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Mitchell Northam | NCAA.com | September 15, 2019

Australia to Brown: Meet Heather Marini, the only woman coaching in Division I college football this season

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From the time that she was a young girl in Australia, Heather Marini knew she wanted to be a coach. She just wasn’t sure which sport.

Marini played a little bit of everything. She was a swimmer and a runner, she played soccer, badminton and a sport called netball, which she says is akin to basketball. On each field and court, she could always comprehend the game and break down its details. She wasn’t always the biggest, fastest or strongest, but she was one of the smartest. And she was captivated by the science behind sports.

“I did anything they would let me sign up for. I had always been an athlete and one of my strengths was to understand the game. You can’t always be the best athlete out there, but understanding the strategy was a strength of mine,” Marini said. “The more I got into coaching, the more I loved it. It gave me an opportunity to give back to players, because I had some great coaches growing up.”

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Marini thought that she was going to end up being a netball coach, but she also spent time coaching soccer and tennis.

Then, when she was about 18, football entered her life. Marini is 30 now, and she and football have been inseparable ever since she was introduced to the game.

When the Brown Bears kick off their football season on Sept. 21 against Bryant, Marini will be on the sidelines. As an offensive quality control coach for Brown, she is the only woman who is a full-time assistant coach in all of Division I college football this season. Marini is the second woman to work full-time as a coach in Division I college football, following Callie Brownson who was an assistant for Dartmouth last season. Brownson now works for the Buffalo Bills.

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“To me, football is the best of all of those sports that I grew up with, kind of all rolled into one,” Marini said. “For me, the footwork and agility that I grew up with playing netball is easily translated into a lot of the footwork that football players need.

“I was always going to be a coach, I just thought I was going to coach an Australian sport. For me, coaching was always what I was called to do. I was just lucky enough that I found football when I did.”

Marini is one of the women knocking down gender walls in coaching. While she’s the only one in Division I college football this season, she’s part of a growing trend of women being hired to coach men at high levels. In the NFL, Bruce Arians hired two women to be part of his full-time staff with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season, Brownson is the third woman to be hired by the Bills, and Katie Sowers is entering her third season as an assistant with the 49ers. In the NBA, Brittni Donaldson became the league’s 10th current female assistant coach when she was hired by the Toronto Raptors this summer.

But Marini might have the most unconventional path out of all of them.

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Finding a start in coaching

Marini was first introduced to the sport by her now-husband, who had played football as a kid growing up. She took a liking to it right away, and managed to land a job in 2008 with the Monash Warriors Gridiron Club in Melbourne as the strength coach for the club’s men’s football team.

But she quickly climbed her way up the coaching ranks at the Australian-based club. After a sports performance internship at Oregon State University in 2010, Marini decided that on-field coaching is what she wanted to get into.

“For me, it’s all about skills,” Marini said. “It’s all well and good to point at a cone and tell someone to run a post, but how can you make the runner better? I kind of came into it from that direction. The X’s and O’s are something I’ve learned along the way.”

Marini soon became the quarterbacks coach for the team — a position she held for three years — and then became the U-19 team’s head coach, another job she held for three seasons. It’s rare for anyone to become a head football coach without ever playing a down competitively at any level, but Marini did it in her native country.

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The Monash Warriors sent a few players to play football at colleges in the U.S. during Marini’s time as a coach there, including Adam Gotsis, who became an All-ACC defensive end at Georgia Tech and now plays with the Denver Broncos.

While she was a head coach in Australia, Marini wanted to win games — of course — but she also wanted to educate her players. She didn’t want to have a narrow playbook. She wanted them to know what a Cover 2 was, what a bubble screen was, how a guard pulls, and how a speed option is executed. Marini was adamant in her players getting an all-around schooling on the finer points of football.

“I wanted to make sure that my offense was relatively balanced but also to show enough of everything, because I didn’t want to be the last football coach the players ever had,” Marini said. “I wanted them to go up to the next level and be able to know what a counter or a sweep is, to say that they’ve seen it before. I wanted them to get a football education. I love football so much and I want them to love it too.”

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A different perspective of the game

In 2016, Marini decided she was ready for a new challenge. Or her club decided for her. That year, the Monash Warriors established a women’s team. Marini was under the impression that she would help coach the team, until another coach came to her and said, “Congratulations, you’re the starting quarterback.”

For the first time, Marini was putting on football pads and a helmet. Although she didn’t completely relinquish her coaching duties and also sort of served as the team’s offensive coordinator, designing and calling her own plays.

