A penchant for piping up is something everybody seems to recall when they talk about working with Doug Marrone. They remember it mostly with fondness … and maybe a bit of exasperation.
Says his college coach, Syracuse University legend Dick MacPherson: “If we were doing things and he didn’t think they made sense, he’d let you know.”
Says his former Syracuse linemate Bob Brotzki: “He was never afraid to express his opinion.”
Says one of his first pro coaches, Larry Kennan: “I was there with the Raiders when we drafted him, and in the first conversation with him, he told us about a couple guys we should sign as free agents right after the draft. I hadn’t had any draft choice do that before.”
Says Paul Hackett, who worked with Marrone on the New York Jets staff a decade ago: “The thing that was great about Doug is it was always: ‘How come you’re doing that? How come we’re doing this? Couldn’t we do this a little bit better?’ ”
“All Doug has ever wanted to do is be the best he can be, and he has never been afraid to push the envelope to do it,” Hackett said.
Marrone’s former co-workers all speak to traits that have helped him succeed – self-confidence, communication skills, determination and a refusal to shy away from conflict.
The 48-year-old Marrone needed all of those characteristics and more to rebuild the Syracuse football program from the ashes over the past four years. Now he will try to do the same thing with the Buffalo Bills, who probably aren’t as bad off as the Orange were in 2009 but who still qualify as a major rebuilding project.
Leaders are born, not made, the saying goes.
In the case of the 6-foot-5 Marrone, the gift of size was in his genes. He was the biggest kid in his class all the way through grade school. He was 310 pounds when he walked onto the Syracuse campus as a freshman in 1982. Size, it seems, has gone hand in hand with his assertive nature and enhanced his willingness to both stand up for himself and speak up his whole life.
“When I was 5, someone came up to me with a knife and robbed my bike,” Marrone said. “I ran home. I remember my dad and uncle got in a car with a baseball bat and went looking for the guy. I never got another bike. But in my own mind, I was like, I’m never going to let anyone take anything from me again. Poor decision.”
Fast forward to Marrone as a teenager, making the long trip home from school across the Bronx.
“Someone wanted to take my wallet and pulled out a knife,” he recalled. “I had one of those old-fashioned Catholic-school book bags. I said, ‘You’re gonna have to kill me to take this from me.’ The guy ran away. When I got home, I was proud. My parents were like, ‘Are you crazy?’ … It wasn’t too smart.”
Marrone has never been the kind to back down from a challenge.
“As I grew up, I was big,” he says. “I never liked people that cut the line or bullied or expected they were entitled to something because of some status. When you’re bigger and everything like that, you have a sense of responsibility for others that maybe can’t do that for themselves.”
In high school, a teacher dared him to join the drama club after hearing him defend some classmates who had misbehaved. He wound up getting the lead role in the school production of the musical “Damn Yankees.”
As a senior on the football team at Lehman High School, he was liberal with tactical advice to coach Carmine Colasanto. “He was never shy,” Colasanto said. “He was very analytical as a high school player. He saw things that other high school kids didn’t see.”
A player with questions
Marrone was a gifted offensive lineman. Southern California, Nebraska, Arizona, Florida and Georgia were among the schools that had interest in him. He opted to stay closer to home and go to Syracuse. His father was a fan of the Orange and SU great Jim Brown.
Marrone was part of the second recruiting class for MacPherson, who returned Syracuse to national prominence in the 1980s and would become one of Marrone’s most important mentors.
During Marrone’s tenure as Orange coach, he kept a framed photo of Coach Mac in his office.
“It was a constant reminder, always do the right thing,” Marrone said. “He developed the person first before the football player. Before people talked about life skills, he taught that. Shaking someone’s hand, looking them in the eye, things we do as parents all the time. Talking about wearing dark socks with dark shoes. You couldn’t wear white socks with shoes. He would carry dark socks around with him on trips.”
All of that helped Marrone, who admits he was “rough around the edges.” On the field, Marrone started for three years at right tackle. Off the field, he was known as a locker room advocate, a cage-rattler.
