Football

Cohen: Marrone accomplished goals at Syracuse, leaves with positive legacy

Doug Marrone sat beneath the grandstands of Memorial Stadium, a fresh bottle of red Gatorade open by his left hand. He looked exhausted. His shirt bore sweat marks. His normally commanding voice lacked its usual vigor.

But Marrone, the former Syracuse football coach, looked content late on this particular Saturday evening. Happy to be drained. Pleased in knowing that his effort was well spent.

He had just exited the SU locker room, turned left and walked up a ramp toward a makeshift press table in Columbia, Mo. In those few strides he prepared for what felt like the press conference at the pinnacle of his coaching ascent, with the Syracuse football program he resurrected strapped tightly to his back.

In three years of covering Marrone and Syracuse, first as a stringer for the Finger Lakes Times and the last two years with The Daily Orange, this is the moment I will remember most about his tenure. The 31-27 win over Missouri — on the road, on national television, on a night when his team overcame a double-digit deficit, on a field where Georgia once trailed with a minute remaining in the third quarter, on a Southeastern Conference stage — earned Marrone the right to cross the most important item off of his rebuilding checklist: compete on the national level.

For that reason, not to mention the game clinched a second bowl appearance in three years, it represents Marrone’s most important win in a 25-25 career on the Syracuse sidelines.

The rest of the season was his ride off into the sunset. A ride that started joyously following a stop home in the Bronx for another Pinstripe Bowl victory but ended a bit sourly when he took offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett with him to Orchard Park, N.Y. and the Buffalo Bills.

He had done such a good job of implementing his plan — he wanted to rejuvenate the program he credits with molding him into a man back in his playing days — that he was wooed by multiple NFL teams. He had bettered his players (see: Ryan Nassib, Justin Pugh, Chandler Jones) and his coaches (see: Hackett, Tyrone Wheatley and Scott Shafer), which bettered his stock as a leader and visionary.

So when Marrone wrote in an email to his players that he left the program in better shape than when he found it, that was absolutely true. From top (coaches) to bottom (players), there was improvement. And as Nassib and Pugh are on the verge of potentially being taken in the second round of the upcoming draft, it wouldn’t surprise me if another assistant coach or two were rewarded with a better opportunity elsewhere.

In the four years prior to Marrone’s arrival, former head coach Greg Robinson gave Syracuse fans two positive moments to remember: a win over a ranked Louisville team in his second season, and an upset on the road against Notre Dame. Most people would consider his firing the only other occurrence worth cherishing.

But Marrone brought a handful of memorable moments, one of which was the win over Missouri on a breathtaking final drive orchestrated by Nassib. Then there were three consecutive victories over West Virginia, one on the road, one at home and one at a neutral site. A demolishing of a Top-10 opponent in Louisville. Another game-winning drive on the road at South Florida.  A pair of Pinstripe Bowl trophies.

For once — for the first time since Paul Pasqualoni — there were more ups than downs.

And at the center of it all was Marrone, whose coaching morphed mediocrity into reliability and stretched glimmers of talent into flashes of greatness. His players loved him, and they loved busting heads for him.

In return, he looked after them in their post-football lives, helping dozens land jobs and internships. It was all part of his promise to help them as citizens first and football players second. He followed through on that mantra almost to a T.

So as the final seconds ticked away in Missouri and Alec Lemon scampered into the end zone for the winning score, it became clear that Marrone had officially done it. He had yanked the Orange from the seemingly unbreakable grasp of football’s bottom feeders and lifted it up to a level that commanded respect — at least a little bit — from the rest of the country.

His boss knew it, and that’s why Athletic Director Daryl Gross celebrated with Lemon and his teammates behind the end zone in Missouri. And Marrone knew it as he praised the toughness of his team and resilience of his players following the best win of his career.

The smiles and laughs would come more than a month later in the interview room inside Yankee Stadium, a rare outward sign of pleasure from the coach whose moods shifted from disgruntled to antsy to business-like with little variation. Only once West Virginia was thoroughly beaten would he relax and let loose.

The crowing achievement, though, was the night in Missouri that cemented Marrone’s legacy. He had done the unthinkable by making Syracuse football relevant.

And I’m sure that fruit punch Gatorade never tasted sweeter.

Michael Cohen is a staff writer at The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at mjcohe02@syr.edu, or on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13. 

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