Playing By His Own Rules

By Jason Schwartz | Boston Magazine |

ONCE A WEEK, BOSTON College athletic director Gene DeFilippo goes for a walk with his new football coach, Frank Spaziani. With Boston’s skyscrapers rising to the east and BC’s Alumni Stadium looming to the west, they stroll around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, discussing strategies and players. "He sees certain things," Spaziani says. "You know, he might say, ‘Hey, how’s so-and-so doing?’ or ‘What’s your strategy on that?’ He likes to hear it, and he understands it."

Now in his 13th year at the Heights, Spaziani was promoted to coach earlier this year in no small part for his loyalty to Boston College and, in particular, to DeFilippo. He likes the back and forth he has with the AD; they talk two to three times a day. But it’s easy to see how other coaches might chafe at that level of input from their athletic director. Few ADs discuss strategy with the football staff. Instead, most focus on—as their title suggests—administration, and pumping alumni for money.

DeFilippo does that, too, of course. Annual athletic giving at the school is up more than fourfold in the past decade, from less than $4 million to $17.4 million. Those numbers can be seen as a reflection of BC’s on-field success during DeFilippo’s 12-year tenure. The football team, the cash cow of the program, has gone from consistently sub-500 to winning close to 70 percent of its games. The men’s basketball squad has improved similarly. Both teams now make bowl games and tournament appearances annual affairs.

DeFilippo’s biggest accomplishment, though, was also his toughest: maneuvering the Eagles from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2005. The switch was unpopular with some alumni and fans, not to mention the four Big East conference schools that sued him over it. But thanks to TV contracts, DeFilippo says, BC has pulled in about $11 million from the ACC this year—$5 million more than it ever got from the Big East.

For all the success that he’s brought to Chestnut Hill, though, DeFilippo remains a polarizing figure in the Boston College community. The harshest criticism tends to come from the die-hard Eagles fans, who were outraged this past January when DeFilippo informed head football coach Jeff Jagodzinski he could either entertain an interview request from the New York Jets for their head position, or remain at BC. Jags interviewed. DeFilippo fired him.

The episode was an embarrassment for BC, which came off looking as if it considered its football program on par with the NFL. This fall will likely see more humiliation for the school. The Eagles start the season with their third coach in four years and are picked to finish last in their division. And yet, for all the drama over the Jags debacle and all the flak from the die-hards, Gene DeFilippo just might be the perfect man for Boston College.

AT LEAST SINCE HIGH SCHOOL, Gene DeFilippo has been in control. He quarterbacked Northampton High—situated nearly two hours west of BC’s campus—where he was good enough to go on to start two years at nearby Springfield College. Lacking the athleticism to play at a higher level, he graduated in 1973 and took a job as a lowly assistant coach at the University of Tennessee. DeFilippo earned a master’s degree in educational administration at UT, but, perhaps just as important, forged a strong friendship with Phillip Fulmer, a freshman team coach who would go on to serve as the Volunteers’ head man from 1992 to 2008.

"Phillip Fulmer and I had always talked about, for years, me being the athletic director and him being the coach," DeFilippo says. "Every day when I got up, I said, ‘You got to go in and work, because you’re one day closer to being the athletic director at the University of Tennessee.’"

After making coaching stops at Youngstown State and Vanderbilt, DeFilippo crossed into administration, first as director of administrative services at Vandy, then as AD at the University of South Carolina Upstate and associate AD at Kentucky. From there he went on to Villanova, heading its athletic department between 1993 and 1997. "And then I came to Boston College in ’97," he says. "And by about the year 2000, I was hooked."

Not so hooked, though, that when Tennessee’s AD position came open in 2003, he didn’t consider moving south. Despite publicly denying interest in the Vols job, DeFilippo interviewed for the gig. He ultimately pulled himself out of the running and signed a contract extension to stay in Chestnut Hill, but not before his interest in the position became known to the media.

Six years later, that flirtation allowed DeFilippo’s critics to paint him as a hypocrite in the wake of the Jagodzinski controversy. But a far more widespread complaint is that DeFilippo is an incurable micromanager, especially when it comes to the football team. Greg Barber, a recently retired Boston College trustee and longtime patron of the football program, has been a vocal and persistent detractor of DeFilippo’s. (The two had a falling-out about five years ago.) He says DeFilippo’s tight grip led not only Jags to leave, but his predecessor, Tom O’Brien, too. "When administrators start to do the coaching, you get problems," Barber says. As an example, he contends that after O’Brien’s departure, DeFilippo alienated at least one potential replacement by mandating which assistants he could and couldn’t hire. DeFilippo denies this, saying he only "recommended strongly" some names. One of those strong recommendations, it should be noted, was that then–assistant coach Spaziani be retained.

DeFilippo, of course, ended up hiring Jagodzinski—a move that ultimately led to this winter’s showdown. The reason for the Jags ultimatum, the AD says, is simply that his aspirations were bad for BC football. "Nobody can convince me that when someone’s out there looking for a job, it doesn’t affect recruiting," DeFilippo says.

WINNING AT BOSTON COLLEGE is a difficult trick. DeFilippo often jokes that some alumni want the school to be Harvard on Monday through Friday, and Alabama on Saturday afternoon. In order for BC to upgrade its athletic reputation from Notre Dame Lite to something like Duke or Stanford, the school would need to do something that it’s never done under DeFilippo: make it to one of college sports’ truly big-money events, either a major bowl game or a Final Four. But there’s a price to be paid for that type of on-field success. Check the news, and it seems that nearly every NCAA football or basketball title comes bundled with diminished academic standards, out-of-control spending, and embarrassing ethical lapses.

DeFilippo is not that kind of AD. Rather, he is exactly the kind of AD that university president Father William Leahy wants. Famously indifferent to sports, Leahy is likely more impressed by his school’s ability to draw 40 percent more applicants from the South since joining the ACC than by its performance on the field. Thus, DeFilippo can feel free to jettison players who fail to meet BC’s academic standards. This summer, for instance, the Eagles’ presumed starting quarterback, Dominique Davis, failed out. A different school might have fudged Davis’s grades to keep him around—after all, he was the Eagles’ only option at quarterback. DeFilippo didn’t do that. That type of decision-making is probably why, in the wake of the Jagodzinski affair, Leahy signed him to a contract extension through 2014.

Granted, DeFilippo’s overbearing style may mean that Boston College won’t be able to lure the sort of hotshot coach who could vault the school into the top tier of the nation’s football programs. But it also means that BC’s athletic program won’t ever sink to the moral depths seen at places like Memphis and the University of Miami. On the field, the Eagles may be worse for it, but Boston College is better.

Staff writer JASON SCHWARTZ profiled Boston Globe union chief Dan Totten in the June issue.

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