Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo may be known as one of the top defensive minds in the game these days. But as a slot receiver at Springfield College, the dog in Spagnuolo would come out — a pit bull, to be exact.

“First of all, I’d look across the line of scrimmage and here’s this guy,” said Jack Quinn, who went head-to-head against Spagnuolo as a strong safety at Springfield before receiving training camp invites from the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills. “I’m like, ‘Oh, really? He’s, what, 5-foot-7, 5-foot-8? I should go through him like Grant went through Richmond.’ But it was never the case. I mean, he would stay on you. And you’re trying to swat him out of the way. He would never give up, never give up.”

“When we would go offense [versus] defense, I gotta tell ya, he was a little pain in the ass,” Quinn remembers fondly. “He made the most out of his size and weight and ability, let me put it that way.”

Talk to just about anyone who knew Spagnuolo during his days at Springfield and you'll hear similar stories about his fierce sense of competition. But they could also see the beginnings of a brilliant football mind taking shape, even back then.

Now, that mind will be put to the test on the biggest stage of the NFL year as Kansas City faces off against one of the top offenses in the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII.

His second half stats are 'unheard of'

Spagnuolo, who attended Grafton High School, was a two-year starter for Springfield at receiver.

Paul Ferraro, who played safety, attended Springfield all four years with Spagnuolo.

A black-and-white photo shows a group of football players in uniform on a field. They're lined up in three rows and looking at the camera.
Steve Spagnuolo, wearing #29, poses with other seniors on the Springfield College football team in 1981.
Courtesy Springfield College Athletics

“Was he the fastest? No. Was he the tallest? No. But he got everything out of his talent, always,” Ferraro said.

Ferraro, who spent decades as a coach at the collegiate and NFL levels, including as a linebackers coach for the St. Louis Rams when Spagnuolo was head coach for that franchise, pointed to his former teammate’s work ethic as top-notch.

But the quality that he finds amazing now, he said, is Spagnuolo's ability to adjust mid-game —something that has proven especially valuable coming out of the locker room for Kansas City’s defense.

“You look at the Chiefs this year in the second half, I’ve never seen anything like it. You can check it out — it might be legendary,” Ferraro said. “I mean, they’ve given up less than a touchdown in like 10 straight games in the second half. That’s unheard of.”

According to CBS Sports, in the team’s last six games, Kansas City's defense has only allowed one touchdown and 19 total points in the second half. That includes games that featured some of the league’s most explosive talent like Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens and Josh Allen from the Buffalo Bills.

Western Massachusetts is fertile ground for coaching talent

NCAA Division III programs don't always make the splashiest headlines. Yet Springfield College has been quietly producing some of the best coaching talent around for years. Under former head coach Howard Vandersea, who led the program from 1976 to 1983, Springfield graduated several players who went on to big-time positions. Aside from Spagnuolo, there was Ferraro, who retired as defensive coordinator for Columbia in 2022, and Tim Murphy, who recently retired as the head coach for Harvard. And the list goes on.

“It’s kind of the Cradle of Coaches,” said Jim Collis, who played quarterback at Springfield with Spagnuolo and went on to coach with him at Lafayette College and UConn. “I know Miami of Ohio gets that term. But Springfield is right up there with a number of coaches in the profession.”

Spagnuolo has also kept his Springfield corps of friends and colleagues close. For example, he helped Ferraro get a job as a graduate assistant at UMass, something he credits to helping launch his coaching career.

“I text him after every game, ‘cause whether it’s win or lose — and usually it’s wins — I always want to reach out to him,” Ferraro said.

That relationship extends to people across the Springfield sports universe. In the spring of 2022, former Springfield players held an event recognizing and celebrating Vandersea, who died later that year. Spagnuolo was in attendance.

“I mean, we’re a bunch of nobodies and he never forgets his friends and his teammates, even to this day,” said Jack Quinn.

Coaching is, in many ways, about fostering relationships. So it’s no surprise that someone at the top of his profession like Spagnuolo, or “Spags” as he’s affectionately known, is beloved by his players in Kansas City. At the AFC Championship in Baltimore, players were spotted wearing shirts declaring “In Spags We Trust,” a phrase that’s become a rallying cry of sorts for KC faithful.

Over the last few years, the lion’s share of the attention in Kansas City has been directed toward the offensive side of the ball. That makes sense when you have Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce and head coach Andy Reid helping lead the team to two Lombardi Trophies and a chance for a third on Sunday.

This year, however, with Kansas City not as consistently explosive as it's used to being on offense, the defense has stepped up and gotten some shine and Spagnuolo is getting his flowers as the Chiefs look to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

But speaking to the press last week, Spagnuolo, who Patriots fans may remember as the defensive coordinator who helped stop Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLII, didn't start by directing attention toward himself. He simply talked about how happy he was to be able to spend some more time with the team.

“The way I look at it is I’m blessed to work with these guys again for two more weeks,” he said. “I’ve been praying for that every week we’re in the playoffs.”