JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- In a break from the grind of the playoffs last week, Doug Marrone took a seat in the stands to watch his son, Mack, play a high school basketball game. Because it's Jacksonville, and because Marrone is fairly private, he can normally be low-key at these events. Not on this Friday night. The gym was awash in Jaguars gear, and the crowd spotted Marrone and cheered for him. Some even got out of their seats, walked up and shook his hand. It made him happy, albeit a little uncomfortable.
Things like this don't normally happen to Marrone. Three years ago, he was considered the most toxic coach in the NFL when he exercised a $4 million opt-out on the heels of a 9-7 season. He interviewed for at least seven head-coaching jobs and didn't get any of them. He was called thin-skinned and paranoid, and his relationship with the media was contentious.
But in the sun of northern Florida, everything is different. Marrone holds news conferences and regales reporters with stories of his love of bologna and cheese. On Thursday, he held up crayoned letters from first-graders offering suggestions on how the underdog Jaguars can beat New England in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
The same Doug Marrone whom critics said quit on his team in Buffalo is now considered a respected coach for taking a moribund Jaguars franchise that hadn't had a winning season since 2007 to one victory away from the Super Bowl. Marrone, once a 6-foot-5 imposing grump, now carries around a coffee mug that says "#ForeverTeal" and comes across as confident, comfortable and almost charming.
"He's changed in a lot of ways," said Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who worked with Marrone in Buffalo and at Syracuse. "He used to let a lot of things kind of affect him, and he's done a good job of understanding what's important and what maybe is not as important. I think it's allowed him to be more positive and just more energetic instead of letting a lot of things bother you."
One of Marrone's biggest critics in his past life was former Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who, in the summer after Marrone left, told ESPN that the coach was anal-retentive and nervous and treated his players like children. Dareus, at the time, said he was glad Marrone was gone.
Three months ago, the 4-3 Jaguars needed help with their leaky run defense. So Marrone and the front office brought Dareus to Jacksonville, and Dareus, in turn, helped the Jaguars reach their first conference championship game since 1999.
Dareus, one of the last players in the locker room Thursday, has found himself exchanging a few knowing glances with Marrone over the past few weeks, unspoken moments in which they'll lock eyes and share a Can-you-believe-this-is-happening? grin.
"He's a lot more open than he used to be," Dareus said. "He's a lot more understanding."
I met Doug Marrone in the summer of 2015, after he'd taken a job as an offensive line assistant in Jacksonville. It seemed like a pride-swallowing move, considering where he was a few months before that, running his own team in Buffalo, taking the Bills to their first winning season in a decade. But Marrone said he was never a guy who could sit around, and he refused to take a year off. He had to get back into coaching.
After changing his mind a few times, Marrone agreed to meet at his meticulously kept house in Ponte Vedra Beach. Dressed in flip-flops and a salmon-colored button-down shirt that his wife, Helen, told him to wear, Marrone spent four hours vacillating between confidence and fear. He knew he was a good football coach. He felt good about what his teams did in Syracuse and Buffalo, and in each case he believed he'd left the programs better than when he took the jobs.
But on the subject of how he came across to his ex-players and the media, Marrone seemed much less confident. He was genuinely hurt by what his players said on his way out of Buffalo, and he couldn't understand why the media was so harsh on him.
It was almost as if he'd spent that afternoon trying to convince someone that he wasn't a bad guy. Helen entered the room periodically, worried about what he'd say. She is a lawyer, but better yet, she's the daughter of Boots Donnelly, a legendary coach at Austin Peay and Middle Tennessee State who's in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Helen worried that whatever he said would come back to haunt him, that it would be picked apart and used against him when he tried to eventually get another head-coaching job. She knew her husband was awkward in these settings. "He's hard to warm up to," she said at the time.
But for an afternoon, Marrone did his part in trying to reveal his human side. He ate hummus, talked about his kids and said he wanted to be a head coach again someday. He didn't reveal his reason for leaving Buffalo, but it's assumed that two things happened: that Marrone was uneasy about his future with new management, and that he thought he was getting the job with the New York Jets that had just opened up. (The Jets went with Todd Bowles.)
After that interview, Marrone went about his business of shoring up the Jags' offensive line. But he also went to work on his ultimate goal. A person close to him said Marrone attended seminars on public speaking and listened to PR people on how to better deal with his anxiety over the media.
"He doubted he would ever get a chance to be a head coach again," the person said. "But I don't think he ever doubted his coaching ability. He used that time to work on it and make sure he was better if he ever did get another shot."
Marrone's next big moment in front of the cameras came in late December 2016, when Jaguars coach Gus Bradley was fired and Marrone was named interim coach. They were completely different -- Bradley was a personable man who talked about the process more than immediate wins and was widely considered a player's coach.
