The Teachings Of Professor Azzinaro
“Growth mindset” was the buzz phrase floating around NovaCare this offseason thanks to a book titled Mindset: The New Psychology of Success that the coaching staff was applying to its teachings. Jerry Azzinaro was discussing the importance of this concept with a small group of reporters one day after practice this summer, and doing his best not to hate every second of it.
“I think it’s important for all of us. I have to – no offense to you guys – but I don’t enjoy this,” he said. “I have to have a growth mindset to come out here and not be all f—king pissed off. I’m just being honest with you.”
Azzinaro, the Chip Kelly confidant and leader of one of the top defensive fronts in football, has a way of cutting through the bullshit and grabbing the truth by the throat. A former Golden Gloves boxing champ and judo brown belt, the stocky Staten Island-turned-New England-er with the more-salt-than-pepper mop, thin-rimmed glasses and Santa scruff is an imposing figure whose voice cracks like a gun shot through the steady practice hum.
Push! Push! Push! Power. GO!
Don’t waste time! Strike!
Hands! Hands! Hands-hands-hands!
Let’s go! Tempo! Short and fast!
“Sometimes,” says Taylor Hart, who received his first jolt of Azzinaro as an 18-year-old freshman at Oregon and has studied under him most of his young adult life, “hard communication is good communication.”
But not far beneath the gruff lies what appears to be a philosopher’s soul. A lover of fine arts with a masters degree in educational psychology, Azzinaro draws on his life experiences — which includes a brush with death — to create a dynamic in his room where big-picture mentality works to sharpen a laser focus.
Azzinaro was administered last rites in 1999. The pain in his chest struck on a flight home to Maine from a coaching clinic in Pittsburgh. Once on the ground, he drove himself to the hospital and had emergency surgery after being diagnosed with acute aortic dissection — or tearing of the large blood vessel branching off the heart. Per the Mayo Clinic website, the condition typically occurs in men in their 60s and 70s. Azzinaro was just 41.
According to a study published in 2013 by The Society of Thoradic Surgeons, the operative mortality rate for cases from 1998-2000 was 23 percent. The doctors at the University of Maine Hospital where the surgery was performed were not optimistic he’d survive.
“You can’t say to yourself that having a life-threatening experience, where you’ve been given last rites, is not going to affect your view on the world,” he told ESPN back in 2011. “It validates how I wanna live my life. It makes you stronger and it makes you appreciate each day.”
Azzinaro had just been hired as Syracuse’s defensive line coach at the time. Thurmond Moore, who worked side-by-side Azzinaro as the defensive tackles coach for the Orange, couldn’t believe what he was seeing out of his new colleague given his health situation.
“When he got hired he had just come off heart surgery, and when you flip the lights on in the morning, he’s there and working his ass off,” said Moore. “And when you go home he’s still working his butt off. Motor. You know, motor. I think players [mirror] their coach. And I think that’s what is going on.
“I know he was doing all the right things for his heart but, god, I don’t know what most men or people do coming off heart surgery but most of the time those guys are pretty cautious. And Jerry, he wasn’t doing anything to injure himself, but he was going to live each day the way it was supposed to be lived.”
Opposing offenses managed just 3.3 yards per carry and 4.5 yards per play against the 7-5 Orange that year. Azzinaro stayed on for five seasons as the d-line coach/recruiting coordinator at Syracuse, where he was credited with molding a raw-and-talented Dwight Freeney into a star.
He took a job as Duke’s defensive coordinator in 2004 and followed that with brief stints as a d-line coach at New Hampshire and Marshall (where he coached Vinny Curry) before getting a fateful call from Eugene, Oregon in 2009.
“I’ve known Azz for a long time, maybe 25 years,” said Kelly. “We coached in the same circles. He was at Boston College a long time (mid 90’s). I actually coached against him when he was at UMass and I was at New Hampshire. You’d run into him on the road. I know people that knew him, that had coached with him.
“When we had an opportunity, when I was at Oregon and we had a defensive line job open, he was the best defensive line coach that I had known of so we brought him in and interviewed him, and he got the job.”
