Written by Sal Maiorana, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle staff writer
You know those commercials for Dove soap, the ones that feature famous athletes like Drew Brees, John Elway, Albert Pujols and Magic Johnson proclaiming they'recomfortable in their own skin?
The modern-day Mad Men who dreamed up that ad campaign missed the boat by not asking new Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone to participate because, if ever there were a man who's comfortable in his ownskin , it's Marrone.
Phyllis Preston, an English teacher at Lehman High School in Marrone's native Bronx who doubled as the drama teacher, certainly knows this.
"You get stereotyped in high school," Marrone said. "Those are the athletes, those are the math people, the science people, the drama people, those are the musicians. Her goal was to say, 'Hey, we can all interact.' "
Who better to inaugurate that experiment than the school's football stud?
"I had to do a soliloquy on Othello in her class," Marrone recalled. "I went up and did it, and I was into it at the time, and she always makes me do it when Italk to her on the phone now. She said, 'Why don't you come out to the drama club?' "
Marrone thought about that for a moment. He was the big man on campus, literally and figuratively, a hulking 6-foot-5, 300-pound kid who was going to have a chance to play Division I football somewhere once he graduated from Lehman. And Mrs. Preston wanted him to go on stage and sing and dance and act?
"She bargained with me a little bit and she said, 'If you do this, you can help your grade' so there was some incentive there," he said with a smile.
So Marrone accepted the challenge and the first time out he was chosen to play Vince Fontaine, the hip radio disc jockey inGrease. "I did some background singing and a little dancing," he said.
The following year, he landed the lead role as baseball player Joe Hardy inDamn Yankees. "That was some solos, some duets, there was a lot for that role," he said. "It was great, a different type of bonding with the drama people than you have with football, but I loved it. The toughest part for me was the makeup. I have a great appreciation for people who wear eye liner. You just have to be comfortable with who you are."
His thespian days are long behind him, but being comfortable in his own skin is a trait Marrone has maintained throughout his climb to the top of the coaching profession.
• He was comfortable as an offensive lineman playing for DickMacPherson at Syracuse University, and as a player in the NFL even though his career was spotty and short-lived;
• He was comfortable while coaching tight ends and watering the athletic fields at SUNY Cortland where his coaching career began humbly in 1992, and all along hisjourney through the college ranks on the way to becoming an NFL assistant with the Jets and Saints from 2002-08;
• He was comfortable when he fulfilled a dream by becoming the head coach at Syracuse, and today that skin that he's so comfortable in has goose bumps as he begins to fulfill his other dream of being a head coach in the NFL, Buffalo serving as his new stage.
"I'm just this kid from the Bronx," Marrone said the day he was introduced in Buffalo, a mantra he has repeated several times since as he tries to connect with western New Yorkers and convince them that as someone who was born in this state, and played and coached football in this state, that he's one of them.
When Marrone was hired, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton told theNew Orleans Times-Picayunethat the Bills were getting a "great leader" and a "great teacher."
Payton called Marrone "a great leader" and "a great teacher."
"I think he's certainly someone the players will respond to, and I think he's ready," Payton said.
Ready or not, Marrone's time has come as Bills' players will begin reporting to training camp at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford on July 26. The first day of full squad practices is July 28.
N.Y. state of mind
Marrone grew up an only child in a modest house on Harding Avenue in the Bronx in the shadow of the Throggs Neck Bridge that transports commuters over Long Island Sound into Queens. About eight miles to the west sits Yankee Stadium, where Marrone's maternal grandfather worked as an usher for about 25 years.
"I didn't have a choice of what team to root for," said Marrone, whose childhood friend, Michael Kay, is the play-by-play man for Yankee telecasts on the YES Network. "I remember when Chris Chambliss hit the home run to beat the Royals (in the 1976 American League Championship Series), it was like New Year's Eve, people going outside the homes and popping champagne."
Marrone watched the Yankees all the time on TV, but didn't get to go to many games at Yankee Stadium. His mother did take him to one of the games in the 1976 World Series when the Yankees were bulldozed by the Big Red Machine from Cincinnati.
He loved baseball and played the game in his youth and later at Lehman High, but football was his best sport. Marrone's father had always been a Syracuse fan and he had a particular admiration for Jim Brown, so Doug was thrilled when MacPherson recruited him to play for the Orange.
Marrone was on the ground floor of coach Mac's rebuilding project - very similar to the one Marrone would embark on about 25 years later - and by his senior season in 1985, the Orange qualified for a bowl game, losing 35-18 to Maryland in the Cherry Bowl at the Pontiac Silverdome.
