BC's odd couple: How one gruff coach lifted college football's sack champ to stardom

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – The precocious rising star and the ornery coach in his twilight met for the first time in the winter of 2016. Boston College defensive lineman Harold Landrya blue-chip recruit with middling production, settled into the windowless classroom in the Boston College football facility. New Boston College defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni, 67 and sporting a muss of white hair, certainly hadn’t noticed Landry’s four-star recruiting rating or his offers from Ohio State and Miami.

When Landry opened his notebook, picked up his pencil and wrote down the date, Pasqualoni immediately lit into him. Landry held a mini pencil, the kind they hand out at a golf course, instead of a standard-sized No. 2. “He didn’t care who you were,” Landry says. “If you did something wrong, he would let you know in front of everybody. I almost got kicked out of the room. I was like, ‘It’s a pencil. It works.’”

Landry knew little about Pasqualoni other than he’d coached J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney with the Texans before coming to Boston College. He learned a few things quick. Pasqualoni skips the small talk, obsesses over details and is more demanding than a federal auditor. Pasqualoni talks about “false steps” and “heel clicking” – mortal sins of defensive line technique – with his face contorted into a sour-milk scowl. “It’s like a plot twist, when he starts cracking jokes,” Landry says. “He’s a very intense guy, and he’s hard on us, but he’s hard on us for a reason.”

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Pasqualoni’s coaching résumé is highlighted by his tenure as Syracuse’s head coach form 1991-2004. He made two Fiesta Bowls, an Orange Bowl and his 107-59-1 record remains the best winning percentage there since World War II. If anyone wonders if he’s missed in upstate New York, his 13 seasons at or above .500 in 14 years were followed by just three winning seasons in the subsequent 12.

Pasqualoni’s credibility among his Boston College defensive linemen comes from his 11 NFL seasons, coaching elite players like Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Taylor. Along the way, he earned a reputation as a technical savant. His knowledge of chops, stabs and side scissors – the pass-rush techniques he expounds on daily – may be matched only by his passion for teaching them. “It’s like getting your master’s degree in defensive line play,” former Boston College assistant Al Washington says of Pasqualoni. “He brought instant credibility.”

Boston College’s Harold Landry speaks to the media during the Atlantic Coast Conference media day on July 13. (AP)
Boston College’s Harold Landry speaks to the media during the Atlantic Coast Conference media day on July 13. (AP)

Eighteen months after that first meeting, Landry has emerged as Pasqualoni’s latest star pupil. He credits Pasqualoni for pushing him to become one of college football’s breakout players in 2016. Landry led the nation in sacks (16.5) and forced fumbles (7), totals that dwarfed his 2015 production (3.5 and 3). Boston College coach Steve Addazio links Landry’s emergence to the sitcom dynamic of the exacting veteran coach and promising young player. “It’s like Landry met Pasqualoni,” Addazio says. “I’ve seen a huge difference in Harold, he’s just been on a mission.”

The NFL graded Landry a third-round pick for 2016, so he returned to Boston College to boost his draft stock and lead the Eagles to a “big-time bowl.” The ol’ lifer coach has his latest star pupil for one more year, making the “Landry met Pasqualoni” sequel must-see TV.

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The most obvious sign of how badly Boston College wanted Landry as the centerpiece of Addazio’s first full recruiting class came during a home visit. Washington, who served as Landry’s lead recruiter, greeted two of the Landry family’s chihuahuas, Butternut and Theodore, soon after arriving at the house. “Theodore,” Washington explains now, “is a little ornery.”

Before Landry broke out as Boston College’s defining star of 2016 under Pasqualoni’s watch, Washington identified him in North Carolina, secured a commitment and fended off suitors like Auburn, Florida State and Clemson. He had less luck fending off Theodore, who bit his hand and sent Washington scrambling to the bathroom to stop the bleeding. That makes Landry’s unlikely journey to Boston College the rare recruiting story that actually got bloody.