Under Kelly at Oregon, coaching candidates not only got interviewed by the powers-that-be, but also the players. And so it was that Brandon Bair found himself opposite his future mentor in a momentary position of power. He took it seriously. Knowing that his fate could rest in part in his new coach’s hands, he came prepared with a list of questions (which he has held onto for all these years) and got to grilling the rough-and-tumble character on the other side of the table.
“He still gives me a hard time about it to this day,” Bair said with a smile.
Azzinaro passed, and became a key device in an Oregon machine that went 46-7 with four bowl games and a national championship game appearance in four seasons. The Ducks led the Pac-10 in sacks in the first two years under Azzinaro, who helped build a defense to match Kelly’s vision.
“He’s a tireless worker. The guy will watch film forever and ever and study opponents and what I like to call ‘crack the code’, find a way to crack the code of offensive linemen or something that he catches – a lean or a tilt or something like that,” said former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. “Azz is a fantastic coach in all aspects. A lot of d-line coaches don’t know coverages and schemes; I hate to pigeon-hole them but a lot of them don’t, they just know their own little world. Azz has a great grasp of all of it – the back end as well as the linebackers as well as the d-line.”
Kelly called on him once again to help oversee a construction job as he moved the operation from Eugene to Philly. And this time, it would be Azzinaro who would have the opportunity to interview his future “boss”.
“When I first got the coordinator job, the whole staff was here. I was the last guy hired,” said defensive coordinator Billy Davis before practice Wednesday. “What they did at Oregon and the Pittsburgh background that I had was a big piece. So Azz and I in the interview process and talking through everything, we really hit it off. We have the same view of the two-gap system, the 3-4 and how it really stops Chip’s offense or can attack it.
“I came in and I didn’t know any of them, and I said, ‘I’m giving you my beliefs at the core,’ and they matched their beliefs at the core. That’s where it’s a good fit. It’s the defense that Chip would like to see is what we’re giving him, and Azz is a big part of that. Azz was there in Oregon giving him the kind of defense he wanted.
“We’re all equals as far game-planning and we talk everything out during the game. Like most things, it’s the ultimate team sport. And what people lose sight of is it’s the ultimate team staff also. It takes all of us on our mark and teaching the guys at a fundamental level and all seeing it the same way, and that’s what we have here in Year 3.”
For all the ups and downs this defense has had since Kelly arrived in 2013, the one constant has been ‘The Nobodies’ — a group of skilled and technically sound defensive linemen that anchor a unit that has ranked in the top five in opponent rushing yards/attempt each season since Kelly became head coach. (They are currently tied for second in the NFL with a 3.5 avg.)
Jeff Stoutland, whose relationship with Azzinaro dates back to the late 80’s when he was coaching at Southern Connecticut and Azzinaro at American National, says that part of what makes Azzinaro so good is his ability to identify what his “musts” are.
“And when I say ‘musts’, you can’t do every single thing every day all day. You would be out here for six hours practicing. So you have to pick and choose,” said Stoutland. “He knows exactly what he has to do with his guys to be successful versus the run and the pass, and he picks and chooses those things on a regular basis, and you can see it in practice when you go against him and you can see it on film.”
The “must” Azzinaro seems to stress above all others is for his group to have superior hand technique. And so day after day at practice, through spring and summer and deep into the fall, he goes to the sled.
“The big part about it is, that’s what we do every day,” said Fletcher Cox. “We hit the sled every day. We bang it and bang it. I feel like that’s helped us a whole lot in the run game. You can’t go defensive line against defensive line – obviously you’ll get someone hurt if you keep doing it – but the sled, we can beat up the sled all day. We actually break the sled a lot and kind of get Coach Azz going.”
“I’ve been places where the sled is in a corner and nobody ever uses it. Ever. Training camp, [nothing],” added Davis. “And it’s rusty and has cobwebs on it. Ours will never get that way. Ours break every other day because of how much they use it.”
“When you see us punching that sled every day? Sh-t, that’s what we do,” said Brandon Graham. (The outside linebackers regularly works with Azzinaro and the d-line.) “And that junk shows up on film.”
“I always look at the wall we create. They’re not blockers. They get off and make more plays,” said Davis. “Most people think that two-gap is just eat up the block and the ‘backers make the play. Our guys not only strike and read the run, but they shed as well as anybody. Not only are they building a wall and not moving back, but they’re able to shed, throw and go and make the tackle.”