“Obviously we all change tremendously since those days,” said Brotzki, now an assistant athletic director at Syracuse. “Even way back, winning was very important to him and being good at what he did was very important to him. … We had three line coaches in three years. There was a lot of questioning because it was three different philosophies, three different systems, three different styles of coaching.”
Says Marrone: “I was never a big fan of, ‘This is what we’re doing. Why? Because we’ve always done it this way.’ I never bought into that. Why do we do it this way? I always wanted to know the reason or purpose. I don’t know how it was instilled in me or why.”
Marrone said that in his playing days there were times “when I probably wasn’t the best player,” referring to his tendency to question authority, not his play. “I called up Coach Mac a year or two after I left the program and I said, ‘I just want to apologize. I finally got it.’ He said something like, ‘Well, you weren’t always the brightest guy.’ ”
Marrone was drafted by the Raiders in the sixth round in 1986. He wound up playing in five NFL games – four with Miami in 1987 and one with New Orleans in 1989. He had stints with Pittsburgh, Dallas and Minnesota, then finished his career by playing two seasons with the London Monarchs in the World League in 1991 and ’92.
“At the end of the day, I was just never really good enough to really hold on,” he said. “I was just good enough to play all five positions, to maybe stick around and make it right at the end. But barring anyone being injured, it always came down to the last cut. It gave me a great appreciation for what the players do and how we handle releasing players.”
Starting at the bottom
Coaching had not been Marrone’s dream – until his playing career ended.
“I was planning on going to law school, and I took the LSAT,” he said. “I applied to two universities, Syracuse being one. I had an opportunity to go to law school. I was thinking about what I wanted to do, but I loved football so much I went into football.”
To this day, Marrone keeps on his desk a cover letter that he sent to the University of Tennessee regarding a coaching position.
“It’s to remind me that the day I come into work and I’m not as enthusiastic about my job as I was when I first wrote that letter, then I really shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”
He had offers to go to Cortland State as a volunteer tight ends coach or to Southern California as a graduate assistant. He sought advice from former Syracuse aide Jim Tressel, who was coaching Youngstown State at the time and would go on to coach Ohio State.
“We sat down in the lobby the night before the game,” Marrone said. “I said, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘Do you think you know enough people in the industry?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do know a lot of people in the industry.’ He said, ‘Then what you need to do is take the job that gives you the most responsibility.’
“So I took the Cortland State job. My first year I didn’t get paid at all.”
That led to a job as offensive line aide at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, coached by Bill Schmitz, who had coached with the Monarchs.
“He offered me the job, and it might have been $7,000 a year,” Marrone said. “I took it. He was shocked. He made me sign a napkin. That was my first coaching contract, on a napkin at some restaurant in New London, Conn.”
Marrone immediately cut his salary in half, giving $3,500 to good friend and former Monarchs teammate Danny Crossman to join the Coast Guard staff. Crossman is now the Bills’ special teams coach.
“My thought process was the better coaches we can get, the better job we can do,” Marrone said.
The next year, Marrone was at Northeastern coaching the offensive line, and in 1995, he moved to Georgia Tech to be director of football operations. George O’Leary, who recruited Marrone to Syracuse, was Tech’s coach.
“You have to get a break or lucky or whatever you want to call it,” Marrone said. “You look at my resume and people say, ‘Where was the break?’ The break was from Northeastern to Georgia Tech. That’s a big leap.”
O’Leary made Marrone director of football operations, doing all kinds of administrative tasks the head coach didn’t want to do. Marrone reported directly to Athletic Director Homer Rice, himself a former NFL head coach.
At the end of the season, Rice called Marrone in for a talk.
“He had a plan,” Marrone recalled. “He said, ‘I’m going to give you a title as assistant athletic director. Then I’m going to move you over to finance. … Then we’re going to get you a job at a mid-level school to be an AD.’ He said, ‘I guarantee you you’ll be an AD at a major Division I football school before you become a head football coach.’ ”
Marrone said: “Coach, I want to be a football coach.”
