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A Tremendous Chat With Syracuse Coach Doug Marrone

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I first saw Coach Marrone standing outside the ESPNZone where he and I were set to chat in an hour.  He's by himself, trying to figure out exactly where to go.  He's dressed causally, in an orange t-shirt and light khakis.  He doesn't seem uppity or entitled, just a guy on his way to meet other people at a sports bar. Just like any of us.

When I finally did get to meet him officially a few minutes later inside, my opinion didn't change one bit.  With one of the firmest handshakes I've ever received, Coach introduced himself to me and the other ten or so Syracuse alums on hand for the meet-and-greet.  For the next two hours he proceeded to lord over the conversation, answering any and all questions, never shying away from a topic (unless it was Greg Paulus, which is understandable since he wasn't allowed to discuss him at the time). 

His accent is fascinating.  A mixture of that generic American coupled with Bronx undertones and a slight Southern drawl tacked on from years working in the SEC and N'awlins.  Everything seems to come and go as it pleases.

What was so great about it was that Coach Marrone might as well have just been Doug Marrone, another SU grad sitting in a circle of SU alums, talking shop about the football team and whatever else was on everyone's mind.  You almost had to remind yourself that it wasn't just another alum but the "savior" of Syracuse football sitting across from you.

Doug broached many topics during this informal session.  He probably stopped getting too in-depth after the point where he looked at me, furiously typing into my Blackberry to tweet an update and asked "Are you blogging all of this right now?"  Still, I managed to learn a few things:

  • Doug went into a breakdown of each assistant coach and where they specialize their recruiting activity.  Dan Conley handles Western PA, John Anselmo knows Long Island, Stan Drayton understands Central PA, etc.  It's not dumb luck that every assistant seems tailor-made to recruit in a different Northeastern area.  And as for those like Greg Adkins and Scott Shafer, their unique recruiting skills make them prime national recruiters to cover all bases.
  • Arthur Jones?  Right on schedule to be back in uniform come September.
  • Coach loves him all three of our star running backs.  Expect to see Delone, Antwon and Averin all see action during the season.  He was very specific about his love for "change of pace" running.
  • Coach also made it clear SU offensive football will not be predictable.  He referenced some times in New Orleans when they got tricky on 3rd down and seems to be a fan of the reverse in particular. 
  • Coach mentioned that SU will run "no huddle, half huddle and full huddle" offenses.  I have no idea what a half huddle offense entails but I'm intrigued.
  • Coach is BIG on discipline and carrying yourself with respect.  All players will be in jackets and ties for all photos and interviews.  He said he and the assistants teach life lessons with every practice to help the players grow as men as well as football players. 
  • A player and his father showed up about midway through and Coach went off to speak with him privately.  I thought it might have been recent Cali JUCO recruit Derek Hines but now that I'm looking at the photo, I don't think it was.  Must have been a prospective player.
  • Doug was heading up to the Bay Area the following day to meet with 49ers OC Jimmy Raye, an old friend, and then with Oakland Raiders' owner Al Davis.  I imagine Lane Kiffin will be a topic of conversation...
  • As you'll come to find, he loves the word "tremendous."

Finally, it was my time to chat with Coach one-on-one.  As I mentioned, Greg Paulus was off the table.  So I figured it I couldn't ask about him, I could at least start with asking about the guy he'll be competing with.

Obviously I know I can’t talk about a certain quarterback situation, but as far as Ryan Nassib, how do you feel that he’s coming along and how do you about competition at the quarterback position and how that’s going to help him?

You know, whether it’s Ryan or anyone else, I’ve always believed in competition. I think that brings out the best in anyone. Doesn’t matter if it’s the quarterback, wide receiver, defensive back, end line…doesn’t matter. You have a better football team by creating better competition.

Ryan has developed tremendously in a short period of time, because, I don’t think everyone really understands the background that Ryan has come from as far as being a Wing-T type quarterback. What they ask a Wing-T type quarterback to do compared to a "multiple" quarterback. One asset that Ryan has where you would look at his skill and say "wow," it’s that he’s got a very good, quick release. And he throws a good ball. He’ll keep working on the accuracy and keep working on the footwork, which is important because the footwork for a Wing-T quarterback is so much different than it is for a drop-back quarterback. That’s how I see what Ryan needs to work on and that’s what I see from a skill level that he does a good job.

