All season, even as the bad luck and losses kept multiplying, Steve Spagnuolo buried his head in his work and drove ahead. He didn't worry about the chatter outside Rams Park that he might lose his job. But last Sunday night, after all the games had been played, he finally faced the obvious.
After three seasons and a 10-38 record, he quietly began to consider the inevitable: He was going to be fired.
Then on Monday the inevitable happened when Spagnuolo was relieved of his duties as the Rams' head coach.
It had been nearly 29 years since he first decided to become a football coach, and this would be the biggest setback of his professional life. Over the past few days he has had a lot of time to think.
In a wide-ranging interview in his home in Lafayette Square, Spagnuolo admitted that getting fired for the first time hit him extremely hard. He used the word "disappointment" repeatedly. He was disappointed that he couldn't finish the job he started, disappointed that he won't be around when the turnaround is complete.
Since Monday, he has spent a lot of time on the phone, listening to advice from a ton of friends including Tony La Russa and Dick Vermeil, and contemplating the meanings of his religious faith.
"I was talking to one of my friends and confidants (Baltimore Ravens head coach) John Harbaugh," Spagnuolo said. "We were talking about how if you concentrate on the disappointment of some people or if I concentrate on (letting) my own pride get in the way, I would struggle with (coping with the firing).
"But as a Christian, I believe that pride is a downfall. So I try to back off of those emotions, though I'm not always successful at that. I instead try to concentrate on the blessings I have. I thank God the phone's been ringing. I thank God that I'm healthy. I thank God I have a wonderful wife. And with that, you just look forward.
"Somebody said to me, 'Sometimes rejection is God's protection,'" Spagnuolo said. "So you say, 'OK, God, show me what's next and I'll roll with it.'"
Are you bitter about how it ended?
"I am not bitter at all. I understand the business. I do. I get it. I'm only disappointed in not being able to continue this thing (because) I really believe it's ready to take off. And so the disappointment comes from not being able to see that through. Yet if the players experience (success), I'm OK with that because it's always been about the players."
Are you more annoyed that you didn't do what you started out to do, or that you didn't get a chance to finish what you started out to do?
"Am I annoyed? No. like I said, I'm disappointed. But I get it. That's how it works. You have to accept and respect the decisions that are made and move on."
What did you learn the most from this experience as the Rams' coach that when you get your next shot, you might do differently?
"Would I do some things differently? Yeah, I would. I don't know how much specifically I want to get into that right now. But I will also say this: There are a lot of things I would do exactly the same. A lot, because I am so convinced of the way we built it, of how we were doing it."
If Rams owner Stan Kroenke had given you the chance to finish the job, would you have tinkered with your coaching staff — as many of us had suggested?
"I don't know. I would have to look at that."
The reason I ask is because in conversations with several players, all who requested anonymity, they said you would have had more success with a more experienced staff.
"I don't know if I necessarily agree with that. I think there was enough experience there. But I can go back to staffs that I have been on where there were many young coaches who grew and became great coaches. I thought we had a good mixture of experience and youth. I do know this. It takes good coaching and good players. It takes a combination of both."
(Asked for specifics about why I felt that way. I mentioned several instances in which plays broke down because of what seemed to be either poor decision making or simple lack of execution.)
"But when you propose that to me you're assuming that the player didn't know what to do. You assume that he wasn't coached to know what to do in that situation. Well, what if he did know what to do, but still didn't do it? So who's at fault then, the coach or the player? Look, nobody plays a perfect game. No one calls a perfect game. I would hope that everyone involved would accept their part in this, too. But the simple fact is, when it doesn't go right, ultimately the bottom line is the buck stops here. We didn't win enough games, so that falls on me."
Let's talk about another criticism I heard about your approach as a head coach. Some players say you didn't take their counsel well, that you were a 'my way or the highway' kind of guy. Is that valid?
"I was certainly like that early on intentionally because I wanted to establish some things. But both (Philadelphia Eagles head coach) Andy Reid and (New York Giants head coach) Tom Coughlin told me I had to do that when I first took over. I knew it was going to upset some people, but you had to do it. You do have to have discipline in this business. But I think over the last two years, I think I lightened up a little bit more."
