We won’t forget the suddenness in which his expression changed.
We had barely finished asking Doug Marrone nine days ago in the hallway between the media interview room at Yankee Stadium and the Yankees clubhouse which was serving as the Syracuse locker room for the Pinstripe Bowl about the interest coming from NFL teams, when the smile on his face vanished instantly into the start of a pained expression.
His words were predictable (“I just want to enjoy this victory.”) considering the time and moment, but simultaniously our first gut reaction, based on how he said what he said, was that this was the last football game coaching his alma mater after four quick years of resurrecting the program from the worst stretch in its illustrious history.
With a multi-year quest to secure the funding necessary for the requisite opulent football team compound, including the mandatory 100-yard indoor practice field needed to compete with the majority of schools in the ACC coming up empty, and without a clear direction of the vision from the university’s board of trustees and with a soon-to-be exiting chancellor, it seems clear that Marrone questioned whether the steep tens of millions of dollars financial commitment would ever become reality.
Whether its cyclical or not, NFL owners with head coaching vacancies had been signaling all fall that college head coaches with prior NFL experience were high on the list of candidates to turn around pro programs in a league where it isn’t out of the realm of possibility to go from last-place to the playoffs in one short season (see the Indianapolis Colts).
Since Sports Illustrated’s Peter King first mentioned Marrone’s name in a Nov. 26 column (three days after the regular season finale) listing five desired college head coaches for NFL head coaching positions as told to him by various front office executives, that was the first sign that there may be a need to consider a replacement after the then-officially unknown bowl destination.
(Ironically, if you look at that King list, as of Jan. 7 prior to the BCS championship game, none of the other coaches mentioned; Oregon’s Chip Kelly, Stanford’s David Shaw, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly (obviously) and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz had taken a pro job.)
The subsequent bowl victory over West Virginia with a dominant second-half simply wrapped up an impressive turnaround of the program under Marrone’s originally-announced plan, and finalized an updated resume (25-25 record be damned) that had the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles in hot pursuit of a candidate that fit their profile of going in a new direction to a “T.”
With the Bills, recently promoted President and CEO Russ Brandon, an East Syracuse native familiar with Marrone’s work at the ‘Cuse who was given complete authority in running the team by 94-year old owner Ralph Wilson, Jr. on New Year’s Day, has made his choice for a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 1999, and who’s loyal fan base annually wonders if this “latest new direction” will include the team staying in western New York past its current 7-10 year lease.
Be assured, Marrone came to that initial Bills interview as thoroughly prepared for a NFL head coaching job as he did for the Syracuse search committee in Dec. 2008, achieving another likely career achievement perhaps a little bit ahead of his schedule.
Now, the university’s timely response with a new head coach and a financial commitment of some sort at some point in 2013 to the facilities issue will be most telling into just how long Marrone’s successor stays on the job.Brad Bierman