He’s very intense. He’s a tremendous competitor. Quiet kid that goes out there and works very hard. Very focused. Really doesn’t see much of what goes on outside of the football field. He focused in on practicing and focused in on doing a really good job and he goes out there and works well.

Was it surprising to you that you eventually named him the starting quarterback?

No. I know I didn’t go into this saying I need to do this now. But when the position separated itself quickly, I wanted to make a decision on that and go on because I knew we were going to have to develop the players to get them ready to play. Once there was separation and clearly one player better than another, I wanted to make sure that player got enough reps so he could be ready to play this season.

Switching gears a little bit, you’ve talked about how this job is what you’ve wanted to do for s very long time. Going back a couple years, when the position first open up when Coach P was fired, did you put the feelers out at that time and were you involved in that search?

I didn’t get a return phone call.

But you called?

I didn’t have anyone call for me. I just called myself.

So you felt like at that time, "this was my opportunity to coach Syracuse?"

Well I think at the time I was obviously…disappointed, I guess is the word, but I looked at it as saying "what do I need to do to become more recognizable?" Not that I needed to become better. But what can I do to become more recognizable to be in a better position to get that job.

Really, at that time, and I’ve told this to people…that’s when I started thinking maybe if you can’t win the press conference, maybe you can’t get a job in college. In the NFL, they’re going to get the best coaches.

But I kept working it. My wife always tells me I kind of had a vision in my mind and kept going for it. It something I always wanted to do. The minute I started coaching at Cortland State, I knew that I wanted to be the head coach at Syracuse University. A lot of…really, all of the decisions I made…that was one of the things that always came into play. Would this make it easier? Would this get me closer? And it’s really been documented from the mid-90’s when I was at Georgia Tech, Georgia, Tennessee, the Jets and the Saints, where you’re having end-of-year evaluations with your head coach and I’ve always said I’d like to be a head coach. Everyone always asks where and I’ve always said Syracuse. So there’s people who know that for a long period of time, this is exactly what I wanted.

During the coaching search process, was there ever a moment like this isn’t going to happen?

Not for myself personally, but I think there’s so many things that come into play and so many names that were involved at the time. For me to sit here and say "did I know if I was going to get the job or not?" I did not know that, but I always knew I was the best person for the job.

So then when did you know for sure that you had it?

When I arrived on campus, after the Chicago Bear game on Thursday night. I arrived on campus and I met with the Chancellor and I spoke to her and that’s when I knew that I had the job. Leading up to it, on the plane ride going to meet the Chancellor, I thought, I felt good about the job, but I didn’t know for sure until I was done meeting with the Chancellor.

There was something you said in your introductory press conference, "Football has gone in some many different ways now, with the internet, and bloggers and newspaper articles, it's so hard now-a-days to ensure that other schools we are competing against don't use it against us." I was wondering if you could expand on that.

What happened is, when I was starting to exit college and before I went to the NFL, I was in the SEC. We would try to pick things out at different schools. Maybe something their own fans were saying about their team. Try to bring that to light when it became a recruiting battle, when we were going against some of these other schools. I would say even the fans don’t think this is right. In other words, instead of me saying it, someone has already said it for me to steer people around. Whether that’s ethical recruiting, I don’t think so, but people have done that.

The more positive and supportive we can be at our program at time where it’s necessary, the better our program will be. If we don’t perform well on the football field, turn the ball over, or we couldn’t stop a team or get off the field on 3rd down, or give up five or six plays…am I saying that people shouldn’t say "Boy, they were awful today?" No, I mean, it is what it is on the field, but you support the program or you don’t support the program. And if you have any questions, hopefully through the media outlets that we have, people can answer. Part of my job is to educate everyone on exactly the direction of the program and I have to do a very good job of that.

I don’t discourage Freedom of Speech.

Do you read the blogs or paper?

I do not. I have people who check them. I’ll be honest, everything is checked and monitored to a point so if there is a tremendous question about something, then it probably comes to me saying "we need to address this" or "there’s concerns about this." I know how the programs going to be run, I have a vision for this program and I want to make there’s nothing that influences me to get me off that direction.

