METAIRIE, La. – Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone was once declared “America’s friendliest football coach” by ESPN The Magazine, when he agreed to record two personalized voice-mail messages for a fictitious fan while working at Syracuse. And Marrone has always had a friendly rapport with the New Orleans media – including a humorous conference call on Wednesday.
But “friendly” is not the first word that comes to mind when the New Orleans Saints’ veteran offensive linemen think back to Marrone’s years as their offensive coordinator and offensive-line coach from 2006 to 2008. When asked if he used to think Marrone was too nice to become an NFL head coach, Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief practically did a spit take.
“Too nice?!” Strief said. “There’s a lack of perception right there.”
He was at least partly joking.
Both Strief and guard Jahri Evans remain close with Marrone and insist he was instrumental in their development during those years. They both described him as a great teacher and great coach.
“It’s hard to say enough good things about what he meant to me and to Jahri,” Strief said.
But they also remember Marrone as a “grinder” who worked around the clock and never let up on his players – especially in that first year of the team’s rebuilding project under new coach Sean Payton in 2006, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“Yeah, we must have been a steppingstone for him,” Evans said, laughing, when asked about Marrone’s “nice guy” reputation.
Evans also credited Marrone for teaching him the technique and fundamentals that helped turn him into a four-time first-team All-Pro.
“He was a good coach for me, telling me, ‘Hey, you’re doing good out there. But imagine how much better you could be if your technique was sound, if you took this step and not that step,’ and just not really letting you slide on it,” said Evans, who became a starter as a rookie out of Division II Bloomsburg in 2006. “The best way I can explain him – and not all coaches are like this – you could make a great block but something technical was wrong. Your first step, your second step, your hand placement. And he wouldn’t talk about the good block you had, but talk about the technique which could have not allowed you to have a good block.
“So just that mind frame of him knowing in Year 6 or 7, that might not work. Or late in the fourth quarter of a game, when you’re tired and not as athletic as your first snap, you’ll rely on your technique.”
Strief compared Marrone to his college coach at Northwestern, Randy Walker, who Strief said had the perception of being a “mean, tough guy.”
“Ultimately, a lot of times those guys that are tough want you to be good, and they want to push you, and they want to drive you,” Strief said. “As a young guy in this league, I think I kind of saw it as, ‘Man, this guy’s rough, he’s really hard on me.’ And yet [Marrone] walks away, and the same as when I left Northwestern, you realize, ‘Boy that guy made me a lot better by pushing me to points that maybe I wouldn’t have done on my own.’”
Strief continued: “Then when he goes to Syracuse and gets that job, you immediately see that different personality, you know, his character kind of come[s] out. And I think he really thrived in that role. Honestly, it was probably a better fit for him than being a coordinator. I think he’s a natural kind of leader. And it’s good to see him succeed.”
Payton said it “absolutely” struck him early in his relationship with Marrone that he might become a head coach one day. And he said he was very fortunate to land Marrone on that first staff. Marrone had to get out of his contract as the New York Jets’ offensive-line coach to take the promotion to offensive coordinator in New Orleans.
“That initial staff, a lot of those guys came with promotions. We weren’t winning many jump balls, if you will, in the hiring process,” Payton said – again, only half-joking. “He was very involved in our talent evaluation. He was very thorough and is a great worker. … He was a big part of us having early success, and it’s good to see him doing the same there.”
Naturally, Marrone also looks back on those years in New Orleans fondly. He spoke very highly of the relationships he developed with people such as Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis, and he marveled at what it was like to be a part of the city in the wake of Katrina.
“I say this all the time, having gone down there post-Katrina and having really been a part of something that special is always going to be a special part in my life and in my family’s life,” Marrone said. “What everyone did and the resiliency of the people to build back a region, and I tell that to people all the time, was just an unbelievable, incredible experience.”