All during Landry’s career at Pine Forest High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina, blue-blood coaches swarmed practices to see his teammate, four-star defensive tackle Lamont Gaillard. (He ended up at Georgia.) They all saw Landry, too, but few left with the impression he could play at the highest level.

Finally, during the spring of 2013, veteran Pine Forest coach Bill Sochovka got word N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren wanted to meet Landry. An assistant coach drove him over to Raleigh, and Landry was eager to commit. “Coach Doeren put the dagger in his heart,” Sochovka says, “when he told him he wanted to see him in camp [before offering].”

Landry visited Boston College soon after and clicked immediately with the players and staff. “The culture, it was just different. I visited Clemson, most of the schools near North Carolina, and you can just tell the difference here.”

Washington’s hand eventually healed, but he still needed to hold on to Landry’s commitment after offers poured in from everywhere, including – finally – N.C. State. That October, Washington landed at Logan Airport in Boston to about 15 messages on his cellphone. “That’s always,” he says, “a bad sign.”

He quickly learned that Landry de-committed, with N.C. State among the leading suitors. Washington had gotten close to Landry through the recruiting process, and slowly reeled him back in as he aimlessly drove through Southie and the South End. Washington found himself both lost and lost in conversation. “I got on the phone with Coach Wash until like 2 a.m.,” Landry recalls. “It was heartfelt, he knew what I could accomplish if I came here because he went to this school and knew I wouldn’t be just another name on the roster.”

It has worked out well for Landry on and off the field. He got engaged to his college sweetheart, Danielle Rios-Roberts, last season. The couple had their first child, Greyson, on June 5. (The same day as Landry’s 21st birthday.) The BC staff may want to start sending Greyson recruiting mail, as he’s already outgrown his three-month clothes at seven weeks. Landry’s welcome-to-fatherhood story came after a disastrous night shift earlier this summer when a failed diaper change ended with Greyson peeing all over Harold. “I had to wake [Danielle] up,” Landry says with a laugh. Clearly, there’s more coaching to be done.

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In the windowless defensive line room inside the Boston College football facility earlier this spring, about a dozen players settled into the 18 desks. Think of a Writing 205 recitation dedicated to dissecting Watt, Allen and Ware instead of Yates, Joyce and Twain.

Professor Pasqualoni lectures in front of the room wearing his standard uniform: glasses perched on the end his nose, khakis creased and a navy three-quarter zip pullover with a Quick Lane Bowl logo. A projector flickers images of his former protégées to his current ones. That includes Landry, who sits his 6-foot-3, 250-pound frame straight up and takes notes with a No. 2 pencil of adequate length. Pasqualoni’s voice booms with a passion that belies a man who has passed median retirement age: “Put every fiber of your body into every rep you have. OK!? You follow me?”

To the uninitiated, defensive line play appears to be little more than a fog of collision that provides the white noise of violence on every snap. But the reality is that the position is among the most intricate in football, a symphony of quick strikes, balletic footwork and choreographed movements. These are the movements that Pasqualoni is singularly focused on, his voice vacillating from a stern intensity to a near-scream:

“We’re not going to be behind the quarterback, that’s the WORST seat in the stadium.”

“You CAN NOT on the fourth step club rip up the field!”

“Four yards behind the outside hip of the tackle at a 70-degree angle.”

The BC linemen quickly respected the intellect behind the intensity, as senior nose tackle Noa Merritt says the way Pasqualoni shows he cares isn’t through daily pleasantries. But stop by his office and ask how to fix a false step, and it’ll elicit a 15-minute lecture sprinkled with video clips. “Coach P is all business, man, but he loves us too,” Merritt says. “It’s all football. If you aren’t talking to him about football, he doesn’t wanna hear it.”

Pasqualoni has made untold millions coaching college football and in the NFL, yet still commutes to BC from South Windsor, Connecticut, nearly 91 miles away. Each way. On days he doesn’t drive home, Pasqualoni stays at an apartment near campus. Pasqualoni married late in life, and his three kids are teenagers. But the mere mention of retirement curls his face into a grimace. “Haven’t thought about it,” he says.