So I don’t read them, but I do put them away. Hopefully, after 15-20 years I’ll take them out and sort through them.

Recently you started a Twitter feed. I’m curious what your thoughts are on the value of that.

Well, you know, a lot of head coaches now are starting to use that. Some are using it for recruiting. I don’t know if that’s the direction we’re heading. I do not personally do it myself, I have people who do that for me. But the point is more…where I am…me trying to go out and reach out fan base, tell them the direction of the program, try to regain the foundation that we once had. Where we go after that, I don’t know yet. We’ll evaluate that situation.

A huge topic online and in the Syracuse community is the #44. Synonymous with Syracuse and Syracuse football. It’s currently retired…do you agree with that or do you feel like it should be an available number?

I think that, you know, I’m an employee of the administration. It’s something that’s above me. I support whatever the administration believes. I think all of us have individual opinions on everything. My era was a different era and I don’t know what the people in the era of #44 or the people after me think. So I don’t really have enough information to make an educated opinion on it. I support what the administration wants.

The tour that you’re doing right now, traveling around and meeting Syracuse fans…how has it been?

Awesome. Most of the people you’re talking to have been in that Dome when it’s a hostile environment. The people are such good, hard-working people and such knowledgeable fans. It’s so important and it’s such a tremendous responsibility for myself, our assistant coaches and our players to put a good product on that field. One that we can all be proud of. I may be the head football coach and we have assistant coaches who are responsible for things…but I really believe it’s "our" team. From the standpoint of people who have gone to Syracuse, people who are attending it now and the lettermen. But also the people in the surrounding communities, I want people to be proud of our football team.

As far as recruiting, what was it that made you want to come to Syracuse when you were a player?

The people here. Because, after a while, trophy cases are trophy cases. And this is my personal opinion, my personal experience with recruiting, not maybe my philosophy but my personal experience at the time. I was recruited all over the country. Everyone had trophies, everyone had bowl games, everyone had…something. At the end of the day, I believed in the coaches. I believed that the faculty truly cared. That they were going to develop me as a leader in the classroom. I loved the community and I loved the people that were going to be around me.

A lot of things came into play. Facility-wise, the Carrier Dome was virtually new then and I still think it’s a tremendous venue. Skytop apartments, back when I was being recruited there were a lot of athletic dormitories and a lot of them had cameras on them. I was thinking to myself, where I’m from, if there’s cameras it’s a prison. You know, being from the Bronx. But that’s the way things were run back then.

I think in college you need some kind of independence. You’re away from home. You need to learn about accountability, responsibility and Syracuse developed me into the person I am today.

So now how do you translate some of the things that made you want to come here to recruits now?

The school’s better than it’s ever been from an academic standpoint. The faculty and professors have been tremendously supportive. We have the right coaches and players. We have a nice weight room. To say that, where are we facility-wise with other programs…we need to improve on that. We need to improve on our attendance. Games have to be better attended and that comes with, you know, winning football games. That’s the easiest way to correct that. What I’m looking for it to make sure we have that initial support cause I know that will win football games.

Since you’ve become head coach, what’s the most surprising thing you’ve seen?

Probably the #1 thing is when I’m out and people say "I used to have season tickets." That’s probably been the biggest surprise. To say that it’s always been well-supported, with a great foundation…that’s why there’s so much of an emphasis put on this tour.

It’s really about rebuilding foundations that, from a recruiting standpoint, made us successful. We’ve been going back on there and doing a lot of clinics. Back in some core areas with coaches that have been in those areas for a long time. So I’m excited about that.

What kind of a coach are you on the sidelines? Are you the kind of coach that’s going to get animated and excited or are you going to hold things close to your chest?

Well, I think that depending upon the tempo of the game, will determine on how you react. If your players are overly-excited about a situation, you need to make sure you can crank’m down. If your players aren’t motivated or not as excited as they should be, then you better get them excited. If that player makes a mistake, you better make sure that he understands he made a mistake, what type of mistake he made and how are you going to correct it.

