Joe Spaziani always figured he'd become a football coach, but a return to his alma mater expedited the process.
The 24-year-old Calgary native is in his first season as a graduate assistant on Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall's staff.
Spaziani finished his collegiate career playing for Mendenhall, and an opportunity to return to the school prompted him to retire after one season with the CFL's Toronto Argonauts.
"I've been around coaching pretty much my whole life and I've always known it's something I wanted to do," Spaziani said during a telephone interview. "It was tough to stop playing, for sure.
"I don't think any coach says, 'I wish I would've quit playing earlier.' But I'm happy. I think I was ready to make the switch."
Spaziani knew exactly what he was getting into when joined Virginia's staff. His father, Frank, is a veteran coach who spent nine years as an assistant at Virginia (1982-91) and time in the CFL as a defensive co-ordinator with Winnipeg (1992-93) and Calgary (1994-96).
Frank Spaziani also spent 16 years with Boston College, including four as head coach (2009-12). He's currently New Mexico State's defensive co-ordinator.
"I thought it was one of the coolest things that he was a coach," Joe Spaziani said. "I thought that was such an awesome profession where you get to help young men train and be a leader of a team . . . it's such a unique thing.
"Growing up I always loved football and watching him do it at a high level was very cool."
Spaziani appeared in 30 career games at Virginia as a long-snapper before graduating in 2018 with a foreign affairs degree. He added a master’s in higher education in 2019.
Toronto selected Spaziani in the sixth round of the '19 CFL draft. He appeared in seven regular-season games with the Argos (4-14).
"We didn't have a great season but I had such a great experience," Spaziani said. "I got to play in the Touchdown Atlantic game (28-22 loss to Montreal in Moncton, N.B.) and see the East Coast, I got to go to Winnipeg and Regina and get back to Calgary for the first time since I was basically a baby and play in Vancouver.
"I also got to experience how great a city Toronto is from a local's perspective . . . it was awesome. I couldn't have asked for a better experience."
But a return to Virginia, reuniting with Mendenhall and starting a new football journey were too good for Spaziani to pass up.
"It was really tough to call (Argos director of scouting Vince Magri) and tell him I was retiring," Spaziani said. "I knew if I ever had the chance that I'd love to be back at my alma mater and with coach Mendenhall's staff.
"The way I saw it, if I didn't do it now I wouldn't know what might come in the future and so I jumped at the opportunity."
Spaziani works predominantly with Virginia's offensive linemen but is also deeply involved with "The Mad Hatters," the Cavaliers' scout team.
"I work with about 15 guys," he said. "We meet in the morning, we install, we talk about scheme and we get guys lined up.
"Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday practices are our game week. On gameday, I'm up in the booth helping scout the defence and let the offensive-line coach (Garett Tujague) know what's going on.''
Players often celebrate individual accomplishments on the field. But as a coach, Spaziani derives his greatest pleasures from seeing his players grasp whatever concepts he's coaching and their hard work being rewarded.
"Some of the most fun I've had has been watching guys who're willing to try hard," he said. "I believe that's one of the only ways you improve, just through being willing to try hard and put yourself out there.
"The tasks and day-to-day operations (of coaching) are different and the hours are definitely longer but I expected that . . . I've seen how taxing it is from a time standpoint."
But much like he did as a player, Spaziani is again relishing all elements of the college experience.
"These are 18-, 19-, 20- or 21-year-old kids who, like me, are learning and finding their way and also getting an education," he said. "The growth and development I experienced (as collegian) was something I hope I can give back to guys who're basically coming after me and help develop that culture even more."
Spaziani also plans to work towards his doctorate in higher education during his second tenure at Virginia.
"Something I never thought would be a positive of being a football player was getting an advanced education," he said.
Spaziani's long-term goal is to become a head coach, but he readily admits that's still a long way off.
"There's just so much I have to learn," he said. "There've been points where my head has been spinning.
"I'm just excited to be a graduate assistant right now. I believe strongly in the benefits of this game, the people and what it can do for developing young men."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 23, 2020
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press