Cowboys' 'Coach Joe' Avezzano leaves legacy of joy for football, life

There is no question that Joe Avezzano loved the spotlight.

There was not a microphone or camera that he shied away from -- be that on the field or in a bar or nightclub where he sometimes fancied himself as a country singer.

It was a hobby -- some would say passion -- of his.

That he developed the persona as widely popular "Coach Joe" came with the celebrity of being an integral part of the three-time Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s, when being larger than life was a way of life.

But it would be wrong to cast Avezzano as a celebrity coach, as Bill Parcells did when he got rid of the highly accomplished special teams coach when he took over the Cowboys in 2003.

He was a dedicated, passionate and hardworking coach first and foremost, and that's how he was remembered by his former players, bosses and colleagues after learning of Avezzano's shocking death on Thursday.

Avezzano, 68, died of a heart attack while running on a treadmill in Milan, Italy, where he was coaching in the Italian Football League.

In the end, he passed away doing what he loved most: coaching football.

"Joe Avezzano was a very special part of our Dallas Cowboys family and our organization's history. He was also a wonderful father, husband and friend. No one enjoyed life more than Joe, and no one that I know had a greater appreciation for the people that he loved and the lives that he touched," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "We grieve with Diann [wife] and Tony [son] and the thousands of fans who loved Coach Joe. He was an original. There was no one else like him."

Former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, who brought Avezzano to the Cowboys from Texas A&M in 1990, said: "Coach Joe was a great guy and did a great job coaching our Super Bowl teams. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family."

Avezzano was one of the game's unique characters.

Probably no one was with him as long as former Cowboys cornerback Kevin Smith, who initially met Avezzano as a freshman at Texas A&M in 1988 and then was reacquainted with him when he was drafted by the Cowboys in 1992.

"I have been knowing his whole family since I was 18 years old," Smith said. "My young adult life was spent knowing Coach Joe. No one was more demanding outside of Jimmy Johnson than Coach Joe.

"Guys respected him more than their position coach. He expected the best out of you and looked for the best. He was a big part of our success in the 1990s. Everybody on the team respected Coach Joe, even if you didn't play special teams, like Troy Aikman and Charles Haley."

Former Cowboys safety Darren Woodson, who was a member of the three title teams, said Avezzano was innovative in his demands because he had starters buying in and playing special teams.

"He was going to get the most out of his unit," Woodson said. "He didn't care if you were a starter or not. He was a great coach. But he was a better man than he was a coach. Talk to anybody on that team and they all respected the guy for what he was and what he brought. He is going to be missed."

Avezzano was recognized as one of the NFL's premier special teams coaches. He coached with the Cowboys from 1990-2002.

After being let go by the Cowboys when Parcells took over in 2003, Avezzano coached special teams for the Oakland Raiders from 2003-2005.

He also coached the Dallas Desperados (2002-03) of the Arena Football League.

In the past few years, Avezzano, who was a sought-after motivational speaker, tried to stay as close to the game as he could.

He worked as a radio and television commentator and held football clinics, including working on Michael Irvin's Reality Show 4th and Long before heading to Italy in February for a sixth-month stay as coach of the Seamen Milano of the Italian Football League.

He planned to return to Dallas in time for the Cowboys' training camp in late July.

Avezzano had the same impact coaching football in Milan as he did here.

"Everybody loved him," Seamen Milano president Marco Mutti said by phone from Italy. "He was an incredible man. We appreciate the passion he had for football. We were so glad to have him coaching."

A shocked and saddened Mutti said the day began like any other. Mutti and the coaches were in a meeting until 3:30 p.m. Italy time.

"He said he was going to see us tonight for practice," Mutti said. "He went to the gym and started to run and suddenly his heart stopped.

"He did an incredible job for us. He was a friend of everybody. Everybody started to cry when told the news. This is a game for tough guys. We are not so tough anymore."

Clarence E. Hill Jr.


Twitter: @clarencehilljr

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