Marchibroda knows how to get his players to follow his lead

February 18, 1996|By John Steadman

What Ted Marchibroda (he says the last name means either "wet chin" or "strong chin" in Polish) can do for a football player is allow him to achieve his absolute maximum. There's no other measuring stick for defining leadership . . . be it an office boss, infantry lieutenant, classroom teacher, dock foreman or coach on the sidelines.

Marchibroda extracts what's there. He's also a man who truly knows himself. There's no pretention or sham. A diligent, patient man. Fatherly. Respectful to all. Not a shouter or a grandstander. quiet communicator. Genuine. None of the con.

He now comes back to Baltimore to coach its return to the NFL -- a recycled survivor, so to speak, but eminently qualified by dint of performance. He never quite reached the heights, which is not so much his fault but more the harsh hand of bedeviling fate.

When the outstanding Baltimore Colts units of the past are assessed, Marchibroda's work too often has been forgotten or minimized. The successive divisional championships in 1975, '76 and '77 under his direction didn't exactly fall out of the sky. It was no mirage, either, because there was a professional competence to the way the coach and his team went about their work.

There's an astonishing element of irony and a rather incredible story that goes with it, especially when Bill Belichick goes out and Marchibroda comes in, thereby replaying perhaps the most bizarre incident in the history of the Baltimore franchise.

It was Marchibroda, remember, who gave Belichick his first job, $25 a week as an intern, breaking down films, meaning he looked at Colts game movies and separated the various components of offense, defense, kickoffs, punt returns, etc., to save assistant coaches the tedium of such time-consuming chores.

What happened to Belichick and Marchibroda in Baltimore resulted in a scenario that smacked of a vaudeville skit. Enter Bob Irsay, the owner, and Joe Thomas, general manager. It was Marchibroda's intention to promote Belichick, then 23, to full-time, year-round aide for $100 per week instead of using him only part-time during the season.

Thomas said Belichick wasn't needed when the team wasn't playing because the coaching staff had little else to do except look at the wall.

Meanwhile, Rick Forzano, whom Belichick knew as a child at the Naval Academy, was coach of the Detroit Lions. The Lions were willing to pay him $10,000 a year to do the same job, so off he went.

Then Thomas and Marchibroda created a set of differences between them. Petty stuff. Marchibroda, after Irsay put on an inebriated show in the locker room and told defensive back Ray Oldham to go stand in a corner after an exhibition game in Pontiac, Mich., decided things had to change or he couldn't continue to coach.

Marchibroda walked out, leaving the team without a leader and resulting in Thomas and Marchibroda being summoned to meet with Irsay on his yacht, the "Mighty I."

Marchibroda aired his grievances. One of his complaints had to do with losing Belichick to Detroit, where, he explained to Irsay, the young man was going to be used breaking down film, the same thing he had been doing in Baltimore.

When Irsay later described what evolved between Marchibroda and Thomas in their discussions, he talked of a mysterious "Michigan Breakdown Man."

The term was nebulous, undefined. What and about whom was Irsay possibly talking about? There was no "Michigan Breakdown Man" on the premises. Finally, a light went on. He was referring, in his own convoluted way, to Belichick, meaning he broke down film and had gone off to Detroit. So, in the glossary of Irsay, he was the Michigan Breakdown Man.

Now it all comes full cycle. Belichick's disappointment becomes an opportunity for the first coach to give him a job in football. Since Marchibroda left 16 years ago, the coaching train took him to Indianapolis, where he again coached a team that had a horseshoe logo on its helmet.

He didn't get a fair shake. Indianapolis, had it gotten a correct call at the end line by an official in the Pittsburgh game, would have gone to the Super Bowl. Would he have been any better a coach had he won? Of course not.

It makes you wonder if the man who let him go in Indianapolis, Bill Tobin, wasn't sitting there with mixed emotions. Would he have decided to fire Marchibroda if the team had beaten Pittsburgh?

An unusual fact is that Marchibroda, in two chances to be a coach in the NFL, was in the employ of the Irsay family both times.

Now that he's coaching again in Baltimore, and reflecting on the past, what changes have evolved in the game since he left here after the 1979 season?

"The basics are the same, the physical part of blocking and tackling," he said. "But there are other dramatic differences, especially with the defense. Coverages are more complex. Linemen drop back to be in the pass coverage. We never had that before."

How much has his playbook been altered? "It's entirely different," he said. "There's more one-back now and we're using multiple receivers, like two tight ends, four wide receivers."

And about the chance to come to Baltimore?

"I think we'll have a good team," he said. "Art Modell has the reputation of giving coaches what they need. Bill Belichick worked his team hard, so the players I'll be with are accustomed to doing what's required. I feel great about it."

Marchibroda can coach and handle players. He talks a language quarterbacks especially understand since he used to be one. It's a hire that will pay dividends.

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