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Greensburg Salem graduate Marion riding high after leading Howard to upset over UNLV

Bill Beckner Jr.
| Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, 11:57 p.m.
Gateway's Brady Walker
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Gateway's Brady Walker
Gateway Gators wide receiver Courtney Jackson.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Tribune Review
Gateway Gators wide receiver Courtney Jackson.
Mapletown running back Dylan Rush participates in drills on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016, in Uniontown.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Mapletown running back Dylan Rush participates in drills on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016, in Uniontown.

Updated 21 hours ago

There can't be favorites in sports unless there are underdogs. And there can't be belief in victory without doubt.

Brennan Marion managed to convince the Howard football team how powerful those ideals can be. And he used the simplistic motivation to send a rumble through college football's opening weekend.

The first-year offensive coordinator, who graduated from Greensburg Salem, helped Howard pull a 43-40 stunner against UNLV on Sept. 2. The upset will go down as one of the all-time greats because Howard came in as a 45-point underdog.

The win also will stick to Marion's resume as he climbs the coaching ranks, another odds-defying endeavor among many in his well-traveled back story.

Marion thrives on the long-shot concept and instills it in his players — this is a guy who said his guidance counselor told him he'd never make it.

Howard went from a cupcake to a team lighting trick candles. UNLV was waving a towel that it probably chewed to shreds — much worse than any of late basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian's handiwork — as Howard toppled the Rebels.

“It wasn't my first rodeo taking that underdog role,” Marion said. “It's like (New England Patriots) coach (Bill) Belichick says, you want to coach like-minded guys. We have smart kids here. There is power believing in people; more human element than just X's and O's.”

Marion, 30, rose from humble beginnings, bouncing between Homewood and Greensburg before his mother moved him to the latter for his senior year.

Some forget he also attended South Allegheny, Westinghouse and Steel Valley, the apparent lack of stability likely affecting his recruiting.

“I lived in some rough places,” he said. “People think I got bad grades because I was a trouble kid or something. But I was working two jobs when I was 10 years old. I worked with my mom selling flowers to night clubs and I worked at a car wash. People don't know how driven I am. My family, we're hard workers. If you eliminate excuses and have a great work ethic, anything can be achieved. I am living proof.”

Lightly recruited out of Greensburg Salem, the big-play wide receiver took the junior college route in California — he was homeless for four months — and earned his way to a Division I playing career at Tulsa. There, he set NCAA records for yards-per-catch in a season (30.1) and career (28.1). He signed as a free agent with the Miami Dolphins but tore his ACL in training camp in 2009. He rehabbed and attempted a comeback in Canada, but reinjured his knee.

Turns out, the injuries only accelerated his coaching career.

“I've always been a football geek,” he said. “I was studying offenses from a young age and doing football drafts. I knew I'd probably coach at some point.”

Casey Cavanaugh, who coached Marion at Greensburg Salem, said Marion's pursuit to continue his football career was inspiring.

“It was evident that football meant the world to him. He was driven to be a great player,” Cavanaugh said. “The sacrifices he made in going to junior college in California are like the stuff you would see in the movies. In each step in the process of being a great player, and then becoming a coach, was filled with road blocks. He is truly a case study in perseverance. He is the rare person who won't take no for an answer.”

Anxious to learn the intricacies of the game, Marion pressed his ear to the wall wherever he went. When he was with Miami, he picked the brain of Bill Parcells, the then-Executive Vice President of Football Operations.

“Parcells was high on me,” Marion said. “I spent lot of time talking with him. I tore my ACL the next season, and I was cut. Depression set in because I worked so hard to get to that level. Coaching saved me.”

Several coaching stops later, including as an assistant at Arizona State, he is directing a high-wire act that he calls, the “Go-Go” offense.

“It's a shotgun uptempo offense,” he said. “I wanted to be different. We made wholesale changes. We went from 12 points per game (last year) to 37 a game now. It's exciting to see, and the guys enjoy it and believe in it.”

The Bison, who played at Richmond Saturday, came in averaging 37 points and 450.5 yards a game through two weeks. They lost at Kent State, 38-31, in Week 2.

While in transit to Ohio, Marion had the team stop at Greensburg's Offutt Field for a light practice last Friday, reconnecting with his roots and recalling his days living in Saybrook Village and Eastmont Estates in Greensburg.

“We needed a place to practice, and I thought Greensburg would be perfect,” he said.

Marion hopes to work his way up the coaching ladder, already taking a major step up at Howard, a private, historically black university located in Washington, D.C.

“I look at guys like Mike Tomlin and Tony Dungy, guys that look like me, make it at the highest level of coaching,” Marion said. “I started out as a high school JV coach ... I want to keep earning my stripes.”

And Marion doesn't want his or Howard's reputation to hinge solely on one upset win.

“Attention is cool but it fades away,” he said. “Respect lasts longer.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BillBeckner.

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