The year was 2003 and Serafino "Foge" Fazio was in a reflective mood. A few months earlier, he had been forced into what he felt was a premature retirement from coaching because then-Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis needed a scapegoat for the Browns' 36-33 playoff loss to the Steelers. Fazio didn't just handle a tough question about that sensitive situation with the grace and dignity he always showed. He answered another about his run as Pitt's head coach in the 1980s, which ended with him being fired after four seasons.
"It would have been nice to stay there forever and be another Joe Paterno," Fazio said. "But if I had done that, I never would have had the chance to coach at Notre Dame and in the NFL. I just can't complain. It's been a great life."
A terrific life, actually.
You don't fully realize the impact a man has until he dies. Fazio passed away Wednesday at 71 after losing a tough fight with leukemia. Although he will be remembered as a brilliant defensive coach -- "When you talk football with him, it's like you're playing checkers and he's playing chess," former Pitt star Bill Fralic said yesterday -- he will be remembered more for being a wonderful person. Coaching is such a brutal business. Enemies are made easily because the people involved are so competitive and their decisions always aren't popular. But Fazio had none. Not one enemy that I could find.
We all should be so lucky.
You can count Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt among Fazio's many close friends. If the Panthers beat Cincinnati tomorrow at Heinz Field to win the Big East Conference championship, it will be one of the great wins in school history. But it won't quite be the same without Fazio on hand. Win or lose, Wannstedt will look for him to ask the questions at his postgame radio show, a job Fazio held last season as a part of the Pitt broadcast team with Bill Hillgrove and Fralic and earlier this season before his illness worsened. Sadly, he won't be there.
How Fazio would love to be at one more big Pitt game. He played at Pitt and was an assistant there under Jackie Sherrill when every kid in Western Pennsylvania wanted to play for the Panthers. His charming, yet sincere way with recruits and their parents was a big reason Pitt went 33-3 from 1979-81.
"Yeah, he recruited me," Hall of Famer Dan Marino said over the phone from South Florida yesterday. "I remember riding in his car and telling him I was going to Pitt, then going into my house and telling my parents. I told him even before I told them."
As many players did, Marino remained close with Fazio over the years. "When I was playing [with the Miami Dolphins] and he was coaching with the Jets, we'd always have a beer together in the parking lot at Giants Stadium after the game before I got on the bus," Marino said. "We'd keep in touch. I'd call him or he'd call me. Then when my dad got sick, he called him every other day or so just to check up. That meant the world to me and my dad."
Fazio couldn't keep the success going at Pitt after taking over as head coach when Sherrill left for Texas A&M after the '81 season. Pitt was the preseason No. 1 pick in '82 but finished 9-3 with a loss to Southern Methodist in the Cotton Bowl when its offense with future NFL stars Marino, Fralic and Jimbo Covert couldn't score a touchdown. Fazio was fired after his '85 team went 5-5-1 with a 31-0 loss to Penn State in his final game.
Within days, Fazio was hired by Lou Holtz to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator. From there, it was on to a long NFL career with five teams. He had some ride.
If Fazio was bitter because of his Pitt firing or his forced retirement with the Browns, he never showed it. The Browns' episode must have been especially galling for him. They led the Steelers, 27-14, early in the fourth quarter of a 2002 playoff game at Heinz Field because his defense was harassing quarterback Tommy Maddox. He thought Maddox was a sitting target and wanted to keep getting after him, but Davis ordered him to play conservatively and rush just three men. Maddox picked that defense apart to bring the Steelers back. The next thing you know, Fazio was gone.
Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians held the same job with the Browns in '02 and was a good friend of Fazio's. He also is a prostate cancer survivor who took Fazio's death hard.
"You stand on the sideline and think, 'What's going on?' " Arians said of that '02 playoff game after practice yesterday. "Foge always was a pressure guy. It's a shame it came to that for him. His players loved him. They went to the wall for him."
Fazio never did blast Davis. "All I've ever said about that is, the players there knew what happened," he said. Then, trying to be positive, which was the only way he knew how to live, he said, "[Retirement] beats staying up until midnight or 2 in the morning trying to figure out a way to stop The Bus [Jerome Bettis] on that off-tackle play."
Fazio's regrets in coaching involved individual games. Pitt's 48-14 loss to Penn State in 1981 when he was Sherrill's defensive coordinator was one. Certainly, the Minnesota Vikings' 30-27 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game after the '98 season was another. In that game, veteran kicker Gary Anderson, who hadn't missed all season, missed a 38-yard field goal in the Metrodome that would have give the Vikings a 30-20 lead with 2:07 and virtually assured they would move on to Super Bowl XXXIII.
"That was supposed to be our year," Fazio, then the Vikings' defensive coordinator, said years later. "We were 16-1 to that point."
That's as close as Fazio would come to a championship.
I covered that game and saw Fazio's disappointment first hand. Anderson's missed kick is the biggest thing I remember, but there is one other thing. Before I left for Minneapolis, I spoke with Tom Donahoe, who ran the Steelers' personnel department then. "Please tell Foge we're all rooting for him here," he said. "A Super Bowl couldn't happen to a better guy."
See what I mean?
We all should be so lucky to have such friends and to make such an impact on them.
Funeral arrangements for former Pitt football coach Serafino "Foge" Fazio can be found on Page D-4
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .