Friday, April 17, 2009

How I Learned To Stop Losing and Love Doug Marrone - By Brian Roll

Doug Marrone will succeed where Greg Robinson failed. How do I know this? Because I know a little something about these two former New York Jets assistant coaches, and what makes them different.

My perceptions as a football fan have been shaped through the prism of watching the Jets since I was a little kid, back when I was still blissfully unaware of the years of football heartache that were to come. As such, I've seen a number of coaches, good and bad (mostly bad), patrolling the sidelines for Gang Green. Often, it's been apparent from day one as to who might succeed and who might fail, well before the team ever took the field. There are tell-tale indicators very early on in the process - how does the coach handle himself in his introductory press conference? What is his vision for the team? What do the players have to say about him? How does he run his practices? I've become attuned to the early warning signs of failure in the pro ranks, and cringe whenever certain tried and true red flag warnings of disaster go up.

To wit, Rich Kotite was notorious for running "Club-Med style practices," in the words of former Jet Wesley Walker. He was a "nice guy" coach who "treated his players like men." This lack of conditioning and discipline led to the predictable two year record of 4-28 for Kotite's Jets. His predecessor, Pete Carroll, was little better. He brought in a "fun" attitude to coaching, and was known to organize family picnics for his players during practice, was often seen dribbling a basketball playfully in the hallways of the Jet offices, and generally brought a lot of So-Cal style sunshine into the world of the Jets. He was fired after a 6-10 season, in which the Jets absolutely fell apart like a cheap suit towards the end of the year. Neither he nor his staff - and this includes his enthusiastic and optimistic defensive coordinator, Greg Robinson - were able to get a hold of the team after they began to spiral out of control, and they simply deflated down the stretch. The knock on Carroll and his coaching staff were that they were too emotional, they were Pollyana-ish, they were cheerleaders when they needed to be taskmasters. Quite simply? They were soft.

Soft. Probably the most damning thing you can say about any football coach.

Fast forward to 2004. Embattled coach Paul Pasqualoni and his Syracuse Orangemen had just finished getting demolished at the hands of Georgia Tech in the Champs Sports Bowl. Now, no one ever accused Coach P of being soft, but the reality was that performance and recruiting had started to deteriorate badly in the last few years of an otherwise impressive coaching career at Syracuse. The fans were howling, calling for blood after watching their Orange slide into mediocrity, and newly minted Athletic Director Daryl Gross decided to make his mark on the football program in a big way, by firing Pasqualoni and launching his agenda of turning Syracuse into the "USC of the East." After years of listening to former A.D. Jake Crouthamel downplay expectations for SU football, it was refreshing - at least to me - to hear an A.D. who wasn't afraid to aim high and openly state that Syracuse's goal should be to compete for the national championship every year.

Based in no small part on the recommendation of Pete Carroll (who had, as we all know, gone on to achieve huge success at USC, a true national program), Gross brought in the aforementioned Greg Robinson. Greg's track record had been, and this is putting it kindly, uneven at best. Yes, he had two Super Bowl rings, but no one ever mistook the Broncos defenses in the late 90's for the '85 Bears, and he had also presided over the Kansas City Chiefs during the year in which they had arguably the worst defense (statistically) in the history of the NFL. Even his talent-packed defense with the Texas Longhorns gave up 37 points in the Rose Bowl against Michigan, so it wasn't like they were a shut-down group. Yet, he parlayed his career achievements into the head coaching gig - his first - at Syracuse.

Robinson's problems began right away with the Orange. He had some early recruiting success (at least on paper), so there were signs for hope. However, he faced a huge problem at the beginning that is unique to college football - he didn't know the school, or the area, in which he would be coaching. Syracuse is not a national program - everyone in the Syracuse community knew this, but Robinson seemed not to. Now, here comes the part where those old red flag instincts of mine started to kick in with the Orange. It became apparent, immediately, that Robinson was an eternal optimist. That's all well and good, when there is reason for optimism, but he had the sort of delusional cheeriness when asked about the team that, well, Pollyana might have.

Over the course of his career at Syracuse, as the losses mounted and the program fell further and further into the depths of FBS football, whispers abounded of easy practices, with "thud drills" preferred over "tackling drills," which translated to a poorly coached sieve-like defensive effort on the field. Thought to be a defensive mastermind, Robinson's defenses continued to deteriorate, and came to resemble less a formidable obstacle and more of a doormat to be trampled easily. When pressed on these issues, the answers became more and more comically cheery in the face of reality. It had become apparent by year three to me, after regressing from a 4-8 campaign in his second season, that this guy was in over his head. Bottom line? When he needed to crack the whip, he continued to smile and say inexplicable things, and always talked about how his charges were this close to "exploding" (whatever that meant). Unfortunately for Robinson, the team imploded instead, and Gross finally had enough, firing Robinson with two games left in the 2008 season. In the end, the light at the end of the tunnel that Robinson so steadfastly believed was coming turned out to be an oncoming train - perhaps it was The Little Engine That Could, the book which Robinson decided to read at his, what can only be described as "surreal," farewell press conference.