I believe in a lot of adjustments. I think you have to adjust, that’s the difference in coaching. You have to make adjustments and you have to have gameplans in place that can be adjusted. You can’t put in a whole offensive scheme or defensive scheme in a matter of a series or two. You have to be able to recall…your players have to be smart, your coaches have to be smart.

It’s like a chess match to me. People ask me what’s it gonna be like when I step on the field that first day. I say it’s gonna be like the same way I always step on the field. It’s business and the business is winning. But I think that a lot of factors go in, how you react to certain things on the sideline.

I know you’re big on restoring a lot of the old traditions. Are there any other traditions that we can expect to see come back?

Well, you use words like "restoring," but it’s always been a part of me. So for me, I don’t envision it as restoring even though it might be labeled that cause some part of it wasn’t done, whatever phase, whatever era. But I know that we’re looking into and we’re getting ready to distribute a booklet about Syracuse football to our players over the summer. It’s so that they can go ahead and learn about that history because I’m a firm believer in the way Coach Mac brought me up as a football player at Syracuse. He made sure I understood that the players before me worked hard and won football games so that we could have a better locker room. So that we could have a better weight room. And that it was my responsibility as a player to perform at the highest level and win games so that the players after me can have better things than I had. I think you learn to appreciate what the players had gone through before and sets the responsibility for what you need to do for the players after you. That’s something that we need to make sure our players understand.

Let’s talk about the upcoming schedule. You’ll be back out here in a couple years for USC. Are there some other programs that you would like to see on the future schedules?

I would like to play Army every year. We have a large base of alumni in that area and it’s always great to play a service academy. I coached at the United States Coast Guard Academy and I have a lot of respect for them. And they’re part of New York State, so I’d love to play them.

I’d love to play Boston College. We have a lot of alumni in the Boston area. I’d like to play them on a yearly basis. And I’d like to play Notre Dame, which is really going to come on the schedule soon. And we’re trying to work with Army to get them. Wherever the schedule takes us after that, we’ll have to sit down and look at it. But with the Big East and those three games, it leaves another option open to play whoever it may be.

We like to go in areas we have recruiting. We like to go in areas we have alumni. That helps us play in those types of football games.

You said earlier your wife is a BC grad. Would that put on some added pressure to win those games?

Always. My wife’s a BC grad, Memphis law school.

And as you grow up and play football, you play in the NFL, you coach…you meet other players and they all have different backgrounds from different schools. There is a lot of pride in a locker-room and there’s a lot of pride inside your whole family.

So at last year’s Big East Media Day, they had the annual Big East Media Clam Bake which includes an all-you-can-eat lobster dinner. Ryan Durand from the Syracuse team ate seven lobsters at the event. I’m curious if you are a big lobster fan and if you think that record can be topped this year?

Well, I know I can probably eat more clams than anyone. I’ve eaten about…I don’t know how many’s in a bushel, but…I’ve eaten a bushel. You’ve gotta be careful cause I’ve been an eating champion. I won a contest when I was at Miami for Bobby Rubino’s Ribs…the rib-eating championship. I have eaten, in the past, 42 pancakes with two sticks of butter…or a stick and half of butter…no, two sticks of butter and a thing and a half of maple syrup. I take pride in what I can eat.

So can I take the lobsters? Strategically, if I wanted to…yes. I start out with a lobster just plain. Later on, I switch to the butter. The butter will go down a little smoother. So I’m up for any challenge or any competition.

Finally, just out of curiosity, do you have a preferred nickname that the fans can refer to you by? Or do you prefer just Doug or Coach?

You know, most of my players will call me Coach or Coach Marrone. I think there’s a tremendous amount of respect in the sport of football. In other words, it’s Coach or Coach Marrone and I would refer to a player by first or last name. I would never refer to a player by a nickname. I think that’s important and I’ve already addressed that with our staff.

I heard you talking earlier about instilling that sense of self-respect and the way a player should carry themselves. It sounds like that’s a huge part of the system for you.

Yes and it’s a huge part of winning football games too. I believe that. I really do.


Big thank you to Coach Marrone for taking the time, the SU Alumni Club of LA for organizaing and Chris Gedney for sorting out the details.