“We ran my offense and then I had to run onto the field and put it into practice,” Marini said. “I had a good year.”

That last part is an understatement. While the Monash women’s team just missed the playoffs, Marini was named Rookie of the Year, was the runner-up league MVP and was an all-state punter, all while calling her own plays out of a read-option heavy playbook. Marini also played in USA Football’s World Football Games in 2017.

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The league Marini played in is similar to what a lot of college football looks like, but had nine players on each side of the ball instead of 11. Much of the schemes were the same, just with two less offensive linemen.

“It gave me a different perspective. It was hard as a player to get out of my own head, because I wanted to be a coach as well,” Marini said. “That was a new experience and unique in a way that not very many people get the chance to see the game from the coach’s side and then go onto the field and put your money where your mouth is and show that you understand what’s going on and be able to execute.”

Landing at Brown, with the NFL's help

After playing, Marini went back to pursuing coaching. Through networking and being in the NFL’s Women’s Careers in Football Forum — which is led by Samantha Rapoport — Marini met several coaches throughout the college and pro ranks. In 2017 and 2018, women who went through the NFL’s program secured 26 jobs in football, in the NFL, college and the now-defunct AAF. One of them was Marini, who landed an internship with the New York Jets for the 2018 season as a scout.

“The Jets looked after me and we got to see a lot of behind the scenes stuff,” Marini said. “I got to see how scouting works and got an understanding for the personnel business in the NFL. I learned a lot.”

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One mentor she met through the NFL’s program was James Perry. After coaching at Bryant for two seasons, he was hired as Brown’s head coach in December 2018. When he was building his coaching staff, he kept Marini in mind.

“Coach Perry has been a great mentor and has really helped me settle in here at Brown,” Marini said. “All the coaches have been great here, actually. I think there’s a lot of coaches that have expanded and been deliberate in looking for the best candidate.”

Marini’s job as an offensive quality control coach at Brown involves a lot of duties. She says every day is a little different. One day she’s breaking down film, another day she’s looking at playbooks, the next day she’s working up social media graphics, the day after that she’s recruiting.

“I’m basically the on-field assistant coach to all of the coaches,” Marini said. “They don’t treat me with kid gloves. They’re happy to give me the hard work and I appreciate that.”

Marini’s journey from being a strength coach in Australia to becoming a full-time assistant at Brown is basically an unheard-of path in coaching. But it’s an example of hard work, of not taking no for an answer, of building relationships and of taking advantage of opportunities.

For men, there’s always been a built-in avenue into coaching. They often play in high school or college, and then decide they want to get into coaching, so they call up their old coach and ask for a job and work their way up from there.

Most women don’t have former football coaches to lean on, because they most likely didn’t play in high school or college. For Marini, Brownson and other women working to break into football coaching, there was no previous path; these women are paving the way now.

“I think it’s a process. It wasn’t that long ago that there were no women in any form of football,” Marini said. “It’s almost cliché, but if you can see her, you can be her. The more we normalize this experience, then talented coaches are going to get their opportunity.

“I think the NFL — and the NCAA, to a certain extent — have done a good job of starting to make introductions. I’ve been really lucky in that, most of the coaches I’ve reached out to, most of them have been more than happy to have me sit in meetings and watch practice. Most people do want to reach out and want to help. It’s about making those introductions.”

Make no mistake, football and coaching is Marini’s passion. If she wasn’t obsessed with football, she wouldn’t be living time-zones away from her husband, who works as a scientist in San Francisco.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t see this as my career. At the end of the day, you have to love football. That applies to the freshmen as it does to every coach in the building,” Marini said. “If you love what you do, you’re willing to put the time and the sacrifice in.”

While Marini recognizes that she had a very different experience in getting her start in football than some others, she does have some advice for women looking to break into the field.

"I’d say start at your alma mater. If you’re in school, start at your school," Marini said. "I don’t think there is any school on the planet that would say no to more volunteers. I volunteered for 10 years before someone paid me to watch film. Everyone starts the same way. That’s how you network, that’s how you build trust, that’s how you gain experience and your ability to see the game.”

Marini’s ultimate goal is to be a head coach of her own team again, but she's not thinking about that right now. Her No. 1 priority is doing everything she can to help Brown win the Ivy League, something the Bears haven’t done since 2008.

“The first goal is to help Brown win the Ivy League Championship. That’s goal No. 1,” Marini said. “I want to be a head coach again. I was lucky enough to have that experience in Australia and it’s something I have to work up to on this side of the pond. I’ve got a lot to learn along the way and a lot of people I hope to learn it from.”

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