Marrone molds Syracuse football into a winner

Published Nov. 25, 2010 6:51 a.m. ET

If Doug Marrone ever wants to moonlight at something besides his day-and-night job as head football coach at Syracuse, he might want to try magic. He seems to be pretty darn good at it.

In less than two years at the helm of his alma matter, the Bronx-born Marrone has transformed a laid-back team that had become a national laughingstock into a group of smiling winners who fear no one and are respected by whatever team lines up on the other side of the ball.

Syracuse, a proud program that ranks 15th all-time with 684 victories, averaged eight wins from 1986-2004 with such stars as quarterbacks Don McPherson and Donovan McNabb and defensive end Dwight Freeney. The school played in 13 bowl games, then fell to the depths of despair.

Marrone inherited a team that ranked 97th in the final 2008 computer rankings. In four seasons under California-born Greg Robinson, a former NFL assistant with two Super Bowl rings and no ties to upstate New York, the Orange went 10-37 with only three conference wins.

Heading into the final regular-season game against Boston College on Saturday, Syracuse boasts the sixth-best defense in the country (293.2 yards per game), has won five road games (including 4-0 in the Big East, a first), and is guaranteed of its first winning season since 2001 and first bowl game in six years.

''It's like night and day,'' said redshirt senior defensive tackle Andrew Lewis, who was recruited by Paul Pasqualoni's staff and endured the Robinson era, the worst four-year stretch of Syracuse football. ''I can't really put my finger on just one thing. The biggest thing that stands out is the collectiveness of the team. We all come together as one. That's different from years past.''

And the entire university has taken notice.


''He has been masterful. He's changed the culture,'' said Dr. Daryl Gross, director of athletics. ''Football is the hardest turf. Football takes time when you're changing the entire culture. Doug Marrone is rare. You don't find a lot of coaches like him. This is just the tip of the iceberg.''

The 6-foot-5 Marrone started for Syracuse at right tackle from 1983-85 under coach Dick MacPherson and fell in love with the university. He began plotting his return the day he took his first coaching job at Division III Cortland State, just 30 miles south of Syracuse. His sojourn also included college stops at Coast Guard, Northeastern, Georgia Tech, Georgia, Tennessee and in the NFL with the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints, where he was offensive coordinator under Sean Payton (2006-08).

When Robinson was fired with one year left on his contract, Marrone landed the only job he ever wanted.

''I wouldn't be anything if I didn't come to Syracuse University because I didn't have the right frame of mind,'' the 46-year-old Marrone said.

How has he accomplished such a rapid about-face?

One of the first things he did was to rouse the players early one morning and have them clean their own locker room so they could take pride in where they spend a lot of their time. He's also taught them about the school's glorious past, which includes a string of great running backs - Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, who led the undefeated 1959 national championship team and two years later became the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy, Jim Nance, Floyd Little, Larry Csonka, Joe Morris - and receivers Art Monk and Marvin Harrison, among others.

''What he's done is rebuilt the foundation and the tradition this program's been built on,'' said Chris Gedney, an All-American tight end at Syracuse in the early 1990s and now an analyst on football broadcasts. ''He's just done a remarkable job of educating them on the history of the program. If there's a better plan, you have to show it to me because I have no idea what it would be.''

That Marrone has been able to connect so strongly with his players in today's environment is impressive. Coaches are recruiting kids who have grown up with the Internet. History is an afterthought for most.

''He makes you understand what you're playing for,'' senior tailback Delone Carter said. ''It means that much more to you when you understand the history.''

More importantly, Marrone has preached discipline, accountability, character, and integrity. Be late for something, and your face could end up on a campus TV monitor for all your teammates to see.

''I was late for something and I was up on the TV monitor,'' senior linebacker Doug Hogue said. ''I never wanted to be on it again. It wasn't a good thing, but it taught me to be more accountable, more responsible for my actions.''

Marrone also requires players to be clean-cut - they dress in suit and tie instead of sweats on game day - and they sing the alma mater before leaving the field, win or lose.

''When you learn the alma mater, I think it gives you a better appreciation for your school,'' Lewis said. ''After a win, it makes you appreciate the school. After a loss I really think it makes you appreciate the game of football. To go out there and still be able to say, 'Hey, we didn't get it done but we're still going to represent Syracuse in this community regardless.' That's powerful.''

Not everyone jumped aboard. More than 20 players, many with eligibility remaining, left the program after Marrone took over.

''I think one of the things Doug came in and did right away was say, 'This is not going to be easy, this is going to be hard,''' said McPherson, who speaks regularly with Marrone. ''And the guys who left are the ones who said, 'I can't take it.'

''Whether Doug says this or not, I can say it. They weren't Division I athletes and they were in a regime that, in my opinion, disrespected them because it didn't ask them to do the hard work,'' McPherson said. ''From what I saw from the previous coaching staff, they coddled these kids, there was a lack of discipline right down to the way they dressed. I don't think you win football games that way and I think you disrespect the kids by doing so.''

Education is paramount for Marrone, who is a living testament - he didn't graduate with his class because the NFL beckoned. Encouraged by Syracuse professor Dr. Ronald Cavanagh to finish something he started, Marrone took night classes and went to summer school while he was playing professionally and received his degree in 1991.

''It was something I had to do,'' Marrone said. ''I knew I was going to need it later on in life.''

He's still preaching.

''We've got to get these kids to class and help them get better academic advising, those are the things he talks about,'' said the Brooklyn-born McPherson, who finished second in the Heisman balloting after leading Syracuse to an undefeated season and a national ranking of fourth in 1987. ''I truly believe that's how you get guys to believe in what you're doing. You love 'em first and then you teach them football second.''

Marrone has spoken to high-school coaches, business groups and students as he has begun to re-establish the university's recruiting tentacles in New York state and the Northeast. He'll be on the road right after the Boston College game, then back home to prepare for the postseason finale.

''We're bowl-eligible. First time in a while,'' McNabb said. ''I'm happy for 'em. We're looking forward to good things.''

Added Marrone: ''To see people excited about the program and happy, I'm excited about that for them. I'm even more excited for the players because it is more than just a football game that we play.''

''For me, I felt there was a lot of pressure on myself and the coaches for us to do this the right way so that our seniors can leave here winning, knowing that it is going to help them more so in life than the gratification you get at the moment.''