At the NFL owners meeting last April, I asked a colleague from Buffalo, Doug Marrone’s last stop as a head coach, what we might expect in Jacksonville. “He’s a beaut,” the scribe said with a laugh. “He’ll be more miserable when you win.”
With that in mind, I set off to try and find out for myself. It’s a funny relationship built between the head coach of an NFL franchise or a major-college team and the media. They’re trying to control the message; you’re trying to find out the real story. If you can win their trust, you’ll have background on why things are happening. That’s if they’re willing to build that kind of relationship.
Early on during his first stint in Jacksonville, Tom Coughlin seemed willing to build that relationship. I talked with him on the phone; he called me, off the record, a few times during that first training camp in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. He sharpened my reporting, gave me solid insight and I didn’t betray his trust. Over time, though, Coughlin distanced himself from me and other media members and it contributed to his eventual firing. In his book, “Earn the Right to Win” he talks about how his relationship with and view of the media morphed over his career, especially in New York. His wife Judy had a lot to do with that.
You spend a lot of time with these guys, and developing a relationship where you both get something close to what you’re looking for takes work. It’s the reporter’s job to be smart, respectful of the position and ask the right questions. Challenging the head coach with our opinions is not our job, except to ask “Why” when things go wrong, or right in some cases.
Hiring Jack Del Rio seemed the right move at the time. He was a coach with a “modern-day” sensibility. Walking into his introductory press conference a veteran writer grabbed me by the arm and said, “Another (expletive) coach, another (expletive) seven years.” He turned out to be right. Del Rio was as inconsistent with the media as Coughlin was removed. You could call it a roller coaster until we realized Jack was willing to lie, rather than just not answer the question. That’s when everybody in the media knew it was only a matter of time before he was gone. When the players realized that, his tenure came to a quick end.
His interim replacement, Mel Tucker, was a steady hand who uttered the phrase “servant leader” for the first time at the stadium and earned respect from the media right away. He was honest and likable. I’ve always thought he should get a shot as a head coach.
Even though he was only here for a year, year, the media sized up Mike Mularkey right away. I knew Mike from when he was a player at Florida and as a candidate for the Jaguars job when Del Rio was hired. I liked him immediately, and we remain friends. He had a bit of a bunker mentality during his time in Jacksonville that he couldn’t shake, and I was hoping we’d have a chance to talk about it away from the stadium. We didn’t have that chance. On the other hand, he intensely disliked some other members of the local media and let them know it without reservation. “They’re unfair,” he once told me. He was right, but that’s a battle the coach rarely wins.
You’ll never meet anybody better than Gus Bradley. I think he’s a great football coach, although his tenure as the head coach in Jacksonville doesn’t reflect anything like that. Everybody wanted Gus to win, from the players to the media, the front office staff and the fans. But I think his message was lost on a young team. He told me he disagreed with that in not so uncertain terms, but nonetheless, his Jaguars squads couldn’t create their own winning environment.
Which brings us to 2017 and Doug Marrone. While Tom Coughlin is the VP of Football Operations and has set the tone for the culture he wants, Marrone as the head coach is executing the “tougher, better” philosophy.
Sitting down with Marrone at the owners meeting, he discretely asked another journalist sitting at his table what my name was while I helped set up our equipment. He was affable, a storyteller and willing to talk about the big and small issues facing the Jaguars. We saw some of the same personality at the announcement of his hiring. As we’ve moved closer to and into OTA’s, mini-camp and training camp, Marrone is a bit more reserved, a bit more negative, perhaps a bit more realistic about who the Jaguars are at this point.
Maybe it’s a clear-eyed view of a team that won three games last year. Maybe he’s tamping down expectations. Either way, one of Marrone’s regular statements is “We have a long way to go.”
He’s still a great storyteller and very straightforward in his answers. If he’s not going to answer a question, he’ll tell you. He’s not playing music at practice and he’s upped the tempo. His old-school approach is authentic. He’s not taking orders from Coughlin; he’s a true believer in how to get a team ready to play.
“I have enough friends, I’m looking for players who can help us win,” was his response when asked about building a relationship with a player. It’s insightful if only in how different of an approach it is from the last four years. Give Marrone credit for coaching his position under Gus Bradley and never saying a thing about the overall culture, because it’s clear he believes is something very different.
“We won three games last year,” veteran defensive lineman Malik Jackson said this week. “Who are we going to complain to? If we wanted something different we needed to win more games for Gus.”
This week the Jaguars are practicing in full pads for five straight days. The collective bargaining agreement doesn’t allow two “padded” practices on the same day, something that was the norm just ten years ago. Marrone has called it a “grind,” and even veteran players agree it’s been a tough slog.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Marrone explained of his “toughness” approach. “Everybody’s doing it. So you’re just trying to get them in tough situations where your body might be saying no and your mind is saying yes. (I) think it’s something you have to learn how to do and that’s what we’re continuing to do. We’re learning how to do that.”
He continued, giving insight to his idea about the chain of command on a football team.
“I have a vision for it. If they don’t want to do it in that frame of reps, then we’ll keep taking reps until we get it the way we want to do it. I’ve never had a problem with that. I think that’s the responsibility that I have to make sure that we’re practicing the way we want to practice, It’s not just the way I want to practice. It’s the way we want to practice as a team and the physicality that we want in practice. If we don’t get that, then we’ll continue to stay out there until the maximum amount of time that the league allows us under the collective bargaining agreement, until I have to take them in.”
When asked “Where are they right now?” Marrone asked another question.
“Am I disappointed? No. In saying that, we still have a lot of work in front of us.”