Those four years on the hill made Marrone the man he believes he is today, and he has never forgotten the importance of his Syracuse experience.
"It comes back to what the university and the football program did for me as a young man growing up," said Marrone, who earned three football letters plus a bachelors' degree in psychology while becoming a favorite patron at the Varsity. "I was fortunate enough to have a great coach in Dick MacPherson, and I had a lot of great professors and teachers, it wasn't just the coaches. I don't know if I'd be where I am today if it wasn't for football and the support I had when I was in college."
Drafted in the sixth round by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1986, he also spent time with Miami, New Orleans, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Dallas, but saw action in only five NFL games - four with the Dolphins in 1987, and one with the Saints in 1989 - before ending his playing career for the London Monarchs in NFL Europe.
He was a volunteer coach at Cortland, then moved on to the Coast Guard Academy for a year, and Northeastern for a year before finally landing at a Division I school, Georgia Tech, where he stayed five years. Then came a season at Georgia and one at Tennessee before he made it back to the NFL as the Jets offensive line coach in 2002.
On game days at the Meadowlands, the Jets' team buses would go right past Marrone's old Bronx neighborhood on the route from their practice facility to the stadium, and it never failed to amaze him how far he'd come.
"If you would have told me I would be coaching for the New York Jets when I was 9 or 10, there's no way," he said. "My life, everything I have, it's been unbelievable."
After four years in New York, he became the offensive coordinator for the Saints where in 2006 and 2008 New Orleans led the NFL in total yards and passing yards.
And then Syracuse camecalling , asking him to do what coach Mac had done in the early 1980s - rescue the Orange from oblivion and return the program to glory.
"When I'd gotten into the profession I'd always thought about coming back and giving back to the university from a standpoint of coaching," he said. "When the program wasn't doing well, then I really wanted to get back and get it back up. It was a dream to go back there."
It was a rough go at first. Several scholarship players quit in Marrone's first year for various reasons, though primarily, they didn't like his tough approach as compared to laid-back Greg Robinson, the coach who'd nearly driven the Orange program off the cliff.
But slowly the Orange began to buy in, and during his four years, Syracuse earned two trips to the Pinstripe Bowl - back home in the Bronx at the new Yankee Stadium - and Marrone's record was 25-25.
Skeptics will say big deal to that .500 mark, but considering where SU was before he got there, it was a big deal.
"My focus was getting the Syracuse program back in order, and I think it's in a better place than it has been," said Marrone as the Orange get ready to begin life in the Atlantic Coast Conference. "(New coach) Scott Shafer was with us the whole time and it's in good hands and now I have another great challenge here."
He wasn't quite sure how big a challenge the Bills were, either. When he was going through the interview process, getting microscoped by Russ Brandon, Buddy Nix, and Doug Whaley, they didn't share the information of Buffalo's interminable absence from the playoffs.
"When I did the research prior to the interview process, I didn't know it was 13 years, nor should I; I had my own job and I was working," he said. "When I saw that, I said, 'Man, that's a long time.' So that's our goal, to get back to the playoffs."
Marrone relishes the test, just as he did at Syracuse, of getting this ship out of dry dock.
"People talk about changing the culture, and that's the reason we're here, and we have a great challenge in front of us," he said. "I'd rather go after things like that rather than something that's not as challenging."
Well, then Marrone will surely be comfortable in Buffalo, which offers him a challenge like no other in the NFL.
Age:48 (turns 49 on July 25).
Occupation:Head coach Buffalo Bills.
Alma mater:Syracuse (1991).
Coaching history:1992: Cortland State (tight ends); 1993: U.S. Coast Guard (offensive line); 1994: Northeastern (offensive line); 1995: Georgia Tech (director of football operations); 1996: Georgia Tech (tight ends); 1997-99: Georgia Tech (offensive line); 2000: Georgia (offensive line); 2001: Tennessee (tight ends/tackles); 2002-05: New York Jets (offensive line); 2006-08: New Orleans Saints (offensive coordinator). 2009-12: Syracuse University (head coach, compiled 25-25 record and led Orange to wins in the 2010 and 2012 Pinstripe Bowls).
Playing career:Marrone was a three-year letterman on the offensive line at Syracuse (1983-85) and played in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins (1987) and New Orleans Saints (1989).
Personal:Wife, Helen; daughters, Madeline and Anne; son, Mack.