This is the job Steve Spagnuolo always dreamed about. He is head coach of the Giants, albeit in an interim fashion. For years as a defensive coordinator with this franchise he envisioned standing in front of the players as their leader in a team meeting as he did Wednesday morning, stepping up to the lectern with the big “NY” on the front to face the TV cameras as he did Wednesday afternoon, and getting a chance to command the sideline at MetLife Stadium as he will do Sunday.
But when he woke up after the long flight from Oakland with the smoke of change thick throughout the organization, he did something he probably never thought he would.
“I prayed Monday morning that it wouldn’t happen,” Spagnuolo said. “I’ll be honest with you.”
It didn’t work. Ben McAdoo was fired late Monday morning and Spagnuolo was asked by co-owner John Mara to guide the team through its final four weeks of this dismal season.
“I don’t know that it’s all caught up to me yet,” he said. “I’m not going to lie: In the past, I had thought about this. But, because of how fast it all happened, I haven’t thought that way . . . As soon as that happened, it was ‘boom!’ You shift gears. Let’s figure out what we’ve got to do for Wednesday. Everything was just focused on today. The players, the practice, etc.”
Spagnuolo put an immediate thumbprint on the way things are done without adding to the inevitable chaos that comes from change. He tweaked the team’s schedule to a more traditional one, in which it will practice on Fridays and have a walk-through on Saturdays. In an effort to create unity he instituted a practice dress code that limited players to wearing gray sleeves, blue shorts and gray pants. And he insisted that the playlist for the pre-practice stretch include Frank Sinatra (the speakers blared “That’s Life,” a Spagnuolo favorite, although he conceded many of the players had no idea who it was).
Once practice began, though, Spagnuolo was in pretty much the same role he had as defensive coordinator (a title he still technically holds). He was the one snapping the football as the defensive players worked on getting off the line, he was the one acting as the quarterback as they worked on their fits.
“The defensive football coach in me is not going to change,” he said. “I’ve already been down this road and will figure out exactly how we’re going to do it, but I like doing the tackling drill that I did. I like doing the walk-through with the defense. I want to be a part of it. I want the guys to feel me there.”
Spanguolo has been a head coach before. He spent three unremarkable years leading the Rams in St. Louis, going 10-38. He takes some lessons from that experience with him to this job.
“I’ve got, I want to say it’s six pages, a typed-out list, that has all of the ‘What would I do next time?’, ‘What did I think I did wrong?’ ” he said. “I’ve already reviewed that. I’m not going to reveal them all. It’s too long of a list. But sometimes you learn more from failure than you do from success. We’re going to kind of improvise and adjust as we go, but I’m hoping all of that will help.”
Spagnuolo said he spoke with McAdoo shortly after the Giants decided to transfer on-field authority from one to the other.
“A hard conversation,” he said. “I’m not going to share the whole thing. I have a great deal of respect for him. I told him what I just told you, that I think he did a heck of a job and I do believe that he will be a head coach in this league going forward.”
Spagnuolo, whose defense is ranked 32nd, said that made the conversation particularly awkward. “I feel personally I’m one of the guys that let him down,” he said. “We failed as a team, but part of that failure was me.”
And now, it’s his job to try to clean it up.
“I’m honored that ownership asked me to do this,” Spagnuolo said. “I will give it every ounce of energy that I have out of respect for this organization and I’ll give every ounce of energy to help unite, restore, and win football games. That’ll be the goal.”
If he somehow can do that, he might have a chance to one day stand where he stood Wednesday, but without the interim label. Mara said Spagnuolo will be a candidate for the head- coach vacancy, and these four weeks will be an audition. Spagnuolo interviewed for the position two years ago when McAdoo was hired.
Regarding that matter, Spagnuolo has a different prayer than the unanswered one he turned to on Monday.
“I’m not focused at all on that and I would say this to everybody and I mean this sincerely: I leave that in God’s hands,” he said. “I’ll be where He wants me to be, and right now He wants me to be here for this game, and that’s how I’ll function. And that’s as honest as I can get.”