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Dante Scarnecchia: A Patriot For Everyone

New England Patriots assistant head coach Dante Scarnecchia, pictured here in 2010, was a Foxboro fixture from before the Patriots’ first Super Bowl until two days ago, when he announced he was retiring. (Elise Amendola/AP)
New England Patriots assistant head coach Dante Scarnecchia, pictured here in 2010, was a Foxboro fixture from before the Patriots’ first Super Bowl until two days ago, when he announced he was retiring. (Elise Amendola/AP)
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Assistant coaches in football are usually like mothers of the groom at a wedding: it’s best to go unnoticed and just do what you are supposed to.

For more than three decades, virtually all of it in Foxboro, Dante Scarnecchia was the consummate assistant football coach for the New England Patriots. He did what he was supposed to do and he did it very, very well. But unless you are a certified member of Patriots Nation with your Dan Koppen replica jersey, his name may not strike a chord. That is exactly how he would want it to be.

Scarnecchia was a Foxboro fixture from before the Patriots’ first Super Bowl (does the name Ron Meyer ring a bell?) until two days ago, when he announced he was retiring. He survived the utter chaos in the late 1980s and early 1990s (does the name Victor Kiam ring a bell?) and he went on to ably assist Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick in a variety of coaching positions.

Assistant coaches in football are usually like mothers of the groom at a wedding: it’s best to go unnoticed and just do what you are supposed to.

He is the only coach in the history of the franchise to have played a part in all seven Super Bowls and the only coach to have served under all four principal owners of the team. He turns 66 on Valentine’s Day.

His retirement announcement produced the predictable encomiums from Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Belichick. The latter called him “an NFL legend who defied the phrase ‘not for long.’”

Belicheck went on, “in an industry of constant change, Dante remained a fixture here for the simple reason that he helped every player reach his highest potential, regardless of who he was, how he was acquired or how much raw talent he had.”

Scarnecchia had coached the Patriots’ offensive line for the last 14 seasons, during which the line inarguably has been one of the Patriots’ strengths. There have been a handful of Pro Bowlers (Logan Mankins being the latest) and Tom Brady, save for one memorable hit in the 2008 season opener, has been accorded Secret Service-like protection.

But, as Belichick noted, what probably best defines Scarnecchia is what a former NBA general manager, Stu Inman, used to call “stickability.” Scarnecchia was the consummate survivor and not because he knew where the bodies were buried (which he did). It was because he was dedicated, professional and utterly without ego. He really was.

When the head coach Dick McPherson contracted diverticulitis in 1992, it was Scarnecchia who became the public face of the franchise. I covered the Patriots that year — they were awful — and Scarnecchia didn’t like that we referred to him as the interim head coach. In his mind, there was one coach — MacPherson. But Scarnecchia was the one who talked to the media during the week and after games.

At the end of that season, a few writers descended on Scarnecchia’s house. When he answered the door, he told us he thought we were there because he had been fired. No, we told him. We had come to say ‘thanks.’ We knew he had been given a thankless task and we knew he preferred to stay out of camera range. But he had been accommodating, professional, personable and answerable.

Scott Zolak, the former Patriots quarterback who was there when Scarnecchia coached the tight ends and special teams, recalled an incident on his radio show Thursday. When Bill Parcells took over the Patriots for the 1993 season, the new coach cleaned house. Every coach from the previous staff was released, which was not unexpected, given the poor play of the 1992 team.

But, Zolak said, Parcells had been told that there was one coach who should be retained: Scarnecchia. According to Zolak, Parcells told Scarnecchia that he didn’t have a position for him, but that he would find one and that he, Scarnecchia, shouldn’t plan on going anywhere. So, for two years, Scarnecchia was a “special assistant” to Parcells before taking over the linebackers and special teams in 1995.

Scarnecchia was the consummate survivor and not because he knew where the bodies were buried (which he did). It was because he was dedicated, professional and utterly without ego. He really was.

From 1982 until 2103, Scarnecchia did something for the Patriots, save for two years when he was with the Indianapolis Colts. He missed Berry’s final season (1989) and the one, calamitous season of Rod Rust (1-15, 1990) before returning for good to New England in 1991. When Belichick took over in 2000, he made Scarnecchia an assistant head coach as well as the offensive line coach. That remained Scarnecchia’s job until this week.

In all, the man everyone called ‘Scar’ coached for 44 years. There were college jobs at California Western, his alma mater, Iowa State, the University of the Pacific, Northern Arizona and Southern Methodist. In every one of those 44 years, Scarnecchia was an assistant.

Maybe he saw bosses and everything they did (and didn’t do) and decided he didn’t want to become one. Or maybe he was content, as Clint Eastwood liked to say, “knowing his limitations.” In his case, however, it was more like knowing what he did — and did well — and sticking with it to the last game of the 2013 season.

Peter May Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Peter May was a sports writer at the Boston Globe for nearly two decades. He now teaches journalism at Brandeis University and is an occasional contributor to the New York Times.

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