By Ben Volin | Boston Globe
When Brown quarterback E.J. Perry sat down for pre-draft interviews with NFL teams this spring, they invariably asked him about his college position coach.
“There’s teams who will ask questions about Coach Marini and our relationship,” Perry said. “Obviously, an NFL team is evaluating your character and to see if you treat somebody differently.”
The teams ask because Coach Marini is not a typical quarterbacks coach. Coach Marini’s first name is Heather, and in 2020 she became the first female position coach in NCAA Division 1 football history. Because that season was canceled because of COVID-19, Marini made her sideline debut for the Bears in 2021.
Brown head coach James Perry didn’t just promote Marini to a full-time position coach — he put her in charge of arguably the most important position, with eight quarterbacks under her watch in 2021.
Marini, 32, coached from the sideline, was the main play-call signaler, and was on the headset with E.J. Perry throughout each game.
Marini, James Perry, and E.J. Perry arrived at Brown in 2019 and have been helping build a culture for a program that had fallen on hard times. Brown has gone 2-8 each of the last two seasons.
“Coach Perry does a great job of making Brown such a big family,” Marini said. “And families aren’t just brothers. They’re sisters, too.”
Marini helped E.J. Perry improve his stats across the board and win the Bushnell Cup as the Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year. Perry, a former star at Andover High, is projected as a mid- to late-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
“It’s no different than having a man, and that’s the way you want it to be,” E.J. Perry said. “She has her position because she’s a great coach. It was phenomenal to work with her and grow with her and work together, and it was really cool to kind of build the Brown foundation with her.”
Marini just wants to blend in and be part of the team, but she realizes the responsibility that comes with being the first female position coach in Division 1 football.
“I’ve been coaching nearly 16 years now, and I don’t notice so much that I’m the only woman in the room,” she said. “But I’m not shy to the fact that it also is a great responsibility. Little girls need to see that they can do this when they grow up, and little boys need to know that they should pick the girls for their flag football team.”
She’s a player, too
Marini never expected to be a trailblazer in football. A native of Victoria, Australia, she had never seen a game of “gridiron” until her now-husband took her to one of his games 16 years ago. Marini studied coaching in college, and landed an internship at Oregon State in 2010 as a strength and conditioning coach. Head coach Mike Riley let her experience all sides of the football operation.
Marini returned home to Australia to coach the Monash Warriors Gridiron Club for six seasons (coaching future NFL defensive end Adam Gotsis), acquired a work permit to move to the United States in 2017, and got onto the NFL women’s pathway the next year.
In addition to coaching for Brown, Marini is a punter and backup quarterback for the Boston Renegades, who won the Women’s Football Alliance championship in 2021.
“I coached for 10 years before I played for the first time,” Marini said. “The guys at Brown really inspire me to want to go back and play. My male colleagues don’t have that opportunity, so I’m trying to make the most of it.”
After attending the NFL’s forums for women in football, Marini landed a scouting internship with the Jets in 2018 and connected with James Perry, who became Brown’s head coach in 2019. Perry hired Marini as a quality control coach, meaning she had a hand in nearly every area of the team, but her interactions with players were limited by NCAA rules.
“Heather basically just volunteered, we ended up finding a quality control position for her, and she was just incredible,” James Perry said. “She showed unbelievable persistence, like, ‘Hey, I’ll do anything, I’m coming there.’ ”
After one season, Marini was promoted to quarterbacks coach, right before the pandemic hit in March 2020.
“It was a no-brainer,” James Perry said. “She’s sharp, super well-prepared, very detail-oriented, whether it’s cut-ups related to the defense or our own scheme. Film, analytics, whatever E.J. needed, she just does a great job putting it together.”
A Tom Brady connection
In 2021, Marini was the most popular storyteller on the Bears coaching staff.
Everyone wanted to pick her brain after she got back from a training camp internship with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where she worked with offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and the quarterbacks staff. Her main responsibility was working with rookie Kyle Trask, but Marini also spent time every day with some guy named Tom Brady.
“When she came back, I was like the players: ‘Hey, how did he do this? How did this go?’ ” James Perry said. “Sometimes when you need a little levity in the room, she’d have a story about something Brady did to Trask. That was cool.”
Marini returned to Providence with a notebook thick with ideas from Leftwich and quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen. This past fall, Marini showed film of Brady’s footwork and drills to Perry and the quarterbacks.
“She’s very, very bright,” Christensen said. “She knew her fundamentals, her philosophies on throwing the football and footwork. She was very sound and well thought-out.
“In my opinion, she was an experienced quarterbacks coach. She really has a coaching heart and mentality about her, so she was fun to work with.”
Marini said Brady’s love of football and dedication was obvious, and she appreciated how he still finds ways to improve and self-evaluate even after accomplishing everything that he has.
“He’s just a constant professional, but he also has a little fun doing it,” she said. “I’m always trying to impart that — you’ve got to love football, and if you put more of yourself into it, you’ll get more out of it.
“That’s something that’s really important for me. I followed my football dream across the other side of the world.”
Marini came back from Tampa with a plan to help E.J. Perry improve. A transfer from Boston College, Perry dominated immediately at Brown, earning first-team All-Ivy League in 2019 and setting an Ivy League record for total offense (3,678 yards in 10 games).
But he completed only 59.9 percent of his passes in 2019. Marini also wanted Perry to work on staying in the pocket more after he rushed for 727 yards.
In practice, Marini divided the field into 25 sections — five horizontal and five vertical — and meticulously tracked Perry’s completion percentage in each one. They discovered that Perry needed the most work on throws that were minus-5 to 10 yards from the line of scrimmage — the quick “catch-and-release” throws to the sidelines and his check-downs.
In 2021, Perry ranked in the top 10 in the nation in completion percentage (66.4 percent) and passing yards per game (303.3), and his rushing yardage dropped to 402.
“That was fueled a lot by her discipline,” E.J. Perry said. “Let’s not just walk out on the field and throw a ball around and say, ‘Oh, we got better today.’ It was, ‘Where are we most deficient, and where can we make the biggest improvement?’
“That was something that really helped me in the past year. She was awesome, and I loved playing for her and that was one of the big things I owed to her.”
Marini said she has never heard a crack from an unruly fan or opponent. Occasionally she’ll have to wait outside the locker room or will have trouble finding women’s sizes in team gear, but her gender has never been an issue throughout her career, she said.
“She commands her own respect; we don’t have to say anything,” James Perry said. “Heather had a great quote once, to the effect of ‘I wish we could give you what you wanted,’ because they were looking for a story of overcoming barriers. There are other barriers that she’s overcoming, but not with our players.”
James Perry is confident that Marini is a rising star in coaching, and quips that soon enough, he’ll be relying on her to get him a job.
Marini says that football is a “male-prevalent” profession but doesn’t have to be a “male-dominant” profession. The NFL has begun to welcome women into its coaching ranks, and Marini hopes she can help bring more into college football.
“Being first means there’s got to be a next, right?” she said. “Someone breaks a window and lets everybody else in. I’m sure there will be more women taking these positions over the next couple of years. It will only make football better.”