Moments after his team’s decisive 42-14 win over New Canaan on Saturday night, Greenwich coach John Marinelli gathered his players for the customary postgame speech. There were many directions Marinelli could have gone with his missive.
The obvious choice would have been how the Cardinals had come into a stadium where the home team seldom loses and flexed their mighty muscles. He could have talked about how they should be getting voted first and not second in the state poll and the victory was evidence of how the Cardinals were getting disrespected.
Instead, with voice raised, Marinelli praised his players for their work in practice during the week, their focus, commitment and effort. Because talent alone doesn’t beat teams like New Canaan by four touchdowns. Talent with all the other tangibles leading up to game day wins championships.
When Marinelli got hired four years ago, he spoke of a five-year plan to build the program the way he envisioned, not just for the short term but sustainable. In terms of wins and losses, Marinelli delivered two years ahead of his due date. The Cardinals reached the Class LL championship undefeated last season before a close loss to Darien.
At 32, Marinelli is one of the most progressive coaches in the state. The long touchdown pass to running back Tysen Comizio on Saturday? Marinelli took the scheme from a play he saw Alabama run against Texas A&M. Quarterback Gavin Muir’s ability to extend plays until receivers become open? I saw Marinelli during an August practice run Muir and the other quarterbacks through an elaborate drill that was part obstacle course exactly for the situation.
I joked back on that August day how I saw 200 players when I instead should have been emphasizing what those 200 players were doing.
Marinelli has taken what he learned as a son, player and eventually the offensive coordinator at New Canaan under his father Lou and merged that knowledge with his own tenets. In that sense, leaving the fold and coming to Greenwich, as difficult as that decision to cut the umbilical cord was, has turned out to be the best thing for Marinelli’s development as a coach. Now he was ultimately the one making the calls and, more importantly, was the final line accepting responsibility for all aspects of the program.
At the same time, the move also allowed Marinelli the freedom, no matter the latitude he was given at New Canaan, to experiment with his innovative ways and stretch the bounds.
Marinelli put together a terrific staff. Defensive coordinator Brian Hocter and Bruce Cunningham, who handles the defensive line, are both former head coaches. Offensive coordinator Dac Newton, who came with Marinelli from New Canaan, will eventually have that chance.
Greenwich obviously has the resources many other towns lack, but it is what you do with those advantages that ultimately determines whether benefits will be reaped.
The best high school coaches are also good teachers. The playing fields and gymnasiums are their classrooms. Molding good people is part of the process of helping young athletes realize their potential.
Yet even in this area Marinelli stands apart. He was a part of #MeToo before there even was a formalized #MeToo. Greenwich players are treated to a long line of guest speakers, former players and community advocates, with messages that ultimately merge into the same theme: making the correct life decisions.
Greenwich has not won a state title since 2007, its longest dry spell in the modern era. Is this the year it ends? The Cardinals have all the pieces in place. The offense is blessed with weapons. It now seems laughable that everyone wondered whether Marinelli, known for his emphasis on the vertical attack at New Canaan, was going to fill the Fairfield County air with long passes. He has one of the most balanced run to pass ratios among contenders.
The defense is also sound, with a relentless pass rush. And Marinelli most praises his special teams, which provide a huge advantage in field position. The Cardinals took control of Saturday’s game by turning fumbles on a punt and kickoff return into touchdowns.
And Marinelli takes his players and puts them in the best position to experience success.
Right now Darien, New Canaan and St. Joseph are the measuring-stick programs in the FCIAC, as evidenced by the trophy cases that are in constant need of expansion.
Greenwich is positioned to again be atop the perch. It doesn’t happen with one state title, or even two. It takes a long time, a lot of work and even a little luck. Marinelli has spent the last three-plus years setting the foundation and is now primed to start reaping the benefits.
If you wanted to make the long play investment now, which school would you pick? The other top teams aren’t going anywhere, but who knows if the same is true of the coaches currently leading them. This is not to imply that any retirements are imminent.
Rather, until this year Marinelli was the FCIAC’s youngest coach. Someone who prides himself on challenges, maybe sometime in the future he decides to take the leap to the college game. It would not at all be surprising.
But there was a time an athletic director took a chance on a young football coach that he envisioned as a lasting marriage between man and school. That athletic director was Vinny Iovino and the man, Lou Marinelli, is the state’s winningest coach and beloved as a vital part of the New Canaan community.
The parallel with John Marinelli’s current position in Greenwich is striking. It is way premature to say that he will literally follow in his father’s footsteps.
But the bedrock is set. Is there anyone who has a better template to navigate that course than John Marinelli?
1. Greenwich (4-0). The Cardinals became just the third different school in a decade to win at Dunning Field.
2. Darien (5-0). The Blue Wave were sloppy with turnovers in the first half, but used a strong defensive effort to wear down and shut out Staples.
3. St. Joseph (4-1). The Cadets had an easier time this year with a Ridgefield team in transition.
4. New Canaan (3-2). The Rams are now 1-4 the last two seasons against St. Joseph, Greenwich and New Canaan. Their state playoff hopes are now teetering.
5. Staples (4-1). The Wreckers stayed close with Darien for a half but could not get anything going on offense. They are a rung below the league’s elite teams.