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Mind Body Spirit: Springfield College's Mystical Coaching Domination

How has tiny Springfield College come to dominate the NFL coaching ranks?
September 9, 2014, 12:35pm
Photo by Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

The year 1890 was a beginning of sorts. Rose Kennedy, the matriarch of the famous political family, was born in July. The New York Metropolitans defeated the Washington Nationals 4-2 in the first professional baseball game on September 29. The inaugural Army-Navy game was played exactly two months later; the Midshipmen won 24-0.

Also in the fall of 1890, Amos Alonzo Stagg enrolled at the Young Men's Christian Academy Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. Stagg was a recent graduate of Yale, where he had played end on the football team and was named to the first-ever All-America team. The Young Men's Christian Training Academy would later be renamed Springfield College. More than a half a century after Stagg set foot on campus, in the late spring of 1956, Mrs. Kennedy's second son John would deliver a commencement address there. His message would resonate with the school's graduates for years to come, "Stay in Massachusetts. Give back to Massachusetts."

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Stagg fielded the school's first football team, nicknamed "The Stubby Christians," and coached them for the next two autumns. He was succeeded by another notable athletic innovator, Dr. James Naismith, who was also an instructor at Springfield. Both educators continued to fine tune their respective games, Stagg at the University of Chicago, where he won two national titles in football, Naismith at the University of Kansas, where the basketball court is named in his honor.

These men, along with William Morgan, a student of theirs who went on to invent volleyball, laid a foundation for generations of young men and women to enter a career in coaching by way of Springfield College. Springfield alumna are coaching everywhere, and their influence is felt on high school and college campuses across the country: on lacrosse fields and basketball courts, synthetic tracks and grassy outfields.

Springfield's influence is even—and maybe especially—felt in the country's most popular professional league, the NFL. In fact, during the 2014 NFL season, there will be just five weeks—2, 9, 10, 12, and 15—that do not feature a game with Springfield coaches on opposing sidelines. And many of those coaches are swimming in Super Bowl rings.

Mike Woicik, a strength and conditioning coach, has six from his time in Dallas and New England -- second most in NFL history. John Ramsdell, an offensive assistant with the Panthers, won a ring with St. Louis in 1999. Steve Spagnuolo earned his by devising one of the greatest defensive game plans of all time in Super Bowl XLII. Dave Magazu, now Denver's Denver offensive line coach, has made it to the big game twice: in 2004 with Carolina and with last season's Broncos. Kevin Spencer, now the Chargers' special teams coordinator, won with the Steelers in 2006.

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Springfield is the fourth largest city in New England, birthplace of not only basketball, but the first American-made musket and the cherished work of Dr. Seuss. But the city, 90 miles west of Boston, has been plagued by gangs and violence. It consistently ranks as one of the most violent small cities in America, and the murder rate increased by 58.3 percent between 2012 and 2013. There were three shooting deaths in August within five miles of the Springfield College campus.

The campus is right in the middle of town, a fairytale inside of a nightmare. The grounds are pastoral. The lawn is well-manicured. The damage from a tornado that touched down on campus in 2011 is no longer visible among the classic red brick buildings and low-slung newer structures. Adding to the surreal fairytale vibe are the triangles: every building is emblazoned with the college's distinct emblem, an upside-down equilateral triangle. It's Springfield's version of the "Hidden Mickey," in which Mickey Mouse heads are placed subtly and strategically throughout Disney theme parks. You don't notice them until you do, and then they're everywhere.

Springfield College takes the triangle seriously. It stands in for the school's mission, to educate the spirit, mind and body, each of equal importance. The triangle appears everywhere from apparel to letterheads; Triangle is the name of the alumni magazine. It fits into something that the college calls "Humanics," which sounds like an invented Freemason concept left over from the colonial era, and is defined by the school's website as "the age-old Greek ideal of the balanced individual."

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Somehow, the triangle has become a stand-in for the lessons of Stagg, Naismith, and Morgan. It follows alumni off campus and into the coaching ranks.

"All of us who went there, we all remember the triangle," said Spencer, "and no one else knows what the heck we're talking about, but there's no doubt [Springfield has] produced tremendous coaches at all levels."

"The biggest thing about Springfield is in the way they develop educators," said Spagnuolo, who along with Dick MacPherson is one of two Springfield graduates to attain a head coaching job in the NFL. "The people stress values and character. We all kid about the spirit, mind, body, but its the essence of the triangle that people carry when we leave there; it's instilled in you. That tends to come out in teaching, mentoring, coaching at any level. That was the essence of what I learned there."

There is something pleasantly cultish about the manner in which Springfield people talk about their alma mater. There is a sense of, Yes, we do believe there is something magical about where we chose to spend our college years. Springfield people, per the traditions set forth by their predecessors on campus, say hello to strangers on walks to class and refuse to cut across lawns. These traditions hold forth post-college, too. Springfield people continue to say hello, and continue to take the long way well after they leave campus. The school's athletic teams are called the Pride.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Miami University in Oxford, Ohio is called the "Cradle of Coaches," dubbed so for producing football minds as well-known as some of the players they coached. Canonized names like Paul Brown, Woody Hayes, and Bo Schembechler all went to Miami.

