Back when Doug Marrone was courting Helen Donnelly more than two decades ago, he pulled aside her father to ask for her hand. Helen Donnelly’s dad is known as “Boots,” and he won 140 games over two decades as a Hall of Fame coach at Middle Tennessee State. He answered Marrone like any clear-thinking football coach.
“We spent a lot of money sending Helen to Boston College and then law school,” Boots recalls with a chuckle in his slow-cooked drawl. “There’s no way she was dumb enough she ended up marrying a football coach.
“I said, ‘HELL NO!’”
Nearly 20 years after Doug and Helen married, they have three kids and the hectic coach’s life that goes along with it. Boots, 75, jokes that he still sometimes needs a translator to decipher his son-in-law’s Bronx accent, and notes that Doug has ignored every piece of coaching advice that he has passed on.
These days, Doug Marrone is one win from the Super Bowl as the coach of the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars. He has pogo-sticked around the country – Athens (Georgia) to Syracuse, Knoxville (Tennessee) to New Orleans – building a coaching career and family. And as Boots watches from afar, he admits he initially overreacted.
“It has worked out very well for them,” he says.
There has been no bigger surprise in the NFL this season than Marrone’s Jaguars, who in his first full season as their coach have slingshotted from a 3-13 record to the AFC championship game. Along the way, Marrone has emerged as a favorite for Coach of the Year and will square off against the greatest coach of this generation (at least), Bill Belichick, at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
This marks the emergence from a two-year professional purgatory after Marrone opted out of his Buffalo Bills contract after the 2014 season thanks to an obscure clause. Marrone failed to land the New York Jets job and watched as lightweight candidates like Ben McAdoo, Jim Tomsula and Hue Jackson filled NFL head coaching jobs. Marrone spent the past two years as the assistant head coach in Jacksonville, coaching the offensive line and biding his time until his next NFL opportunity came. But much like Boots summarized the Marrone-Donnelly union, things ended up working out just fine, a period of uncertainty leading to the opportunity of a lifetime.
Calling around this week to glean what Marrone learned from his professional hiccup revealed a strong hesitation by those closest to Marrone to give any insight into the Buffalo situation. As unusual as it is to step away from an NFL coaching job, Marrone’s situation turned even more bizarre when he failed to land another. (He was named the interim in Jacksonville last year before being named head coach).
Marrone isn’t prone to introspection, as he reflected this week: “I’m so not a fun person,” and answered, “Psshh, yeah,” in his cynical Bronx bark to anyone who suggested he enjoy this moment. He’s remained particularly close-lipped about his two-year detour out of head coaching.
What emerged from Marrone’s friends and confidants is a portrait of a more nuanced coach amid his third consecutive impressive turnaround job, appreciative of the opportunity and confident in his methods. “I just know I feel more comfortable,” Marrone said this week. “I can’t put into words. I just feel comfortable, comfortable in everything here.”
Marrone has never spoken in depth about his departure from Buffalo, why he’d give up an NFL job and risk not getting another. (He got paid $4 million after he opted out, which didn’t sit well with the blue-collar fans in Western New York). He didn’t even say all that much to his family at the time, as he explained to Boots: “I can’t work here under these circumstances.”
After he passed that on, he said he didn’t want to talk about it anymore and there’s been little public information about it. “I think he’s also learned a great lesson,” Boots said. “No matter what you do, you need to be working with great people, honest people and people support you in what you do. That’s what he’s getting right now.”
To those who know Marrone and saw him revive the program at his alma mater Syracuse (2009-12) and the Bills (2013-14), the blueprint looks familiar. And he’s done it in concert with Jaguars executive vice president Tom Coughlin, a kindred smashmouth football spirit.
“Doug and he are obviously closely aligned on how to create a winning atmosphere and a winning football team,” Bill O’Brien, the Houston Texans head coach and Marrone’s best friend, told Yahoo Sports this week. “They’re Syracuse guys, Northeast guys, who believe in mental toughness and you can see it in their teams.”