BC head coach Steve Addazio (L) and assistant coach Paul Pasqualoni talk during the Eagles’ bowl game last season. (Getty)
BC head coach Steve Addazio (L) and assistant coach Paul Pasqualoni talk during the Eagles’ bowl game last season. (Getty)

Pasqualoni graduated from Penn State in 1972 after walking on and becoming a letterman for Joe Paterno. He spent the next year teaching physical education at three different K-6 schools around Cheshire, Connecticut, and volunteering as an assistant on the freshman football team. In his mind, nothing has changed but the audience and venue.

As the classroom film flickers with yet another play from spring practice No. 12, it’s clear Pasqualoni isn’t chasing the next dollar, job or sold-out stadium. Pasqualoni stops the film for a rare moment of effusive praise. “That’ll bring a tear to a coach’s eye,” he says after a three-man rush yields a faux sack in a spring practice drill where the quarterback can’t get hit.

Pasqualoni doles compliments like they’re shares of Amazon stock. When asked later what elicited that emotion, he went through the innocuous-looking spring practice rep with such vigor it became obvious why he treats retirement talk like heel clicking. “If you’ve been doing this as long as I’ve been doing it, you’re only still doing it because you love to do it,” he says. “I don’t know where that comes from, it’s just always been that way.

“I always felt like I wanted to be a teacher.”

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On a sweltering day earlier this week, Boston College’s defensive line group positions themselves behind five red tackling bags in Alumni Stadium. They execute a club rip the first rep, followed by a chop swing, side scissor and stab. Pasqualoni’s unmistakable bark accompanies each rep, encouraging, teaching and cajoling his sweaty linemen through the final drills of the day.

The rate of Landry’s development at Boston College, and the source of the NFL’s interest in him as a potential first-round pick, can be linked back to his maturation as a technician on the defensive line. Boston College defensive graduate assistant Adam Mueller broke down Landry’s 16.5 sacks for Yahoo Sports, and the results show just how Landry diversified his pass-rush portfolio. The sacks came from eight different moves, with a “speed, chop rip” rush accounting for nearly half. Others came from a stutter move, a tiger claw and a speed to power. Landry admits he relied primarily on speed rushes before Pasqualoni’s arrival, which led to struggles against veteran tackles who’d studied him. “I had no counter move and would be behind the quarterback,” Landry says, “and he hated that.”

Pasqualoni’s philosophy about defensive linemen is that they have to have a similar repertoire to a baseball pitcher, needing a go-to move (fastball) and a counter move (curveball) in their repertoire.

That left Landry needing the football equivalent of an off-speed pitch. He showcased that last season, fittingly, against North Carolina State when he went speed to power to snag to strip sack Ryan Finley for one of the game’s biggest plays. Perhaps more importantly, Landry knew at the snap the protection was sliding his way and knew exactly how to counter that. “He coaches just as if he is in the NFL,” Addazio says, “so Harold has really got a great running start at this thing.”

The Eagles are soaring with him on defense, as Addazio says there’s two other NFL caliber defensive ends – Zach Allen and Wyatt Ray – to complement Landry. Along with Landry leading the nation in sacks last year, coordinator Jim Reid’s defense tied the school’s single-season sack record with 47. The entire defensive line unit won the Quick Lane Bowl MVP after accounting for seven sacks. The trophy is proudly on display in the defensive line room.

Landry enters the season as the ACC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year. Another season of high production – along with a better showing in the run game – under Professor Pasqualoni could jump him as high as top 15 in the 2018 NFL draft. The green room could offer a perfect closing scene for “Landry Met Pasqualoni.” Says Landry: “He’s coached a lot of great ones, and just being able to have the opportunity to be coached by someone like that and to think I could be like one of those guys. I’m definitely grateful.”

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