Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Coaching change didn't affect the winning attitude of Boston College players

These Boston College Eagles just won't go away.

They lose their coach, they keep winning. They lose their star quarterback, they keep winning. People write them off, year after year. Yet they remain.

This was supposed to be the bad season, wasn't it? Matt Ryan shuffled off to the NFL. A handful of other stars also moved on -- a Kevin Challenger here, an Andre Callender there -- widening the gap between Tom O'Brien's then and Jeff Jagodzinski's now.

But look: Here's BC, winner of four out of five and favored Saturday against Virginia Tech.

Trouble again.

"I'm not surprised," said Tech coach Frank Beamer, who had more faith than the voters who pegged BC as fourth in the Atlantic Division this preseason. "I knew they lost some [players], but I thought they'd still be good. And they are."

Since the turn of the millennium, 15 teams in major college football have posted a winning percentage of .700 or better. Tech's on that list, as are longtime powers such as USC and Oklahoma and Georgia.

So is BC.

For years, we thought the explanation was pretty simple: Stability at the top. O'Brien began the revival in 1999 and didn't let up, the theory went. But now that he's been gone for two seasons, we can see that it's deeper than that. It's the PLAYERS up there who don't let up.


Progress report

"You can change coaches," Tech offensive lineman Nick Marshman said. "You can change schemes. But there's one thing you can't change: You can't change the heart of anybody.

"They go out there, they line up, they hit you. Then they get up, line up and hit you again."

And that's where it all starts, with the personalities of the players they recruit. Tech baseball coach Pete Hughes, who previously spent eight seasons at BC, sums up typical Eagles football players well: "Hard-nosed, tough kids who come from modest beginnings."

Jagodzinski calls them "big-picture guys," and they are his recruiting target. They're the type who don't care who gets the headlines in the newspaper or the features on "SportsCenter." The type who won't draw dumb penalties or take wild risks that lead to turnovers.

"I think that's the reason we are consistent," Jagodzinski said. "Because we get the consistent kid every year."

As a result, BC loads up on studs at the positions that lack glamour, the kind of players who don't make great magazine covers but contribute to winning just the same. We're talking about gritty linebackers such as Brian Toal, space-swallowing defensive tackles such as B.J. Raji, hulking O-linemen from tackle to tackle.

"They always have the most good-looking linemen that you'll face all year," Tech defensive end Orion Martin said. "Usually their tackles are all 6-7, 6-8, 300 range. They're athletic. They can move their feet. They can run block, pass block. You've really got to play your A-game when you play against their linemen."

Says Hughes, who also used to coach football at Northeastern: "If you're a premier offensive linemen, you're going to look at Boston College."

Hughes believes the retention of assistants Frank Spaziani and Bill McGovern helped BC ease into the post-O'Brien era. Spaziani, in his 12th year, presides over the nation's No. 5 unit in total defense. McGovern is one of the premier recruiters in the Northeast.

The guys he brings in have another unusual trait, Tech players say. They don't run their mouths during the game.

"Not at all," Martin said. "I've played them four times, and they've never talked trash, whether they're losing or winning. That's one thing I've always had respect for when playing them."

The Eagles are the second-least penalized team in the ACC, so the chances of the Hokies getting a momentum-changing flag in their favor for the fourth straight game are miniscule. The Hokies right now are the ACC's least-penalized team, a welcome change of recent form in Blacksburg.

But some things haven't changed. BC is still solid. BC is still winning.

And like Beamer, perhaps we should all stop being surprised.

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