Daily Herald
Winless Lions couldn't douse Marinelli's passion for football
By Bob LeGere | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 3/21/2009 11:57 PM

No NFL head coach has ever had to endure what Rod Marinelli did last season: an 0-16 record.

Other coaches might have packed it in, bolted for another job, criticized the players, the front office, the media, whatever. Marinelli's passion and respect for the game wouldn't allow that.

At one point he said he felt blessed to be the Lions' head coach. Even after the final loss, the one that put the Lions in the record book, Marinelli took the high road.

"I felt they gave it their best," he said of his players. "I felt I gave it my best, but sometimes your best isn't good enough."

Marinelli was fired the next day. On his way out, he said that if the subject of the NFL's first ever 0-16 season were brought up in the future, "I'd accept it and move on. I wouldn't give an excuse, and I wouldn't give an explanation."

On the day of his firing, Marinelli could have implied that former team president and CEO Matt Millen saddled him with the worst talent in the NFL.

But he didn't.

"I've said it all year long, 'It starts with me,' " he said. "You can't go 0-16 and expect to keep your job."

That Marinelli was immediately pursued by other NFL teams as soon as he became available shows the high regard in which he's held, despite the 10-38 record in his three years as the Lions' head coach. In the 10 previous seasons as the Buccaneers' defensive line coach, Marinelli's linemen had 3281/2 sacks, more than any group in the league.

Despite opportunities with the Texans and Seahawks, Marinelli chose to reunite with Lovie Smith, a friend, colleague and roommate from their days together in Tampa on Tony Dungy's staff.

Smith called the addition of Marinelli as the Bears' defensive line coach/assistant head coach the team's most important addition in free agency. Some coaches might not welcome that kind of pressure, but the 59-year-old Marinelli has been doing this long enough - this is his 37th year in coaching - to know it's part of the package.

"As soon as you put these shoes on," he said, "that's what you get."

Marinelli's passion for the game obviously hasn't diminished. Even something as mundane as last week's minicamp had him jacked up.

"I like the details," he said. "I love to work, I like the practice. And I like the rush."

And true to his word when he left Motown, Marinelli isn't ducking the topic of last season. You can't help but wonder how someone with such passion could endure the criticism and the scrutiny of such a season without losing it. Marinelli, intense but soft-spoken, has a ready explanation.

"The only thing I can say is I have a great respect for our game," he said. "I think we all owe a certain respect in how it's played and how it's performed because there are a lot of people watching. Young players are watching us, kids are watching us, and it's all about how we do our business. It's easy to do things well when things are going well. When things get tough, I think you have to have a certain standard, a certain respect for how we approach our job and our profession."

There is no indication that the experience of that historically awful season has diminished Marinelli's passion and respect for the game.

"The game of football has been great to me," he said. "When I was a kid coming up, it was great to me. I think we all owe a certain respect on how this thing should be handled and the class it should be done with in good times and bad times. There are a lot of eyes on you, especially when it's bad. You have a great opportunity to show people how you conduct yourself in a tougher situation and to have respect for this game."

Marinelli's collegiate playing career was interrupted by a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam. His coaching career began at his alma mater, Rosemead High School in California, and he spent 20 years as a college coach before he was hired by the Bucs. This is his 14th year in the NFL.

Bears Pro Bowl tackle Tommie Harris calls Marinelli "the best defensive line coach in the league." Teammate Alex Brown says the first thing he noticed is that whenever a player asks "why," Marinelli has the answer.

"He always has the 'why,' " Brown said. "When you say 'why,' he has that answer for us. That's one thing that really sticks out. He definitely knows what he's talking about."

To Marinelli, coaching means teaching. And it doesn't matter if he's working with high school kids or multi-millionaire professionals. Players have to know why he wants them to do things his way.

"As a teacher, at any level, no matter where you're teaching, that's really important," Marinelli said. "If it's gray and blurry and you don't explain the why to it, it makes it a little more difficult," he said. "When it's clean and clear, and he can see why you're doing it a certain way, then they'll be like, 'Oh yeah, now I understand why I'm doing this,' and you have a chance to get a guy to maybe play a little bit faster."

That's a big part of why Marinelli commands so much respect.

"I have a great passion for this game," he said. "I have a great passion for fundamentals and the details that go into it.

"Be exact. I'm demanding in certain areas. I just think doing the simple things correctly and doing the obvious things correctly down in and down out is important. I've always kind of put my stamp on that."

And now he's putting that stamp on the Bears' defense.