It was 1982, Steve Spagnuolo had just graduated from Springfield (Mass.) College and he wasn't really sure which way his life was about to turn. He had been accepted into Harvard Law School. He also had applied to the University of Massachusetts to work on his master's degree in sports management with an eye toward becoming an agent.
But mostly he was trying to decide if he wanted to be a football coach. He applied to be a graduate assistant on the UMass football team.
"Can you believe I thought about being an agent?" he recalled with a chuckle.
The career choice debate didn't last very long once Spagnuolo figured out how much "boring reading" was ahead for him if he chose law school.
"So this is the life I chose," he said. "I decided I wanted to be a coach."
Now, for the first time, he is experiencing the most negative aspect of his choice.
Since that day in 1982 when he was hired as a UMass graduate assistant, Spagnuolo always was a star in the making — climbing the coaching ladder, bouncing from one good opportunity to a better one.
Twenty six years later, he was being hailed throughout the NFL as a defensive genius when, as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator, he designed a Super Bowl game plan that ended the New England Patriots' undefeated season.
A year later, he was hired as the Rams' head coach.
"These last few years have been something of a whirlwind for (his wife) Maria and I," Spagnuolo said. "It's been one non-stop swirl since the day we got married seven years ago. And then one morning you wake up and BAM, you're fired."
So what's next for Spagnuolo?
"In all honesty, I don't know," he said. "I was let go on Monday, and today's Friday and I am very blessed in this way. The phone has been ringing. There has been contact (from several teams), but I have asked that everyone respect the fact that I need some time to figure out what I want to do next, and so far, everyone has."
And how much time does he need to figure out what he wants to do?
"I don't know," he said. "I'm not sure."
When he suggested to Maria that he might take the year off and spend time with her, she started to laugh.
"I know Steve, and I told him no way," she said laughing. "There's no way he will be able to sit around for a year doing nothing. … He loves coaching way too much to sit around idly for a year."
But the Spagnuolos are a fiercely religious couple, and because of their faith — and their connection with Joyce Meyer Ministries' Dream Center in north St. Louis — they have contemplated that if he does take a year off, they would do Christian missionary work in Africa.
But deep in his heart, Steve Spagnuolo knows where his passion lies. He loves coaching more than anything, which is why there's a strong likelihood that he will get right back in as soon as possible.
"There are two extremes for what I'd ultimately like to do, and a lot of possibilities in between," he said. "The extremes are (1) sitting out a year, or (2) getting another head coaching job. One is realistic, the other probably isn't very realistic. No one has asked me to be a head coach yet and I'm not saying that is going to happen. But everything in between — like being a coordinator again, or maybe a position coach — yeah, those are both realistic possibilities. Would I think about a college job? No. I love this league too much."
It took a few days, but Spagnuolo finally stopped thinking about what went wrong in St. Louis and started writing notes about all the blessings he and Maria received by coming here. His wife spent all her free time working at the Dream Center, which allowed the Spagnuolos to meet and spend time with Joyce and Dave Meyer and so many others who are a part of the Meyer Ministries.
"We gained as much if not more from being a part of the Dream Center than anything we've received," he said.
They loved living in the city, devouring its flavor and history. He can rip off the names of his favorite restaurants in quick order. He cherished his relationship with Vermeil, which began awkwardly 19 years ago when they first met when Spagnuolo was an assistant coach on Jack Bicknell's staff for the World League' Barcelona Dragons and Vermeil was in town to broadcast the game for ABC. Spagnuolo picked Vermeil up at the airport in a little Fiat and didn't know how to turn on the lights and a comical incident ensued when they went into a dark tunnel and Vermeil was screaming at this young kid to turn the darned lights on.
But the relationship he valued the most in St. Louis was the one that was nurtured with La Russa.
"If I hadn't come here I would never have had the special relationship I have with Tony," he said. "I remember all the phone calls that came during the tough times. I remember being able to just bounce things off of him. That man, you talk about an encourager and a loyal friend, a guy who has your back. Even now, he leaves messages. He's been through it all, and he's been so supportive."
And what was the best piece of advice he ever received from La Russa?
"Oh that's easy. Tony told me all the time, 'Trust your gut, don't cover your butt.' I hope that's what I always did here."