Tuesday, May 12, 2009

SU football coach Doug Marrone is being true to his school

Whether it’s a Rotary luncheon in Elmira or a minor-league baseball game in Rochester, the lament from Syracuse University football fans has been the same.

“I used to have season tickets,’’ is the painful, six-word refrain new Orange coach Doug Marrone hears each time the SU football caravan pulls into a new town.

A 10-37 record over four seasons will create that type of apathy.

But if Marrone is daunted by the demoralizing comments, he isn’t letting on.

See, the former SU offensive lineman has experienced fans jumping off the bandwagon in droves before.

And he has seen them scramble to climb back on.

It happened in Marrone’s most recent job as offensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints. Following Hurricane Katrina many long-time season-ticket holders gave up on the team, only to come flocking back once the Saints came marching back into the NFL playoffs.

The former ‘Cuse captain envisions a similar football renaissance in the Carrier Dome.

His response to Orange fans who gave up their season ducats:

“You better buy them now.’’

Or find yourself on the outside looking in.

Bold words, indeed, but they speak to the confidence and the passion Marrone brings to his dream job.

He remembers how people doubted him and his teammates in the early 1980s, and how, under the leadership of Hall-of-Fame coach Dick MacPherson, they eventually resuscitated the program and returned Syracuse football to national prominence.

“I know what that place can be like when it’s filled up,’’ said Marrone, who was on the 1984 team that upset top-ranked Nebraska in the Carrier Dome.

“I know how important it is to our community for our football program to do well. And when I say community, I’m also talking about Rochester, Buffalo and Binghamton and Albany. It’s important to them that we play good football.’’

Of course, the only way to recruit disenfranchised ticketholders is to win a lot of football games. And the only way to do that is to recruit blue-chip talent.

Easier said than done.

Marrone is an eternal optimist. But he’s also a pragmatist. He’s not going to sugar-coat his task.

This program didn’t become mediocre overnight. It won’t become relevant again overnight either.

“I think this is a very tough job – a very, very tough job, and I think anyone that’s on the inside realizes that,’’ he said. “But coaching is about challenges, and I’m looking forward to this one.’’

The Bronx native has been preparing for this moment since leaving SU for a brief NFL playing career in the late 1980s. He certainly has paid his dues – with coaching stints at Cortland State, the Coast Guard Academy, Georgia and Tennessee, before earning a promotion to the New York Jets and the Saints.

The past three years he served as the coordinator of one of the NFL’s most potent offenses. Among his success stories was quarterback Drew Brees, who had been jettisoned by the San Diego Chargers but who wound up reviving his career with the Saints.

At 44, Marrone had become one of the hottest assistants in pro football. It was only a matter of time before he became an NFL head coach.

But the man whose life had been dramatically shaped by his SU experience had his eyes on a different goal.

He wanted to return to his alma mater. He wanted to shape young men the way Coach Mac had shaped him.

Which is why, he started compiling a game plan for reviving Orange football – a game plan that included detailed lists of the top recruits in the tri-state area.

And he did all this in his limited spare time as an NFL assistant.

When athletic director Daryl Gross began making inquiries with people throughout the football world about who should replace Greg Robinson, Marrone’s name kept popping up.

Former Buffalo Bills and current Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian gave Marrone a ringing endorsement, telling Gross: “You better hire this guy before some NFL team does.’’

That emotion was emphatically seconded by SU football legends Floyd Little and Tim Green, who were part of Gross’s search committee.

And so, five months ago, Douglas Charles Marrone’s dream came true. And, now, he’s out to prove that you can go home again.

At 6-feet, 4-inches tall, he is a commanding presence. Unlike the confusing Robinson or the stoic Paul Pasqualoni, Marrone is articulate and extroverted. He loves interacting with people. He exudes confidence. You can definitely see him closing the deal with recruits and fans alike.

“I was recruited by everybody in the country, but I chose Syracuse, and I’ve never regretted it,’’ he said. “I just go around and tell people what a tremendous opportunity you’ll be able to have at Syracuse University. I know it made me a better person.’’

Marrone has assembled an excellent staff – an experienced group of assistants who understand the importance of establishing relationships with high school coaches throughout the Northeast and beyond.

Unfortunately, they got a late start on recruiting for this season, so Marrone will have to begin the rebuilding process mostly with the cards he’s been dealt.

He seeks to establish the discipline and organization that was sorely lacking under Robinson.

In all likelihood, it’s going to take at least a few years to right this ship.

But from what I’ve seen and heard so far, I believe Marrone is the right man at the right time.

His enthusiasm is contagious. His football resume is solid. His love of SU is genuine.

Skeptics will tell you that Marrone is a gamble because he has no head-coaching experience. That’s a legitimate concern, but I would argue that he is ready and able.

The same worries were articulated when a certain, bespectacled assistant took over the SU basketball program in the late 1970s. Now, I’m not foolish enough to believe that Marrone is headed for a run similar to the extraordinary chapter authored by Jim Boeheim. But I sense something good brewing. It may not happen this year. Or even next. But it will.

And when it does, those seats will be filled again. And those former season-ticket holders might wind up ruing the fact they didn’t heed Marrone’s advice.


Doug Marrone was born and raised in the Bronx and his grandfather worked as an usher at Yankee Stadium, so it’s no surprise which baseball team he follows religiously.

But Marrone also is a huge fan of minor-league baseball, and has enjoyed making the rounds to different ballparks in New York state this spring.

“I always loved coming to the ballpark,’’ the new SU football coach said. “It gives me a chance to be a fan again.’’

Marrone is so into it that he arrived early before a recent Binghamton Mets game to take a little batting practice. According to Sue Edson, SU’s Director of Athletic Communications, he didn’t hit any out, but he did park one on the warning track.

Marrone threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Rochester Red Wings game at Frontier Field Monday night. He wore his glove – a black Wilson A1000 – and went into a full windup from the rubber. For the record, his pitch to Wing Tommy Watkins sailed wide of the right-handed batter’s box, prompting one fan to bellow: “Coach Marrone, you better work on your pitching.’’

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