beefier teammate. “I’ve talked with Coach Addazio like five times already,” he told me.
At another point, I found myself conversing with Andrea Williams, who proudly told me her son was out on the field, number 64—Harris Williams, a senior on the offensive line. She said Coach Addazio “is huge on family,” welcoming the participation of parents in multiple ways. She recounted a “town hall”–style meeting Addazio held with parents shortly following his appointment. After Addazio finished speaking, she said, “If Coach had offered my husband a uniform, he would have put it on.”
As the Saturday practice unfolded, we began to get a sense of the kind of team Addazio has assembled. One of the biggest keys to last year’s success was the breakout performance of running back Andre Williams ’14. Williams had been recruited by Spaziani but hadn’t flourished. As a senior last year he became the top running back in the nation, racking up 2,177 yards (a Boston College and ACC record) earning him the Doak Walker Award and serious consideration for the Heisman Trophy. (Williams became a fourth-round NFL draft pick, selected by former Boston College head coach Tom Coughlin and the New York Giants, in May.)
Williams fit perfectly with the kind of offense Addazio likes—a power-running game that grinds out yardage. At the same time, the Eagles were led by senior quarterback Chase Rettig, who wasn’t known for his foot speed or dazzling passing game. Now that Rettig has graduated (he was undrafted but signed with the Green Bay Packers), Addazio has brought in two quarterbacks who can run and pass: Tyler Murphy, a fifth-year player who transferred from the University of Florida, and Darius Wade, an incoming freshman (an early enrollee), who was a high school standout in Delaware. (The Eagles will also have available as quarterback incoming freshman Troy Flutie, son of wide receiver Darren Flutie ’88 and nephew of Boston College legend Doug Flutie ’85.)
We saw glimpses of a different offensive scheme this spring. In fact, two plays that concluded the March 29 practice suggested the ways a more mobile quarterback can open things up. Here’s how that practice wound up: The offense was lined up on the 25-yard line at the deep end of the field. Tyler Murphy took the snap for a play called the Dingo, a play-action pass (which starts out looking like a run). He rolled to his right, giving his receiver more time to get down field, then launched the ball. It went 45 yards in the air and was caught near the 30-yard line by Jeffrey Jay ’15, who ran it into the end zone.
As I admired the long pass from the nearby sideline, I saw assistant coach Frank Leonard galloping down the field, faster than you would expect of a 55-year-old, pumping his fist and whooping, getting to the end zone in time for the back-slapping. Defensive coordinator Don Brown stood at mid-field looking displeased. Then the offense and defense hustled back for the next play. This one saw a pass to mid-field intercepted by the defense. Now it was Leonard’s turn to spin around in disgust. And then the teams lined up for the final snap. The offense was backed up to the 15-yard line, and informed it was a third-down situation. Darius Wade, the young lefty, was in at quarterback. The play was the Double Go; he took the ball in the shotgun, five yards or so back from the line, and rolled to his left. He sent the ball 50 yards in the air to Drew Barksdale ’17, who caught it at the 43 and ran it to the 20 before being knocked out of bounds. Again the offense celebrated. They had won the day. It was the defensive squad that stayed after for the extra workout.
There were similar flashes of razzle-dazzle in the spring game on April 5 at Alumni Stadium, which again featured the offensive squad against the defense, with a complicated scoring system that awarded points for defensive stops, first downs, and touchdowns. (This wasn’t a full-tackle game.) Murphy started at quarterback. But the power-run game was visible, too. Freshman Tyler Rouse took a handoff from Murphy at one point and ran the ball 40 yards into the end zone. Sophomore running back David Dudeck also pounded the ball hard into traffic. Charlie Callinan, a 6’4″ red-shirted freshman receiver, caught a few passes and looked momentarily like a Rob Gronkowski–style player, a big target, hard to bring down. But perhaps the highlight of the game occurred on the opening kickoff. Freshman running back Myles Willis caught the football on the bounce at the 5-yard line and ran it all the way down the sideline for a touchdown. Most fans in the stands probably came wondering who would fill the shoes of Andre Williams. By the end of the day, there was reason to hope Willis and Rouse might pack the necessary offensive punch.
