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Steve Spagnuolo looks to be first 4x Super Bowl-winning coordinator

STEVE-SPAGNUOLO

LAS VEGAS – Steve Spagnuolo didn't set out to be a football coach. When he enrolled at Springfield College in Massachusetts in 1978, his goal was to pursue a career in education like his mother, Carol, a grammar-school teacher.

"I went to college to be a phys. ed teacher in high school," Spagnuolo said in a phone conversation last week. "My mother was a teacher. When I went to college, that's what I was going to do, because it was the same thing. I wanted to teach. I wanted to educate. At that time, it was going to be physical education, and then one thing led to another and I kind of teach and educate in a different way."

That way is teaching defense to professional football players. And few coaches in the NFL are as accomplished at that skill as Spagnuolo.

On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs' defensive coordinator will coach in his sixth Super Bowl, his fifth as a coordinator. He devised the Giants' defensive game plan that suffocated the record-setting New England Patriots offense in Super Bowl XLII. Spagnuolo has won two more Super Bowls in his five seasons with the Chiefs to become the only offensive or defensive coordinator to win Super Bowls in that role with multiple franchises. If the Chiefs defeat the San Francisco 49ers Sunday in Super Bowl LVIII, Spagnuolo will break a tie with four other coaches and become the first four-time Super Bowl-winning coordinator on either side of the ball.

The other three-time winning coordinators are Washington defensive coordinators Richie Petitbon (Super Bowls XVII, XXII and XXVI) and three former New England Patriots coaches, offensive coordinators Charlies Weis (XXXVI, XXXVIII and XXXIX) and Josh McDaniel (XLIX, LI and LIII), and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel (XLII, LIV and LVII). Crennel (XXI and XXV) and Weis (XXV) also won Super Bowl rings as Giants assistant coaches.

Spagnuolo is certainly in the discussion of the very best assistant coaches in NFL history.

Just don't ask Spagnuolo to engage in the conversation. Long one of the kindest and most pleasant people to work in the NFL, the self-effacing Spagnuolo deflects credit faster than Andy Reid devours a cheeseburger.

"You end up in the positions as they come, right?" Spagnuolo said. "You can't control that sometimes. I'll be honest with you, it's great to have all that, but it's always been about the relationships with the players. And I value that more than anything. When it's all said and done, I hope my personal legacy is that I was able to share, educate, mentor, coach, teach guys along the way in this business.

"It's always been about trying to influence, help, mentor, better somebody and something, and it happened to be football. So, I hope when it's all said and done, it'll be the relationships and I would've been able to at least help some guys along the way."

Spagnuolo, 64, did some of his best work this season, despite his unit losing numerous players to injuries, including linebacker Nick Bolton, the team's leading tackler, for nine games after wrist surgery. The Chiefs have two first-team defensive all-pros in tackle Chris Jones and slot cornerback Trent McDuffie, but in part because of frequent lineup shuffling on defense, the Chiefs were 9-6 after a Christmas Day home loss to the rival Raiders. They've since won five in a row, including three in the playoffs.

"I think everybody recognized when Nick was out what a great job (linebacker Drue) Tranq(uill) did," Spagnuolo said. "But we don't have Bryan Cook, who's our starting safety, with us; Derrick Nnadi, who's a tackle for us; and now you know about (defensive end) Charles Omenihu (who tore his ACL in the AFC Championship Game in Baltimore).

"But I will say this: every year is challenging. It's been up and down and we've grinded through it. But I'm fortunate in that a) I have a head coach (Reid) that lets us do our thing, and b) I have assistant coaches who are tremendous. I don't think our assistant coaches get enough credit for all they've done over the five years I've been here, because most of them stayed pretty consistent. And certainly, this year, when you lose guys and the next guy stepping in does a really good job, it's not just a credit to the guy that went into play, but it's a credit to the coach who had him ready."

The Chiefs finished the regular season second in the NFL in both points allowed per game (17.3) and yards allowed per game (289.8).

"The one that's always been important to me is the points allowed," Spagnuolo said. "I don't even worry about the total yards. We focus on the points allowed, our third down, red zone, turnovers, two-minute, all the situational things. If we can lead the league in those, the rest will take care of itself. Let's face it, the number one job of any defensive unit is to limit the amount of points that are scored. That gives your team a chance to win."

