Rod Marinelli first wrote the phrase in black on a whiteboard in his Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ meeting room: “You become what you repeatedly do.”
Then, to make the point, Marinelli traced over it with a purple dry marker. Later, he used brown, then green, then red….
“I mean, this damn thing sat in the left corner of our board for eight years,” former Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. “He used to say it all the time. ‘You become what you repeatedly do.’ He explained it as, ‘If you watch TV, you become good at the TV guide. You remember all the channels and when the shows come on.’ It makes perfect sense —perfect sense.
“That’s what he does. He takes complicated things and makes it simple.”
Eight years after leaving Tampa, where he earned his reputation by helping Sapp become a Hall of Famer, Marinelli is sharing his wisdom with the Dallas Cowboys.
The takeoff on the Aristotle quote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit,” remains one of his favorites.
The reason is, he said, because he believes it. The Cowboys have heard it, read it, repeated it and bought into it since Marinelli arrived as their defensive line coach in January.
“He has a lot of sayings, and that’s one of them that will stay with you for the rest of your life,” Cowboys defensive end George Selvie said. “That’s a good saying, and I use it all the time. He always tells us that he teaches the man first, and a lot of what he teaches us relates to not only football but to life. …He is a man of wisdom.”
Another of Marinelli’s favorite sayings is, “If I see a little, I see a lot. If I see a lot, I see nothing.”
He also uses drawings, videos, personal notes and nicknames to explain and motivate.
Defensive end DeMarcus Ware showed up to work after going sackless in the season opener against the New York Giants to find a cigar placed in his locker along with a note card that read: “Close but no cigar,” and signed “Your loving coach.”
Sapp kept the notes Marinelli wrote him during their eight seasons together.
Many include drawings of a stick figure — a rushman, Marinelli calls him — with a red mouth intended to indicate it is time to “go eat” or, in layman’s terms, to sack the quarterback.
“I’ve always been that way,” Marinelli said of his use of visuals. “I just think that’s part of teaching. Some person can stand in a classroom and teach, teach, teach. I like to create a different atmosphere and to stimulate a man’s thinking. I’ve always been big on images myself. I think when you see something different ways, it’s memorable. It becomes memorable.
“We all can remember an image, and it can come back quick. I can start this conversation over. That’s why you have that [recorder], so you can remember words. But if I gave you a picture image, you’d remember it. I believe when you teach, you use as many tools as you can to help things become ingrained for these men.”
His videos, shown to the entire defense the night before a game, are legendary. They usually include an animal from the wild attacking its prey. Cheetahs and lions are among his favorites. He also has used clips of bulls, a bicyclist running into a brick wall, jet skiers and a boy sticking his head between two horses.
The homemade movies are known as Marinelli Madness.
“They’re awfully good,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “I think that goes to how he can relate to so many different kinds of players in different situations to bring the most out in them.”
The Cowboys have played 18 defensive linemen, or rushmen, this season. Rushmen is the term Marinelli uses for his position group.
Marinelli changed the name on the door of the defensive line meeting room to rushmen, and it’s the expression the Cowboys now use.
Marinelli goes into a historical explanation when asked where he got the term, crediting T-formation innovator Clark Shaughnessy, who last coached in 1965, and former Washington Redskins coach George Allen.
“It’s a good term,” Cowboys defensive tackle Nick Hayden said. “We’re not just D-linemen. We’re rushmen. We’re paid to get after the quarterback and just create havoc in the backfield.”
Marinelli earned respect long before he began coaching in the NFL. Two events in his life tell the story: He served in Vietnam as a Marine tunnel rat, and in 1966, he paid $10 to wrestle a bear — albeit one that was declawed and muzzled — in a contest his friends claim he won.
Tony Dungy hired the former high school and longtime college assistant in 1996 when Dungy was putting his staff together with the Bucs. Dungy didn’t know Marinelli. Neither did defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Yet, Marinelli quickly won them over.
“He’s a guy that I didn’t know he was that good, but I knew he was good,” Kiffin said. “He’s been everything.
“This guy is a head coach, a defensive coordinator, a defensive line coach. He’s not just a line coach. You want Rod Marinelli on your side. If you can get him in your building, you’ve gotten better just when he walks in that front door, wherever it is.”
The Bucs recorded more sacks than any other team during Marinelli’s 10 seasons in Tampa, the final four with Jon Gruden.
Detroit hired Marinelli as its head coach, and he lasted only three years, going 10-38.
But Marinelli re-established his reputation in Chicago working with one of his best friends, Lovie Smith, for four years.
New Bears coach Marc Trestman wanted to keep Marinelli as his defensive coordinator after Chicago led the league with 44 takeaways last season. But Marinelli’s loyalty to Smith led him to leave, and his loyalty to Kiffin brought him to Dallas.
“I went there because of him, not for any other reason,” Marinelli said of Smith, who was the Bucs’ linebackers coach for five seasons. “We had a long tenure together, and I believe in him. I’ve started this thing off about my beliefs, being old-fashioned or whatever, and I have a strong belief in what he believes in, and I liked it. For me, it’s got to be that or I struggle. I never want to not do it with all my heart. For me, that was Lovie’s defense.”
Smith likely will return to coaching next season, and he and Marinelli could work together again one day. But for now, Marinelli’s focus is on getting his rushmen — several of them self-described no-names — to hunt their prey, Bears quarterback Josh McCown.
Smith, who still lives in a Chicago suburb and whose son, Mikal, is a coaching assistant for the Cowboys, will watch, knowing Marinelli will get the best out of his group.
“We all have a résumé, and it’s on the football field, and it’s in our players,” Smith said in a phone interview. “You look at the players Rod Marinelli has coached. Yeah, they are great players.
“But this is what I can say about Rod: Every one of his players, Rod made a better player. There’s no better compliment you can give a coach than, ‘Yeah, every one of the players he’s been around, he’s made better.’”
You become what you repeatedly do.