When Marrone arrived at Syracuse in 1982, the team went 2-9 and he admits being embarrassed to wear school gear in public. He was the type of player he’d despise now as a coach – brash, loud and a locker room lawyer who was always questioning the coaching staff. Former Syracuse quarterback Don McPherson laughs at the memory of Marrone, the first 300-pound lineman he’d ever seen, a lunar eclipse with long hair and a big mouth.
“He would have benched himself,” McPherson said. “He may have even suspended himself.”
But Marrone conformed and evolved, taking a blueprint with him of the guts of coach Dick MacPherson’s turnaround that culminated in an undefeated season in 1987. Marrone got picked in the sixth round of the NFL draft in 1986, but had a largely anonymous NFL career. (His stint with the Saints included an offseason job in the circulation department of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)
He ended up back in New Orleans as the offensive coordinator before returning to Syracuse to usher another turnaround. He took over a team that went 5-19 the prior two years and finished outside the top 100 in total offense and total defense in 2008.
The program was a total mess, and Marrone slammed down a binder on the athletic director’s desk to show how he’d fix it – from schemes to recruiting, dress code to facility needs. He executed it uncompromisingly, starting with outdoor 6 a.m. workouts his first offseason to build toughness and camaraderie. Marrone wore shorts and a hoody to one predawn workout, when the temperature hovered around single digits, and the players howled with laughter in the locker room after he practically turned purple.
“It wasn’t meant to be funny, but it was a great rallying point for the team, and they really got a kick out of it,” said Bill Brotzki, his former director of player development at Syracuse. “They knew we were going to work our butts off, but we were going to have some fun along the way.”
Marrone’s first quarterback at Syracuse was Greg Paulus, the former Duke basketball point guard who took advantage of the graduate transfer rule to play a season of football. Paulus recalls a personal touch with Marrone, including bringing in etiquette experts to teach the team the nuances of fine dining. Paulus recalls throwing an overtime interception in his debut, and Marrone walking up to him as Minnesota hit the game-winning field goal on the next possession to reaffirm that he believed in him.
The connection carries over to this day, as Marrone was one of the first people to call Paulus earlier this year when he got let go as an assistant basketball coach at Ohio State after Thad Matta’s firing. Those who know Marrone say you see the sideline scowl but often don’t see the depth of relationships that prompts players to respond.
“He’s a guy when you play for him, you want to run through a wall for him and the team,” Paulus said.
The Orange won eight games and two bowls in two of Marrone’s final three years, and he got tabbed by the Bills after numerous NFL franchises showed interest. The script was similar there, as Marrone led Buffalo to a 9-7 record in his second season. It was Buffalo’s best record in a decade, but an ownership and general manager change led to uncertainty. One local columnist summed up Marrone’s departure this way: “Greed, insecurity and thin skin.”
Marrone has made it clear we’ll never know his side, so we’re left to rely on others.
“The way it ended in Buffalo, I don’t know if it was necessarily fair to Doug,” O’Brien said. “The way that it came out publicly, I didn’t feel was fair to Doug.”
Outside of Helen, no one likely knows Marrone better than O’Brien. They’ve gone from working in their early 20s as off-field coaches at Georgia Tech to division rivals in the NFL. Their wives roomed together at Boston College and the matchmaking stories of their husbands are intertwined.
Colleen O’Brien worked in sports information at Northeastern University after graduation and knew Doug, who was an assistant football coach. She introduced him to Helen. The Marrones reciprocated the Cupid favor a few years later, introducing Bill and Colleen after a Georgia Tech game.
With the friendship has come perspective of his journey, a detour finished and a destination just one game away.
“No one deserves this game more than Doug,” O’Brien said. “He cares about the game and earned everything he’s gotten in his career. He’s earned the right to be the coach in this game.”
Yahoo Sports writer Eric Adelson contributed to this story.