KNOXVILLE -- Joe Avezzano, a popular Dallas Cowboys special teams assistant who began his coaching career under Johnny Majors, died Thursday afternoon in Italy of an apparent heart attack. Avezzano was 68.
Avezzano reportedly was working out on a treadmill in Milan when he suffered the heart attack around 5 p.m. Central European Time, according to the Milan Seamen pro football team’s website.
Last September, Avezzano was named head coach of the Italian Football League squad.
Avezzano is widely known for the 13 seasons he spent with Dallas, where he served as special teams coach and became a fan and media favorite. He worked through four different head coaches with the Cowboys and was an integral part of Super Bowl championship teams in 1992, 1993 and 1995.
Before that, Avezzano spent three seasons at Tennessee under Majors, serving from 1977-79 as offensive coordinator after following the Vols head coach first from Iowa State to Pittsburgh and then Pittsburgh to UT.
Those were the first three years for Majors at UT as head coach, and the Vols began improving quickly thanks to Avezzano at the offensive helm. Tennessee went from 4-7 in 1977 to 5-5-1 and then 7-5 in 1979 with a berth in the Bluebonnet Bowl.
“Joe Avezzano was an outstanding football coach and an extremely valuable part of our three programs at Iowa State, Pittsburgh and Tennessee,” Major said Thursday afternoon. “He provided outstanding coaching in the offensive line, as good as I ever had.
“He also was an extremely loyal coach and added a tremendous amount of color, excitement, and superb talent as a recruiter during his years with me and my staff. He brought in some outstanding talent to Iowa State, Pittsburgh and Tennessee from his home state of Florida and specifically his hometown of Miami.”
Avezzano left after that third UT season to become head coach at Oregon State, where he compiled a disappointing 6-47-2 record in five seasons. One highlight was his first Beavers win in 1981 after 14 straight losses, a 31-28 victory against Fresno State. In that game, Oregon State rallied from a 28-0 deficit for what was the biggest come-from-behind victory in NCAA history.
Moved to Miami
Born Nov. 17, 1943, in Yonkers, N.Y., Avezzano moved at an early age to Miami and earned 11 high school letters in the sports of football, basketball and baseball. He was class president at Jackson High School and a member of the honor society.
It was then on to college at Florida State for Avezzano, who was eagerly recruited by a number of schools but decided to remain in his home state. He played guard for the Seminoles and probably considered the 36-19 Gator Bowl victory over Oklahoma in 1965 a treasured remembrance. Avezzano earned his FSU degree in criminology that same year.
Avezzano played one season for the AFL’s Boston Patriots before beginning his coaching career at famed Massillon (Ohio) High School. From there he returned to Florida State as a graduate assistant and then joined Majors at Iowa State in 1969. Majors promoted him to line coach in 1970.
“Joe Avezzano, Jimmy Johnson and Jackie Sherrill all coached for me at Iowa State, and all three were 24 or 25 years old when they started,” Majors said. “It was quite a staff.”
Majors and Avezzano coached together for four seasons at Iowa State before moving to Pittsburgh in 1973. The Panthers won the 1976 national championship in undefeated fashion, finishing 12-0. Majors then returned to Tennessee, his alma mater, and brought Avezzano along with him.
After his Oregon State venture failed, Avezzano caught on as an assistant under Sherrill at Texas A&M from 1985-88. The Aggies won three Southwest Conference titles and two Cotton Bowls during that stretch, and Avezzano’s success led to his hiring by Johnson and the Cowboys in 1990.
“He became an outstanding special teams coach with Dallas,” Majors said of the NFL’s Special Teams Coach of the Year in both 1991 and 1993. “He was very colorful and added a lot of excitement to the staff, wherever he was, in addition to being very productive. That’s why he was always so well-liked.
“I’m going to miss him.”
Avezzano is survived by his wife, Diann, and his son, Tony.
(E-mail Stan Crawley at firstname.lastname@example.org)