Replied Rice: “I’m sorry to hear that.”
A coaching foundation
O’Leary had a quality staff, and Marrone got great training over the next four years from offensive guru Ralph Friedgen, a master at using multiple personnel groupings, formations and motions. Also on the staff was Bill O’Brien, who became best friends with Marrone and is now Penn State’s head coach.
“Ralph Friedgen was the offensive coordinator at San Diego when they went to the Super Bowl,” Marrone said of the 1994 Chargers. “Then he became the offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech. Myself and Billy worked for Ralph. Work ethic. Attention to detail. Sleeping in the office. He was a grinder. He’s a helluva football coach. That was my foundation as an offensive coach.”
In 2002, Marrone’s offensive education took another leap forward when the New York Jets called him out of the blue to interview for their O-line coaching job. Marrone knew no one with the Jets, but during the course of their search a couple of people had mentioned his name.
Says Marrone: “I remember in the interview they asked me: ‘Now if you’re coaching in the NFL, how are you going to change? These guys are getting paid to play, they’re professionals. Tell me how your coaching style is going to change?’ ”
“I looked them dead in the eye and said, ‘I’m not changing. Either I’m the right person for this job or I’m not the right person for this job.’ ”
Good answer. He got the job.
Herman Edwards was the head coach, and Paul Hackett was the offensive coordinator. Hackett taught Marrone the West Coast offensive system, with its emphasis on precise, quick passes and stretching the field horizontally as well as vertically.
Hackett, the father of Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, got used to Marrone’s relentless search for the best blocking schemes.
“I grew to understand and respect what a tremendous football mind he is,” Hackett said. “His questions are not just to make you think he knows something. They’re questions that have depth to them. And they’re questions that come from the players he’s coaching.”
Four years later, when Edwards was fired, Marrone landed with New Orleans and head coach Sean Payton, whose offense is also rooted in West Coast principles. Marrone’s title was offensive coordinator and line coach, but Payton called all the plays.
Marrone says he learned a lot offense and leadership from Payton.
“It’s important for us to communicate to those around us, whether it’s sports or business, of the direction we’re going,” Marrone said. “I think that’s the biggest thing you need the ability to do. Sean Payton was very, very good at it. Herman Edwards was very good at it. It has to be from your heart. It has to be with great clarity. It can’t be a mixed message.”
With Payton as head coach and Drew Brees taking over at quarterback, the Saints turned into winners overnight. Marrone got good reviews from his players.
“I learned the most as a professional while playing for him,” said 10-year NFL veteran Jeff Faine, who spent two seasons with Marrone. “He’s a tremendous teacher. He paid attention to details. That’s one of his biggest things. He challenged us and made us play in some cases I believe better than our capabilities.”
Faine recalls Marrone didn’t mind ‘why’ questions, either.
“I distinctly remember being in a meeting with the entire offense, with Coach Payton running it, and Doug and I used to sit in the front row, right next to each other,” Faine said. “There was something we went over – a specific look on a specific play that we were running as a line, and I strongly disagreed in front of the whole offense with the way Doug was approaching it. … He was open to my suggesting, open to how strongly I felt about it, and we ended up changing it. He said, ‘OK, let’s go that route.’ ”
“The longer I played, the more I realized it’s not something that happens a lot,” Faine said. “He’s really willing to see things from others’ perspective.”
Even in 2007 and 2008, Marrone was on the NFL radar as a head-coaching candidate. He was interviewed by an executive search firm the NFL hires each year to identify “high-potential” assistants. About 10 aides are picked each year, and the one-hour interviews are sent to all 32 clubs.
But Syracuse came calling before any NFL team, and Marrone jumped at the chance in 2009 to become his alma mater’s head coach.
Turning the Orange around
The Orange had gone 26-57 over the previous seven seasons and had finished last in the Big East Conference four straight years. Of 119 teams playing major college football, Syracuse ranked 114th on offense and 101st on defense the season before Marrone’s arrival.
