JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - When it comes to the subject of leadership, perhaps no group is easier to study than football coaches.
At one point, fans in Jacksonville had Steve Spurrier, Bobby Bowden, Vince Dooley and Howard Schnellenberger or Jimmy Johnson leading the major college programs they followed. All very successful, all very different in philosophy and personality.
Although the Jaguars have only had a few head coaches, all have been very different, and that’s probably by design.
From the imperious bearing of Tom Coughlin, owner Wayne Weaver went completely in the other direction, hiring a former player, Jack Del Rio, who suffered (and perhaps still does) from the “I’m the smartest guy in the room” problem.
Mel Tucker took over as the interim and introduced the “servant leader” idea. (Tucker is a fabulous coach and a really good guy, as well. I’m surprised he isn’t a head coach somewhere).
Mike Mularkey came in suspicious of the media, but since he was only in Jacksonville for one season, he never had the opportunity to grow that relationship.
Gus Bradley brought a whole new approach from a new generation, trying to empower the players for their own discipline and accountability. He’s one of the best people I’ve ever met. He’s also a very good football coach, but his team was too young to grasp the power he was trying to give them. (Plus, I thought getting rid of guys like Montel Owens and Daryl Smith created a leadership vacuum in the locker room.)
When Jaguars owner Shad Khan talked with Tom Coughlin about running the football side of the organization, Coughlin gave Khan a few names he’d bring in as head coach. One was Doug Marrone. Marrone had been serving as an assistant on Bradley’s staff and was known as a solid coach, a good soldier, and the guy who walked away from the head coaching job in Buffalo looking for greener pastures.
When Marrone was named the Jaguars' head coach, I checked with one of my colleagues in Buffalo to get a sense of what he was like.
“He’ll be more miserable when they win,” my friend said with a laugh.
I wasn’t sure what to make of that but I’ve seen that transformation throughout the season.
“Miserable” might not be the right word, but Marrone’s demeanor seems so downtrodden that it’s easy to understand that his nickname at a few stops in his coaching career was “Eeyore.”
“I never have fun,” Marrone deadpanned at his Monday press conference after beating Pittsburgh and earning a shot at the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. “I like winning. I like winning. I am not a fun person. That is my problem. I think when I look back I will say that it is fun. People always say the same thing. People that know me well will say, ‘Make sure you enjoy it.’ I sit there and I go, ‘Pshh, yeah.’ How do you enjoy it? I don’t know. My mind right now is focused on digging into New England and seeing what is going on.”
With all due respect to the media contingent in Buffalo, everybody who knew Marrone as the head coach there and has seen him this year says he’s changed. Changed in his approach to the other things that go along with being a head coach but not with his core values on how to win. He’s engaging with the media, and in turn, that snapshot that fans see of their head coach.
“I give a lot of credit to the guys here,” pointing to the group of beat writers and assembled media on Monday. “The media is something I have struggled with in the past, when people say, 'What have you learned?' or 'What have you gotten better from?' For whatever reason, I feel comfortable with the guys in this room.”
But he also admitted that he’s been able to separate the things that matter from the things that don’t when you’re in charge.
“People talk about experience. You gain experience. What does that mean? You start to learn more of what, 'OK, this is important,'” he explained. “Maybe this is not as important. Then, you create maybe more of a comfort in that. I don’t know. I just know that I feel more comfortable. I can’t really put it into words, as far as specific things. I just feel very comfortable. I feel comfortable in everything here.”
Marrone is a good guy, somebody who wants to do well and do it right. He’s the guy who would be the designated driver on a night out if you asked him. And he’d be the guy who stepped in front of some jerk in a bar giving you a hard time.
Taking the Jaguars from a three-win team to the AFC Championship in one year is a monumental feat. The easy narrative is that Coughlin should get the credit, and some of that is true -- mostly in his hiring of Marrone.
While they see the path to victory and success through the same lens, they’re very different people and personalities. Marrone agrees with Coughlin’s, “Earn the right to win” philosophy, he’s able to impart that to the players in a very matter of fact, "Here’s what we have to do" way.
Easy to digest. No screaming or yelling, no folksy, fake back-slapping, but rather a serious approach to getting the job done -- like the offensive lineman he was as a player.
He takes some satisfaction in the success his team has had, but mostly he says he’s happy for the people around him as well as the fans and the organization.
As a player at Syracuse, the Orange were 2-9 his freshman year and he didn’t want to wear his “Syracuse Football” gear anywhere. He knew the ridicule he’d be subjected to. He’s glad to change that for Jaguars fans that have been in that situation for a decade.
“So last Thursday I went to a high school basketball game,” he said, storytelling being one of his media strengths. “I went to watch the J.V. play first. So when I went to the school there was a ton of people that had Jaguars stuff on, and I was like, ‘Holy Cow! That’s good.’ It wasn’t like that when I first got here, and I think that, and I’ve said this many times, we appreciate the support. It’s something that we needed to earn, but at the end of the day, the fans…it goes back to when I was a player.”
He’s already been named Coach of the Year by several organizations, and deservedly so. But it doesn’t seem to matter to Marrone. He wants to be successful, but he enjoys being a part of something bigger, in this case, the Jacksonville community that has rallied around the team after years of disappointment. He gets that part of being a fan that either lifts or dampens your spirit with every victory or defeat.
“The people that support you, you want to be able to do a good job so when they are around whether it’s the water cooler or a moment they can spend with their kids or a moment when they are in the airport and they are traveling and they can wear the team logo or say they support the team and not be ridiculed, I just always believe in that. I grew up in a sports town, and I know what it’s like when your team’s not doing well and all the crap you take. For me I get a lot of joy when I see people that are proud of their team and I see the players that are happy with their performance and I see the building. That’s probably the joy that I look at the most of what occurs.”
So when you see Marrone in sound bites or brief descriptions this week as the spotlight gets pretty bright on the Jaguars, know that he’s OK. He’s working. And although he says he’s not really a happy person, he’s happy in different ways.
“It’s hard to enjoy," Marrone said. " You win a game, after that game is over my mind's [already on] what we could have done a better job in that game and my mind’s already on to the next opponent. One thing in this profession, at least for me, it’s very hard to enjoy those things, but I do find a lot of joy for myself when I see other people happy with the success, whether it be the players, especially the fans and I said that from the beginning. Everywhere I’ve been I’ve always felt the same way.”
Hard to not like that. He might be Eeyore, but he’s our Eeyore, and he's the right guy, in the right place, at the right time.
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