Not long after that game, I met with Nick Charlton ’11 in the offensive staff conference room in the Yawkey Center. Charlton is a graduate assistant (he received his MS in administrative studies at the Woods College of Advancing Studies in May) who works for offensive coordinator Ryan Day. He’s a former high school quarterback (Salem, Massachusetts) who majored in philosophy at Boston College and gives every sign of being a future football coach himself. During his four undergraduate years, he was a student manager for the team. We spent an hour looking at film—called up from a laptop and projected on a screen at the end of the room—and talking about varying offensive strategies. He talked about the spread offense versus the power-run game, and hybrid versions. Coach Addazio favors a “gap-scheme” offense, which creates a wall of offensive linemen moving in one direction to open up space for running backs. It’s considered an “old-school” offense, Charlton said. At the same time, the offensive staff wants to add “cutting-edge” variations that keep opponents off balance.
With that, he called up a moment in last season’s November 23 game against Maryland to illustrate the point. We watched as the offense lined up at mid-field. There were four linemen to the right of the center, two to the left, in an unbalanced formation. Suddenly the two tight ends on the line on the right side went into motion, heading back toward the center, while offensive lineman Matt Patchan (another transfer from Florida and a graduate student) jumped up from the left side, heading for the vacated spot. The defense reacted with confusion. Before they could reset it was too late: Andre Williams took a handoff, went hard to the right, and exploited the opening. He took the ball to the 11 before going out of bounds, and the Eagles ended the drive with a field goal after being stopped at the 5-yard line. (They won the game, 29–26 on a 52-yard field goal by Nate Freese ’13 in the final two seconds.)
Charlton’s point was that Addazio likes to keep defenses off-balance, facing situations they may not be used to. And in the coming years, with quarterbacks who can run the ball, they hope to have a few more ways of doing that.
Addazio elaborated on that point when we spoke in June. “Our forte is a big physical offensive line, a big punishing running game,” he said. “That’s almost gone a little bit out of vogue, which makes it more attractive now, because other teams don’t practice against it anymore.” The more common offense, he said, favors spreading the line out, giving fast players and great quarterbacks more room to operate. Addazio likes going against the grain. “There’s an advantage for us now in slowing the game down,” he said. “People are speeding it up; last year we slowed it down. People are spreading it out; we closed it in. People [favor] a perimeter run more; we’re more downhill run.”
Though his background is as an offensive coach (he held offensive coaching positions at Indiana, Notre Dame, Syracuse, and Florida, before working two years as head coach at Temple), he speaks the same way about the defensive challenge.
“I hired Coach [Don] Brown because I wanted an attack-style defense,” he said. “I wanted a blitzing attacking defense that’s going to create negative-yardage plays and turnovers and sacks. That’s what we did last year. Philosophically, we’re not going to play on our heels. We’re going to attack. I’ve made that decision.”
The schedule called for a 10:00 a.m. interview with Coach Addazio that day in early June, but it was about 10:45 before I was ushered into his spacious corner office. I told him I thought things would have slowed down in June. Far from it, he said. It was clear he’d been involved in a contentious meeting with his coaches. “I was late this morning because we’re in there having a recruiting meeting, and I have to ask all the tough questions,” he said. “I’ve got to challenge people, I’ve got to drive people, I’ve got to hold people accountable, because I’m in charge of this program and recruiting is the number one thing that has to happen.”
He wasn’t talking about lining up the incoming class of 2014–15, of course—that was in place by February. He’s got 32 additions to the 66-man spring roster coming in. Players would be arriving for summer sessions in a matter of weeks and preseason training camp would start August 1. But he and his staff were bearing down on the final decisions about what the team would look like in the fall of 2015.
“When programs fail, there’s a lot of potential reasons why they fail,” he said. “The biggest one is recruiting. Either not working hard enough, or smart enough, or paying enough attention to detail. When the talent level drops the play’s going to drop. It’s all important—how you conduct your practices, your strategies, your this, your that—it’s all important. But nothing’s more important than recruiting.”
Addazio’s roots are in Connecticut—he was born there and got his first coaching job there, as an assistant at Western Connecticut State University. He’s stated publicly that his intention at Boston College is to get the best talent he can find within “a five-hour radius.” Not that his staff doesn’t look far and wide, he told me, but in the competitive world of college football, you have a better “hit ratio” with local players—a better chance of getting them to come.
I asked Addazio how young he was when he first played football. He recounted his disappointment that he wasn’t allowed to play in the junior league before high school because he was too big. He played informal tackle football in his backyard but didn’t join a team until his freshman year in high school. In retrospect, he thinks that may have been a good thing. At a young age, kids shouldn’t be specializing in one sport—they should be trying as many activities as possible, he said.
With that opening, I asked him about the increase in concern about football injuries—especially concussions. The Boston Globe Magazine had just run a cover story in March, I noted, asking the question: “Should you let your child play football?”
“Absolutely,” he said, answering the Globe‘s question. (He’s answered it that way in real life, too: His son Louie is a junior tight end for the Eagles.)