Enter Doug Marrone, the man who could not be more of a contrast to Robinson in many important ways (more on that in a minute). After his introductory press conference following a frantic (and unpredictable) coaching search, Marrone went to work. In fact - and according to many reports, this is what got him hired in the first place - he had already been doing work as the Syracuse football coach before being hired. Coming into an interview as the dark horse candidate, you need to do your homework, and Marrone - an offensive coach - presented detailed plans on how he would attack the defenses of every one of Syracuse's Big East opponents. Apparently blown away by this and other undisclosed factors, Gross and the search committee realized they had found their man.

Now to the contrast between the two men.

The most obvious difference is that Marrone knows Syracuse football. He not only knows the history of the program, having played for the Orange under coach Dick MacPherson in the 1980s, but he also understands what it takes to build a winner at Syracuse. Marrone has stated in numerous interviews that he recognizes that for Syracuse to win, it must work from the inside out. Obviously the Orange want to recruit nationally, but the base has to be local, and Marrone understands that Syracuse needs to get back to beating Rutgers, Penn State, and Boston College (and now UConn) once in a while to snare the top recruits in SU's backyard. Robinson simply didn't know the area - Marrone does. The other difference that we have seen so far, at least in terms of practice, is that Marrone is a take-no-prisoners kind of guy. He is cracking the whip at practice, attempting to instill a discipline and toughness that that the team lacked under the laid-back Robinson.

The first year staffs are different too. Greg Robinson's first staff at Syracuse was full of first-time assistant coaches, and guys with little or no college coaching experience (Brian Pariani, Major Applewhite, etc.). Marrone - who, like Robinson, has never been a head coach - has at least surrounded himself with experienced FBS position coaches (especially Scott Shafer and Rob Spence), and has made sure to hire men with local relationships to help in recruiting (John Anselmo, Bob Casullo). The approach is simply more coherent, and reflects the approach of a man who has been planning for this job ever since he got involved in coaching almost twenty years earlier.

Comparing the resumes, you can look at the successes of each man in his previous coaching gigs. As discussed earlier, Robinson has had an uneven track record, and one could argue that he's been a disaster in two out of his last three jobs (Kansas City Chiefs, Syracuse Orange), sandwiched around a year of relative success at Texas (the Rose Bowl notwithstanding). Marrone comes from the New Orleans Saints, where he had helped Sean Peyton put together one of the most explosive offenses in NFL history. Yes, Marrone did not call the plays in New Orleans, but his game-planning and preparation helped turn that offensive into a juggernaut (by Peyton's own admission). During his time with the Jets prior to New Orleans, New York had one of the best offensive lines in the game, paving the way for Curtis Martin to lead the NFL in rushing in 2005. The line play during Marrone's years was marked by toughness and discipline that were noticeable, even to laymen like myself. Games - in the NFL and college football - are won in the trenches, and if Marrone can make offensive line a strength of Syracuse football over time, the Orange offense will be tough to stop, regardless of who the skill players are.

Lastly, Marrone is in love with Syracuse. In love. I have no doubt that Robinson came to love the program, and he seems like a nice guy, but this is Doug Marrone's dream job. Now, that doesn't always work out too well (see Weiss, Charlie - Notre Dame), but it gives me hope. Syracuse football is the kind of program that is beloved by fans and alumni, but unknown by many outside of the fan base. I don't think you need a passion for the school itself to recruit for a Notre Dame, or a USC, a Florida, etc. Those are basically pro programs playing at the college level, who recruit nationally and are global brands.

Syracuse is best known as a basketball school (and a lacrosse school, of course). You need someone with the vision and passion, not to mention the understanding and work ethic to turn Syracuse back into a program that goes bowling consistently, and frequents the top 25. If Marrone's start is any indication, he has the fire and determination to get the ship righted. He wants to be here, and he will do everything in his power to restore Syracuse to its rightful place among the regional powers of college football. Everyone knows that Marrone hasn't coached a game yet, and no one should expect miracles in his first year. I get that. We all know that Syracuse is a fixer-upper, and it needs a patient, hard-working man to oversee the restoration project. Quite simply, I believe that Daryl Gross and the university have found that man in Doug Marrone.

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