This story appears in the July 25, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
IT HAPPENS EVERYWHERE and anywhere. Restaurants, malls, even urinals. A phone, connected to a random college football fan, appears. "Coach, big fan. Could you call my grandma and wish her a happy birthday?" With the public and maybe cell-phone cameras watching, most coaches oblige with a smile and a handshake.
But The Mag wanted to know which head man is the friendliest when no one is looking. So we invented a superfan named "Jim Smith," who in February wrote a letter to each of the 120 FBS coaches with this simple, if completely inappropriate, request: "Dear Coach: Would you be willing to call my voice mail and leave a message I can use as my outgoing greeting? Something like, 'Hi, this is ________. Jim can't take your call right now, but if you leave your name and number ... '"
Around our office, we set an early over-under of, well, zero respondents. How many coaches have the time to call a random, possibly crazy guy and leave a message? But just a few days later, the first message arrives. "This is Larry Fedora, coach of the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles. Jim couldn't take your call. Leave a message and he'll call you back."
Soon after, Jim also received responses from Baylor's Art Briles ("This is Art Briles from the Baylor Bears. Jim's unavailable right now, but if you leave your name and number and a short message, he'll get back to you. Go Bears!") and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz ("Hi, this is Kirk Ferentz. You've reached Jim, but he can't take your call right now. Please call back.").
Seven more coaches decline, sending Jim gentle rejection letters with autographed pictures. "Appreciate the ask," Virginia coach Mike London writes. "Sounds crazy, but too many NCAA rules and regulations tied up into that."
But Jim is not disheartened, because a month into our contest, one voice mail stands out: "Hi, Jim, Doug Marrone from Syracuse football. I got your note and want to thank you for your support. Every fan matters here for us. It's been a tough few years for Syracuse football, but we have that Big East title in our sights. Stay with us. I'll start the message in a minute." Awkward pause. "Hi, this is Doug Marrone from Syracuse football. You've reached Jim. He can't take your call right now. But I promise you, if you leave a short message after the beep, he will get right back to you. Go Orange." Another awkward pause. "So thanks again, Jim. We really appreciate your support up here. Go Orange."
Jim Smith can still hear Marrone's sweet, earnest message in his head. Unfortunately, that's the only place he can hear it. You see, Jim is something of an idiot. Before he can post the messages online for all to hear, he accidentally erases them -- all of them -- and not even the magic robot voice mail lady inside his phone can retrieve them. So to save what's left of his story and his self-respect, Jim does the desperate. He sends a note to the Fab Four responders, apologizing for losing the message and requesting a second voice mail.
Genius move. Turns out, Jim's screwup helps The Mag find a clear winner for the fan-friendliest coach in college football. Less than a week after "The Jim Smith Project, Take 2" commences, Marrone leaves a second voice mail: "Hi, this is Syracuse University head football coach Doug Marrone. Jim can't take your call right now. Please leave your name, number and a brief message and he will get back to you at his earliest convenience." Briles comes through too, but many weeks later. Fedora and Ferentz? Crickets. The crown goes to the Orangeman.
When Jim Smith calls Marrone to come clean about our contest and bestow his honor, the coach is sore. Not because The Mag duped him into leaving two messages for a fake person but because he'd spent the previous day at a friend's golf charity event, acting as the auctioneer and participating in the "Outdrive the Coach" contest. "I must have hit 150 golf balls yesterday," Marrone says.
"Why are you so friendly?" Jim asks.
Marrone laughs. "When I was a kid growing up in the Bronx, my grandmother took care of me," he says. "On the subway she'd always say, 'Get up and let that nice lady sit down.' I'd argue with her, but she would say, 'Doug, what's the right thing to do?' In my head, I still hear her saying that."
Flash forward to 1989.
Marrone has concluded his career as an offensive lineman for Syracuse and is a backup guard for the New Orleans Saints. One day on a road trip, he watches his friend and fan-favorite teammate Jumpy Geathers get mobbed for autographs in a hotel lobby. "I'll catch up with you later," Marrone tells him. An hour later, he goes looking for Geathers. He's still standing in the lobby scribbling his name. "Geez, Jumpy, have you been signing autographs all this time?"
Marrone asks. Geathers glances at Marrone and says something that, like Grandma's speech, sticks with Marrone to this day: "They're not going to want my autograph forever, Doug."
"So yeah, I try to sign everything," Marrone tells Jim. "Do every charity event I can, call people when they ask me."
Marrone lets his words linger for a moment. Then with a smile Jim can hear over the phone, he says, "In certain situations, somebody will even lose a message you leave for him, and you end up having to do it twice."
Ryan Hockensmith is a senior editor for ESPN The Magazine.