- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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If life were a poker game, Doug Marrone just filled an inside straight.
It is hard enough to launch your professional career wanting to be a college football head coach. Assistant coaching offices are filled with men waiting for a chance at one of 120 FBS schools. Not one school, but one out of 120.
Once they get one of those jobs, they want another one. Nick Saban did not become Exhibit A of the Coach as Mercenary because he doesn't know how to win. Alabama is his fourth head coaching job in college, and Saban hasn't been fired yet.
Marrone played the offensive line at Syracuse a quarter-century ago. After his professional career, he decided to try to get into coaching. When he landed a job as an assistant coach at SUNY-Cortland, a Division III school, in 1992, he took it because he thought it would help him become the head coach at his alma mater.
For 17 years, Marrone climbed the coaching ladder. As he stepped on every rung, from small college to big, from the SEC to the NFL, from assistant to coordinator, Marrone thought, "How will this help me be the head coach at Syracuse?"
This is not the tale of one man's obsession. This is a love story. In December 2008, Marrone, 45, took over the Orange. When a writer struggled this past spring with how to define Marrone, he replied, "I can answer that question. I'm the luckiest guy in the world."
Lucky is a relative term. Marrone is taking over a program that has won 10 games in four years, in a Big East Conference struggling in part because it needs the history and tradition of a Syracuse at the top of its standings, not the bottom.
But to Marrone, Syracuse is more than that. It is where he grew up as a football player and a man. He came from Lehman High in the Bronx, a three-sport athlete (he batted in front of six-time major league All-Star Bobby Bonilla) with size (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) and quick feet.
Dick MacPherson, the head coach who rebuilt Syracuse into a national power in the 1980s, recalled Marrone as a kid who relied on his natural ability for a long time.
I'll never be able to give back to the university what it's given to me. No matter how many championships or how many games I may win, it's just not going to happen.
”-- Syracuse coach Doug Marrone
"He had to relearn what it takes to be good," MacPherson said.
By his own description, Marrone came as a first-generation collegian whose edges needed a power sander.
"It was very important to Coach Mac and the assistants to make sure that we didn't wear hats in the building," Marrone said. "We looked people in the eye when we spoke to them and when we shook their hands. Our shirts were tucked in. We couldn't wear white socks with suits.
"People laugh and smile when I talk about that now, but when you're 17 and 18, it's an important lesson to learn. I've always been fortunate from high school all the way through college, that people have always tried to help me."
Marrone had a knack for latching on to mentors. When he thinks of what Syracuse did for him, he thinks of men such as defensive line coach George O'Leary, who recruited him. After O'Leary became head coach at Georgia Tech, he gave Marrone his break in FBS football by hiring him in 1995.
"He was always learning, watching tape," recalled O'Leary, now the head coach at Central Florida. "Everybody he would talk to, he would ask, 'How can we do this better?'"
Offensive line coach George DeLeone went to Syracuse before Marrone's senior season. In Marrone, he found talent and immaturity in one explosive package. He remembered a night before the season when Marrone came to his house, sat on his couch and complained.
"There was always a lot of drama surrounding Doug," said DeLeone, now the tight ends coach for the Miami Dolphins. "'This guy did this.' 'This D-line guy did that.' Flat-out immaturity. Once he believed that everything that he wanted to achieve in football could be achieved not through negotiation but through hard work, the whole tide turned. I sat down and flat-out told him to grow up and get back to work. He bought it."
When Marrone returned to Syracuse last winter, he looked up another mentor, his nutrition professor. Dr. Sarah Short is a university institution. She graduated from Syracuse in 1945 and has taught there for more than 40 years. Marrone walked into her 400-student lecture class unannounced last spring.
"Sometimes you may pay attention and sometimes you may not," Marrone told the class. "But I told them how much she had meant in my life, that she teaches a class that will help. As you get older, it will be even more important. What I told them is, thank her. When you leave class today, and when you leave class every day, you should be saying to her, 'Thank you for coaching me. Thank you for teaching me.' It was one I still get choked up with talking about. And I truly mean it."
"It's amazing that he keeps bringing my name up," Dr. Short said. "He said I was the best teacher he had. Rarely do teachers get nice feedback. Usually, the feedback we get is, 'Why can't you give me an A?'"
Marrone carried that love with him throughout his adult life. He has set aside 15 minutes a day to talk to his players about life skills. He has assigned the team to read a history of the Syracuse team that won the national championship 50 years ago this season. They will be immersed in Syracuse the way that he immersed himself in Syracuse.
When Marrone met with the Syracuse athletic director, Dr. Daryl Gross, for their first interview late last fall, Marrone didn't exactly play hard to get.
"Not only did he make it clear to me that this was the only head coaching job he was preparing himself for," Gross said, "but he said, 'If I'm not the guy, I'm still going to support the program. Syracuse gave me everything in my life. I owe Syracuse something back.'"
On the day Gross took Marrone to meet with the university chancellor, Dr. Nancy Cantor, they drove from the athletic offices to the center of campus.
"It was snowing like mad," Gross said. "We get out of the car. There's four inches of snow and he's jumping around. He gets it. He's been there. He's looking around. 'That's where I had this class. That's where I did this.' It was something so comforting. Wow, he really understands Syracuse University, the Hill, the professors."
The road back is rutted and in places washed out. Roads back usually are. Marrone couldn't be happier.
"It was important to me when the program was down, for lack of a better word, to come back," Marrone said. "And maybe internally I think I'm paying a debt to that school because it's done so much for me. I've said this quite a bit. I'll never be able to give back to the university what it's given to me. No matter how many championships or how many games I may win, it's just not going to happen."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, & Traditions," is on sale now.