It's not just the legends, either. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh played football in Oxford; New Orleans' Sean Payton got his first offensive coordinator job there.

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Football coaches are produced in Ohio with the same efficiency as steel at the old Buckeye Steel Castings plant, the "Cradle of Coaches" moniker now afforded to anyone with Buckeye State ties. However, this doesn't preclude friendly-fire between coaches, defending their turf.

"I have an ongoing argument with John [Harbaugh]," said Spagnuolo."They claim it to be [the] 'Cradle of Coaches.' I think volume-wise, if you spread it through college and pros, Springfield buries those guys. Now we're infiltrating the NFL."

"If you look at it from the long haul," said Tim Murphy, "Springfield has produced far more coaches than Miami. Springfield is renowned for their coaching at all levels."

Springfield students take classes in coaching. Keith Bugbee, a thirty-third year lacrosse coach and professor of physical education teaches one called "Principles of Coaching.:

"There's a culture in our athletic programs and in our classes," he said. "That culture includes winning games, but family and team is the most important thing … at Springfield, they drink the Kool-Aid."

Regardless of alma mater, great coaches share certain attributes, which are embedded in the students on campus.

"[A great coach is] doing it for the right reasons," said Murphy, who is Harvard's all-time winningest football coach. "When I got into the profession, it wasn't a great living. Today people think they're going to be Nick Saban. For me, that wouldn't have made sense. I got into it because I have an appreciation and respect for the people who coached me."

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"A lot of sports has to do with molding people's characters," said Spagnuolo. "Sports are a lot more about life and the lessons you learn that you gotta take with you. In this league, some guys might be done in four or five months. These are guys you hope you helped in some way to make them be a better person as men. As a coach, a teacher, educator, and mentor that's what we're trying to do."

Still, though, Springfield's success—considering its size, considering its location, considering its humble beginning as a YMCA training school—seems to be less tactical than it is mystical. And in the big money, big hitting world of the NFL, it feels anachronistic.

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Springfield College's idealistic philosophy—that unified triangle, three sides coming together to complete a whole—should run counter to the way things work in the National Football League. In the NFL, players are just mercenaries with their own goals. Humanics has no business in a place where the physical and mental well-being of the players has long been abandoned, and the notion of a team being greater than the sum of its parts no longer exists; a place where men with multi-million dollar contracts line up next to kids looking to work their way off a practice squad.

"From the standpoint of impacting lives, there's not a difference," said Spagnuolo, almost dismissively. "We can all mentor someone. Even in the pros, there's a lot of young men. They're big and strong and they're gladiators, but they're young men. There's not a big difference, from the teaching end. Players will always entrust a coach that will invest in them and help them become a better player. Anyone who sees a coach who wants them to become better, if they find someone who'll do that, they'll follow."

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"If you're doing this, you want to coach the best and obviously this is where the best players are," added Magazu. "It's fun. You can demand a lot of these guys, but that builds trust and relationships and they respond well. It's a misconception about these guys that they don't."

The Springfield coaches say that the only differences between coaching at the amateur or professional levels are atmospheric. The triangle ideology still applies. It's teaching.

"[Teaching] accomplishes the ability to communicate, to care for more than just winning touchdown," said Spencer. "It's about caring for these guys, their families, teaching them responsibility. All those things are necessary for teaching football and teaching life. That's what makes a great coach: to be able to teach on or off the field, at any level.

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Perhaps the reason a school with less than 4,000 undergraduate students has sent so many coaches to the NFL is less than magical. Springfield graduates are extremely and actively connected. Each conversation I had with a Springfield coach ended with a recommendation on someone else to call, and a phone number—or else a text moments later with the same information. Maybe there are so many Springfield coaches in the NFL because Springfield coaches are great at networking.

Then again, perhaps they network so well because they truly buy in. Springfield people even claim they can recognize each other, as if by some unspoken language.

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"It happens all the time," said Bugbee, the professor, "Where I'll talk to a guy and he seems to get the bigger picture a little better, or there's something different about him. It's uncanny how many times he ends up being a Springfield guy."

College students are vulnerable to believing things. They extrapolate meaning from the mundane, are easily moved and easily influenced. It's hard to quantify which professor, which book, which philosophy will stick as a student grows into a more fully formed person. What can one school offer that another can't? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.

At Springfield, there is certainly something there. Maybe the legacy is self-fulling. Maybe the only difference is the buy-in: saying hello to strangers, not walking across the lawn, believing in mind, body, spirit.

On the cover of a decade-old Springfield College brochure is the question: "Can one college change the world?"

Then, upon opening the fold the answer is provided: "This one can."

Whatever it is, the mystical triangle lingers. The line of coaches, unbroken all the way back to Naismith and Stagg, continues to perpetuate.

"Many times, if I don't see interview requests, I just won't get to them," Magazu said of our conversation, "but whenever I see something about Springfield, I'll always call back."