And then there’s the mental side…
Azzinaro has developed quite a few nicknames over the years. At Syracuse they used to call him “Straight as an Arrow Jerry Azzinaro” Moore said, because he was “always forthright.” He has the title of assistant head coach with the Eagles to go along with his d-line responsibilities. When a reporter brought this up, he jokingly corrected him. “We like to say ‘Azz Head ‘around here,” he quipped. Kelly has referred to him as “Professor Azzinaro” while Davis similarly called him “Dr. Azzinaro” during a recent interview.
“He’s great with the players, he’s great with everyone in the building. He is a philosopher,” said Davis. “He has great deep thoughts about life and facing adversity and all those things. We talk about we’re a mentally tough team. Well, you don’t just become it. You’ve got Azz and all our guys talking about a lot of those things on how to handle adversity in both losing a play, losing a series, losing a game and then the life part of it. I think the guys are really appreciative of the other stuff Azz teaches besides football.”
Like Lizard Brain.
Graham scrolled through his phone to pull up the proper definition.
“I gotta get it right,” he said, then began reading from Psychology Today:
“The limbic system of the brain has been implicated as the seat of emotion, addiction, mood, and lots of other mental and emotional processes. It is the part of the brain that is phylogenetic ally very primitive. Many people call it “The Lizard Brain” because the limbic system is about all a lizard has for brain function. It is in charge of fight, flight, feeding, fear, freezing-up, and fornication…”
“Hey,” Graham called to Cox as he walked by, “when [Azzinaro] says lizard brain, what does he mean?”
“Lizard brain?” Cox replied. “Like if you tell yourself something like ‘I want to lose weight’ the lizard brain is telling you, ‘no you don’t want to lose weight.’
“Yeah, that’s right,” said Graham. “Don’t have lizard brain. He say that sh-t all the time.”
The overall message, Graham says, is to block out the unnecessary noise, focus on the task in front of you, see the training through and the results will take care of themselves.
“That’s what’s interesting,” said Azzinaro, finishing his thought about the importance of growth mindset back on that summer day, “that guys begin to understand what it takes to be successful and don’t get in the way of that success. Most of the time they get in the way of their own success.”
To keep their minds right, Azzinaro offers some advice here (“We all seek professor Azzinaro’s counsel a lot of times, to be honest with you,” Kelly said back in 2013) or an analogy there that can be used to shift things into focus.
“He’s able to come talk to you in a fatherly way to get you to understand what he wants from you, what you can do better or he sees in you but you don’t see it in yourself,” said Bennie Logan.
Azzinaro seems to dispense wisdom without revealing too much about where that wisdom comes from. A couple of the players that have been around him for a while knew about his near-death experience; some had only a vague idea about his history as a boxer, let alone that he’s the former Western Massachusetts Novice Golden Gloves heavyweight champion; others were surprised to learn such details about the man they work so closely with, replying with an, ‘Oh, well, that explains it.’
Aliotti expressed regret that he didn’t get to know Azzinaro better when they worked together. Like Kelly, the Brooklyn native seems to value his privacy and doesn’t care to open up much about himself. He declined to be interviewed one-on-one for this piece. (“No chance” I believe was the unofficial response from the Eagles upon request.) Everyone approached for this story raised an eyebrow or offered a wry smile when told who the subject was.
“Walking on eggshells,” said Bair.
“Have you asked him about doing that? Because he’s not a real big person about doing that, so I don’t want to say nothing about it if you haven’t cleared it up with him,” said Logan.
“He’ll hate that,” said Davis, “but it will be good.”
Azzinaro prefers to be in the background, which might help explain why he has spent the majority of his career as a position coach rather than in more prominent roles.
Does he have any ambitions of climbing the ranks?
“I think what Chip’s done for us is: what’s our task? My task right now is to coach the defensive line. I don’t think about the impact of coaching the defensive line on my career and all that other bullsh-t,” he replied. “If I did that then I wouldn’t be a good defensive line coach. I just think about the defensive line. I think about: how is the best way that we can teach these guys to be good guys? Because typically if you can teach them how to be good guys, they’ll end up being good players over the long haul.”