Hadn’t he attended, just a week ago, a meeting of coaches and experts discussing the injury issue? I asked.
He had. The ACC had held a meeting in Florida with head coaches, athletic directors, and specialists brought in by the NCAA. “The information is that there’s a lot of misinformation,” Addazio said. “Are we concerned right now about injuries in all sports? Absolutely. Are we concerned about head injuries? Absolutely. Child-player welfare? Yes. But you’ve got to deal with factual information.”
I asked about recent media coverage of the rights of college athletes, a story that got bigger last March when the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Illinois ruled that football players at Northwestern University have the right to bargain collectively.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” he said. “You are paid to come here. You’re given a full scholarship to Boston College. And I can only speak to us—what’s that worth? About $60,000 after taxes? That’s what you’re given. Room, board, books, tuition, a scholarship, and a wonderful opportunity to be a part of the team? I didn’t get that. And you didn’t get that. O.K.?”
As for unionization talk at Boston College, he said, “That’s not an issue here. A non-issue.”
Addazio didn’t grow up in a sports-obsessed family. Recalling his late father, Louis, who was a professor of Asian Studies at Central Connecticut State University, he said, “He used to call me his ‘jocko son.'” But Addazio knew in high school that he loved football and he dreamed then of becoming a professional player (he played offense and defense on the line at Central Connecticut). If that wasn’t going to work out, he was even then thinking about coaching football as the next option. There was never any other serious ambition. So when he found his way to the head coaching position at Connecticut’s Cheshire High School after four years as an assistant at Western Connecticut, and his team won three state titles in eight years, he said, it was “the best thing ever to happen to me.”
There was a moment after one of the spring practices when Addazio gathered the players into the final huddle and went into pep-talk mode. At one point, he called out to a guest to join the huddle and say a few words. It turned out to be Joe Tessitore ’93, a broadcaster for ABC and ESPN (also a sports director for WZBC in his student years) and a longtime friend of Addazio’s. Tessitore told me later that he feels a bond with Addazio because they’re both excitable Italian-Americans from Connecticut who have a passion for football. Tessitore covered Florida football when Addazio (and star quarterback Tim Tebow) were there. The two have had, he told me, numerous “long Italian dinners” discussing “big philosophies of life.”
I asked Tessitore what Addazio is like off the field, away from all the intensity of football. Much different, he said. He’s not the kind of personality who “takes over a room and smothers the atmosphere.” The word that best describes him, he said, is “embracing.”
“He is not a whirling dervish of hyper energy. He is intense, only because he exudes such passion for success and passion for everybody who touches upon his life, and whose life he touches.” “There are a lot of offensive line coaches in football who are nothing but glorified drill sergeants,” he said. “That’s not what we’re dealing with here.” Addazio may look that way to an outsider, he continued, but he’s a “deep, connective kind of guy.”
Standing about 20 yards away from that closing huddle, I heard Tessitore tell the players that the reason he gets up early to drive up from Connecticut and look in on a Boston College practice is because he gets a charge out of the energy he sees. Wrapping it up, Addazio then exhorted his players: “The best part of your day should be right here. It’s the best part of our day!”
It would be easy to say Addazio loves life inside this Bubble and merely tolerates the glare of publicity. But of course all the preparation inside the Bubble means nothing if you don’t step eventually into the arena. The expectations of Boston College’s fan base are high, and Addazio feels it. “People want it done now,” he said. “People don’t have patience. By year three, I mean, ‘How come you’re not winning 10 games?’ That’s preposterous. The average fan will say, ‘What’s the problem?’ ‘Why aren’t we winning?'”
“This is a harder, tougher deal right now. We are in an elite conference, at an elite time in this conference. The ACC has never been stronger than it is right now. When you start talking about getting into the 10-, 11-win mark? That’s harder now than it’s ever been here.”
With that, he started talking about developing the student-athlete “academically and athletically and socially and spiritually.” “This is not a football factory, this is not a place where the most important thing is 10 wins and winning a national championship,” he said.
I told him I’d heard that from other coaches. And yet, doesn’t it usually come down to the win-loss record in the end? “Therein lies the fine line,” he said. He told a story about being at Notre Dame under head coach Bob Davie and fielding a team that had a 100 percent graduation rate. The next year, in late 2001, the coaches were fired “because we didn’t win enough games. That’s the reality of our business,” he said. All the other things matter, “but the win-loss thing’s gonna get you.”
That’s the arena Steve Addazio lives in.
Dave Denison is a writer based in the Boston area.
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