“I follow college football recruiting closely, and Syracuse was terrible,” said NFL Network analyst Ross Tucker, a former Bills lineman. “Nobody wanted to go there. Guys were going to Temple instead of Syracuse. They were an absolute joke. He turned it around.”
Marrone quickly set a disciplined tone, in contrast to his laid-back predecessor, Greg Robinson.
At one of the first offseason conditioning drills he oversaw as head coach, he took the players outside in sub-freezing temperatures. The players wore cold-weather gear. Marrone wore a T-shirt, shorts and a hoodie. Early in his first season, he gathered the players one morning and had them clean the locker room so they could take more pride in where they spent their day. He required players to dress in a suit and tie on game day instead of sweat suits. He required they sing the Syracuse alma mater song before leaving the field. If players were late to class, he would have their photos put on TV monitors in the weight room.
“He went back to the basics,” said tackle Justin Pugh, a first-round pick of the New York Giants in April. “He made sure we did all the little things, and I think that was huge in turning the program around. He started off the field. There was no earrings in the building, no hats in the building. We all had to wear the exact same outfits working out. He wanted everything to be like there were no questions you had to ask. You went to class on time. We had class-checkers.
“Before he got there,” Pugh said, “kids weren’t going to class, they weren’t getting the work done, they weren’t graduating. His whole thing was, ‘If you do the little things off the field, you’ll be the guy making the play on the field – filling the A gap when you’re supposed to.’ ” Roughly two dozen players wound up leaving the program.
“Those were guys who didn’t want to do the little things right,” Pugh said.
“Those were guys who weren’t going to go to class and didn’t want to get to workouts on time and wanted to be out late when we were in camp.”
Characterizing Marrone’s emphasis on discipline as old-school, however, would be too simplistic. Marrone paid great attention to messaging directed at the players. He created games around offseason conditioning workouts so players could sharpen their competitive edge. He worked hard to get the buy-in from his Millennial Generation players.
“The generation that we grew up in and our parents grew up in, when someone told us to do something, we did it – period, end of discussion,” Marrone said. “But we’re in a different generation now. We’re in a knowledge-based generation. They want to know the why and the purpose.”
Given that Marrone didn’t exactly embrace the ‘end-of-discussion’ style when he was a player, he seems like just the guy to give current players the answers they seek.
“You walk into a mall today and the stimulus – from sound to lighting – is so increased,” Marrone said.
He points to the messaging that he has hung around the Bills’ facility – signs that read “Don’t confuse effort with results” and pictures of the Super Bowl trophy.
“You have to have those things out in front of you on a daily basis,” he said. “It’s a proven fact the more times you can come in and you sit down and write goals – you keep those thoughts persistent in your life – then your behavior changes.”
The Orange changed their losing ways. Syracuse went 4-8, 8-5, 5-7 and 8-5 in Marrone’s four seasons and won bowl games in 2010 and 2012.
“People who say look at his record – .500 – have no idea how college football works,” Tucker said. “What he was able to accomplish there was so impressive.”
A higher calling
As satisfying as Syracuse’s turnaround was for Marrone, the most amazing feeling of revival he ever had in the game came in New Orleans. His first season with the Saints saw the team return to the Superdome for the first time in a year, after the city had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“The buildup in the city on that first game back was unbelievable,” Marrone said. “We were getting ready to kick off, and it was so loud. I turned around to look at the stands, which is something I wouldn’t normally do, and people were literally crying. What it told me was you can influence a region. You can make people’s lives better by the sport we play. You can rejuvenate a community. It’s just not about what’s on the field.”
Marrone knows he has an opportunity to do a similar thing for a Buffalo franchise wandering in a 13-year desert of football failure.
“That’s my challenge to pull it all together. I’ve always believed this: When you’re playing for something more than yourself, you’ll play at a higher level. I don’t care if it’s football, what job you’re in, if you feel a higher calling, you will do it better and become more dedicated to it.”