Kansas City has been even better in the playoffs, holding three high-scoring opponents -- Miami, Buffalo and Baltimore -- to a total of 31 points.

"If you don't step up defensively in the playoffs, you don't go very far, in my opinion," Spagnuolo said. "No matter how good your offense is, you've got to give it back to them without allowing the other team many points. We're going to need to do it again because we're facing the top offense as far as weapons, in my opinion."

The 49ers' offense is staffed with numerous excellent players, including quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Christian McCaffrey, wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, and tight end George Kittle. San Francisco's attack is orchestrated by head coach Kyle Shanahan, one of the NFL's most respected offensive coaches. Spagnuolo is familiar with the scheme after facing it in the Chiefs' Super Bowl victory over the Niners four years ago.

"I think what Kyle has done is taken these weapons and used them all equally," Spagnuolo said. "That's what makes it really hard to defend them. You go into (a game vs.) Tennessee, and you've got to take away (running back) Derrick Henry. You go into this game, and you say you're just going to take away McCaffrey and then the other guys are going to kill you. The quarterback's going to kill you with the tight end, the two wideouts. They've put together a heck of a group and they've done a great job."

Spagnuolo's first Super Bowl was in 2004, when he was the linebackers coach for Reid's Philadelphia Eagles, who lost to New England. Ironically, on Sunday, the Chiefs can become the first team since those Patriots to win consecutive Super Bowls.

In 2007, Tom Coughlin hired Spagnuolo to be the Giants' defensive coordinator. Spagnuolo earned a forever standing in Giants lore in that season's Super Bowl XLII. Tom Brady and the undefeated Patriots had scored a then NFL-record 589 regular-season points, but Spags' defense held them to 14 in an epic three-point victory.

"You get into a Super Bowl, and they're all huge challenges," Spagnuolo said. "But that was a pretty special thing."

Spagnuolo left after the 2008 season to become the head coach of the St. Louis Rams but returned for a second stint as the Giants' coordinator in 2015. He was the team's interim head coach for the final four games of the 2017 season. After sitting out the 2018 season, he returned to the NFL the following year as Kansas City's defensive coordinator. The Chiefs are in the Super Bowl for the fourth time in his five seasons.

"You never take it for granted," Spagnuolo said. "It's amazing to think that I'm going to my sixth. They're all special in their own way. It's so hard to get there. I'm hoping I'll do a better job this time, but typically at the end of them, because you're so focused on the grind, you don't really get to enjoy it. I'm trying to, each one I go to, absorb and embrace it a little bit more, because there's a chance you never get back again."

Spagnuolo has been in the coaching grind a long time, since he was a graduate assistant at the University of Massachusetts in 1982. He and his wife, Maria, have no children. Does he envision the end to his prolific run?

"It'll pop in my mind every once in a while," Spagnuolo said. "The only time that I even think about that is when I feel the lessened time with Maria, to be quite honest with you. When we're getting enough of that time, I don't even think about it. Because I love what I'm doing. I love being around the guys that I've got. I love the guy that I work for. And this is a special, special profession to be in. Very hard to give up, especially when it's going good. If and when I ever do decide, it's going to be because I want to spend more time with her or it's time to say, 'Hey, it's got to be more about Maria, and less about me.' And that time's going to come at some point. I'm just not sure when that is."

With the Chiefs making almost annual visits to the Super Bowl, and Reid and Patrick Mahomes at the top of their profession, Spagnuolo is amid a tremendously successful period that could continue for years. Who would want to walk away from that?

"But you know, maybe sometimes it is best to do it then," Spagnuolo said. "People say that. I think anytime you're in something that you love, it's hard to leave it. So, you've got to make the decisions at the right time. Hopefully, you're not forced out of it. None of us want that to happen. I'm just enjoying the ride right now and hope it continues."

And if it ends, it's not too late to be a high school phys. ed teacher.

"I know," Spagnuolo said. "It might be a little bit less stressful."

View iconic photos from the Giants' Super Bowl XLII victory over the undefeated Patriots.

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