NEW CANAAN — As his father said, John Marinelli grew up on the sidelines of New Canaan, a coach’s son, youth football player, varsity starter and assistant coach.
Few people quite literally from day one and for nearly three decades have had a closer tie of any kind, in so many ways, than John did to football in New Canaan. Which is why it must be difficult to begin to comprehend what Marinelli has been going through since late last Friday night, when the first-year Greenwich coach began game-planning to beat the program that had been his life, and the man — his father — Rams coach Lou Marinelli, who has been his most important male influence.
We know how hard it was just for John to cut the umbilical cord and take over his own program, but this week is different. Maybe we will find out late Saturday afternoon, after the so-called Marinelli Bowl between the Cardinals and New Canaan, just how difficult. Right now, John isn’t talking. He let it be known before the season even started that he would be taking an oath of silence this week. He has turned down the requests of several media outlets to do any video interviews with his father. He shot down a promotional idea with The Ruden Report that his father had already agreed to.
We shared several text messages Wednesday night, discussed the season in general but nothing about Saturday’s game. I knew better than to even attempt to ask.
The Rams, at 4-0, are a prohibitive favorite. Lou said the preparation for this game has been unlike any other. Getting ready for Darien, that is different, even if the odds are greater. How do you reconcile trying to beat your own son, who has his new job in part because of your tutelage and guidance? How do you manage a game that could be decidedly one-sided when your son is trying to establish himself in a town not known for being very forgiving when it comes to football?
“It’s a little weird, I’m not going to lie,” Lou said. “It has been difficult without him with us and now that we’re going against him it’s even weirder.”
Lou has been doing a little reminiscing this week. He realizes John had to suffer some callouses different from other New Canaan players, which hurt at the time but likely helped make him better suited to run his own team. Lou in particular remembered a game against Danbury when John, a sophomore, was playing safety and beaten on a touchdown pass.
“There was a party and some parents were there, and they were saying things would have been different if the coach didn’t play his son,” Lou recalled. “They asked Johnny what position he played and he said safety. A parent said that he should have been in there instead of the coach’s son.”
Lou paused for a moment.
“You get used to people saying stuff, but when it is people in town… It is not easy being a coach’s son.”
The Rams went to the spread offense a decade ago, when Curt Casali was the quarterback and John was playing college ball at Trinity.
“I’m the kind of person who rarely throws anything out, I save everything and it drives everybody crazy,” Lou said. “We were running about three different offenses and I wanted to use the best of them all. It was taking too long to get plays in and we were getting too many delay of game penalties. I would call the wrong play and then the quarterback would come over and I would tell him to call what I meant, not what I said. They would just look at me like, what’s he saying.”
The Rams adopted the spread offense and then John, who used to make the drive home from Trinity for Friday night games, spent a year as a grad assistant at Rhode Island and decided he preferred high school football, joined his father’s staff and mastered all of the nuances, traveling the country and learning from the best teachers. New Canaan soon was the home of the state’s most prolific offense and John coached a series of quarterbacks who took turns breaking team records.
John interviewed for and pulled out of several coaching openings. He had talks this past offseason for an entry-level position with UCLA, and Lou thinks if he jumped in he might be on the West Coast now.
“I think he liked being around home, he was part of the fabric of New Canaan,” Lou said. “He had to think long and hard before he took the Greenwich job.”
Lou was in a meeting with other FCIAC football coaches about this year’s schedule the night before John was going to make a final decision when he received a text message. It was from John. “I think I am going to stay.”
Lou didn’t know whether to stay in the meeting or call his son and change his mind.
“I think it is better for him to run his program and make a new legacy,” Lou said.
Lou has seen Greenwich play twice, a win over Central and last week’s loss to Trumbull. “It was tough for me to watch the two games,” Lou admitted. “You can’t help.”
Lou was asked if he will manage Saturday’s game any differently if the Rams take a large lead.
“I hope I’m in that situation,” Lou said. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, I still have a job to do. My kids have worked very hard to get where they are. You want it to be about the players.”
That won’t be the case with the media Saturday. If either Marinelli could change one game on the schedule, this would be it. Many are expecting New Canaan to win easily.
If so, it will be the most bittersweet of Lou Marinelli’s 313 career wins.