The Jaguars were 14-48 under Bradley, and owner Shad Khan believed a culture change was needed away from the kindler, gentler approach. In Marrone's debut/audition, he led the Jaguars to a 38-17 throttling of the Titans on Christmas Eve 2016. They blew a 17-3 lead in a loss at Indianapolis in the finale, but Marrone was high on Khan's list of possible candidates for the permanent replacement that winter.
Another person who interviewed for the job, Khan said, was Tom Coughlin. Although Coughlin wanted to be coach, Khan believed the 71-year-old would be most valuable in the front office. When he told Coughlin he wanted the former Giants coach to be an executive vice president instead, Khan asked Coughlin who would be his top two choices for head coach.
No. 1, Coughlin said, would be Doug Marrone.
"And then I talked to Doug," Khan said. "I said, 'Listen, I want you to be our head coach, but this is the structure I'd like, and I'm thinking about Tom Coughlin for that position.' And Doug went nuts, in a great way. He said, 'Oh my God' with a lot of expletives. 'I love Coach Coughlin.'"
And so the Jaguars were set, with Marrone and Coughlin in offices right next to each other. It's a marriage, Khan said, that hasn't worked in other places. But it has worked in Jacksonville. Marrone says Coughlin reminds him of his father-in-law, whom he talks to after every game. Coughlin gives Marrone his unfiltered opinion about not only X's and O's but also how to deal with players.
(Donnelly, when told that Marrone compares their relationship to his and Coughlin's, laughed. "He never listens to me," Donnelly joked.)
Marrone and Coughlin were on the same page with the changes in the Jaguars' locker room. One of the first things Marrone did was remove a pingpong table and a small basketball hoop from the locker room. Marrone, according to running back T.J. Yeldon, wanted the players to talk to one another more instead of having so many distractions.
Marrone laid down guidelines that this past summer might have seemed arcane, such as requiring the players to wear black tights, black socks and long white-sleeved undershirts ... for practice. Longtime Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny said Bradley let them "almost wear whatever you want."
But the message, at least to Posluszny, was clear: that the Jags were going to be disciplined and accountable and do things as a team. Marrone's first training camp, according to players, was two-a-day hell, with consecutive days of full contact and pads and dozens of sore bodies.
"He expects greatness, and expects for you to be on that page fast," said Jaguars defensive tackle Malik Jackson. "But once you get to know him and understand his vision, he's a great guy and player-friendly. At first you don't think so, but he turned out to be player-friendly."
Marrone will never be the guy who takes the team go-kart riding or give touchy-feely speeches, Jackson said. But he gives the players days off to do what they want and allows them to show their personalities.
The 2017 opener was at Houston, a team that had in years past dominated the Jaguars. Jacksonville won that game 29-7, and from there, Yeldon said, the team took off. They saw what hard work could do.
On Thursday, Yeldon pointed to the spot where the pingpong table used to be.
"We're winning now, so I don't care about that," he said. "We can play pingpong at one of our houses."
Marrone isn't the first guy to come along, learn from his own past and adjust his approach to find new success in another city.
In the NFL, a coach can get fired one year and be the smartest man in the world the next. Here's how quickly people forget about three years ago: Jackson, when asked what he thought happened to Marrone in Buffalo, had to sit and think for a minute.
"He got fired, didn't he?" Jackson asked.
Dareus can correct his teammate. He remembers everything because he was there in Buffalo. He is 27 years old and estimates that he has experienced eight head-coaching changes in the NFL when you count the interims. Maybe that's why he didn't buy into Marrone initially when they crossed paths in Buffalo.
Marrone came to Buffalo, trying to make sweeping changes, imposing his strict law, and Dareus thought he'd be working with his predecessor, Chan Gailey, for a long time.
Now Dareus is older and has been through so many changes. And now, he said, he gets what Marrone was trying to tell him four years ago. He had to be away from him to see it. He had to come to Jacksonville, play by Marrone's rules again and experience what it could yield.
The first time they talked after Dareus was traded to Jacksonville, Marrone asked him something to the effect of, "Are we good?" Dareus said he understood what Marrone needed from him and that he would give him everything. He thanked Marrone.
On Sunday, the Jaguars traveled to Pittsburgh for a divisional-round game. Although they beat the Steelers handily in the regular season, the Jags were decided underdogs. Just after the national anthem ended, Dareus walked up to Marrone, grabbed his shoulders and said, "Let's go, Coach."
The Jaguars proceeded to beat Pittsburgh again, further changing the story of an old coach who is still the same but remarkably different.