This only seems stunning to the non-believers, obviously. “Saint Doug” has spent his short head coaching career engineering stunning turnarounds, and this may be his best work to-date. The Jags are just a year removed from a 3-13 record. Sure, some of the pieces were in place when he arrived. But his predecessor, Gus Bradley, couldn’t get the same results out of those players.
This narrative should sound at least a little familiar to fans of the Buffalo Bills, who improved under Marrone, as well as our own Syracuse Orange. Marrone departed SU after four years, and a 25-25 record. But boiling his tenure down to just that is dishonest, revisionist history.
Despite inheriting a team that didn’t know how to win when he arrived on campus in 2009, Marrone engineered a 4-8 record in year one with a basketball player (Greg Paulus) at quarterback. In year two, he got SU to the eight-win mark and a bowl victory. Two years later, the Orange won a share of the Big East title, eight games once again, and were a top-40 team in the country.
Doug left for the Bills, and with that a lot of Syracuse fans felt used. The “dream job” was done after four years for another “dream” (and the potential for another later on). We had faith that Marrone would bring us back to prominence. After four years, it looked like he was well on his way to doing it. So the exit made some feel like he didn’t complete the job.
Truth is, maybe he didn’t. But he certainly set us on the right track — a track that could’ve probably continued under a continuity hire. He came to Syracuse to fix the football program from the lowest depths it had yet reached. He left a program in fine shape. No one’s sure where, exactly, the ceiling is for the Orange in today’s environment. But Marrone got us as close to wherever it is as we’ve been in the last 15 years.
And for that, most of us (especially around here) don’t begrudge him leaving. The challenges that come with this job are numerous, especially in the ACC. No matter what motivated him to head elsewhere, there are limitations to this job. “Dream job” or not, there are only a small handful of coaches out there who want to both end their careers with Syracuse football -- and are capable of being successful enough to stick around for that.
Still, Marrone’s one-year turnaround with Jacksonville does remind us of just how brightly his star could’ve shown for Syracuse. Obviously we weren’t heading to the AFC Championship Game — this whole complication with needing to be in the NFL obviously stands in our way. And maybe SU wasn’t even going to win the ACC under Marrone. But that “what if” or what could’ve been still lingers, especially in light of what we have on our hands right now.
The Orange’s current head coach, Dino Babers, isn’t necessarily at the “what if” stage yet. We’re glancing, longingly at what could be for Syracuse through two years. Injuries and near-misses, coupled with defensive struggles have frustrated. SU’s two major upsets over Virginia Tech and Clemson are what has fans salivating, though. That “what if” is just around the corner. You recall “belief without evidence” and all that...
This isn’t to compare Marrone and Babers. But Marrone pushed to get that evidence early with an eight-win 2010. Then he did it again in 2012. The ground was laid for fans to see the step after that, though.
That’s the step that the Jaguars are sort of living out right now. And it’s what may give pause to some Syracuse fans. What if Marrone stuck around? What would’ve come next for the Orange? Would we still be in the exact same place? Or would that next step have become a more permanent foothold for the program?
Babers has his own chance to start erasing those thoughts in his own third year. A year off the pace he’s typically set as a head coach (season two as the jump), there’s urgency but still time to control his own narrative. For Marrone, he controls his career narrative well already, though maybe not the one assigned to him by some of the jilted Orange faithful. That’s not because he failed. It’s because his success leaves everyone wondering what could’ve come next. It’s an enviable dynamic for any coach. And one Marrone seems to have mastered at this point.