Time out on the field. Clemson ball at the 10 yard-line. Twenty seconds to play. The Atlantic Coast Conference title on the line. Thousands of orange-clad Tiger fans rollicking and rolling in Death Valley as the Tigers attempt to convert a mammoth fourth-quarter comeback. The Tar Heels lead, 24-19.
Carolina defensive coordinator Denny Marcin was on the Tar Heel sidelines on this November afternoon in 1980, talking with his fellow coaches via headsets upstairs. Marcin asked a question of Mel Foels, the outside linebackers coach, and Chuck Priefer, the line coach.
“What do you think they're going to do?” Marcin wondered. “Run or pass?”
Foels was quick with an answer: “I think they'll pass.”
“Then again, maybe they'll run,” Foels said.
Marcin processed the information. “Gee, thanks a lot,” he shot back.
A quarter of a century later, Marcin laughed about that exchange from his office in the New York Jets' complex, where he coached the defensive line from 2004-06 in his last stop of a remarkable coaching career.
“Funny, the things you remember 25 years later,” he said.
That was the thing about Denny Marcin, who died at the age of 75 on Sept. 20 after an extended illness. He was always good for an entertaining story, a hearty laugh, a pat on the back. He was intense and competitive but could chuckle at himself.
Marcin was one of seven coaches who came with Dick Crum from Miami (Ohio) in January 1978 and was just one of two of that group to be in Chapel Hill all 10 of Crum's years (Randy Walker being the other). For nine of them, Marcin coached linebackers and coordinated the defense. After Carolina, he coached at the University of Illinois and then with the New York Giants and Jets of the NFL. He had been retired and living with his wife Betsey in Southport since 2007.
Two Tar Heel linebackers from that era were Buddy Curry (Letterman 1976-79) and Carl Carr (1982-85) and both remember Marcin fondly.
“That was a bit of a different era,” says Curry. “So many of our coaches and our dads were not very encouraging, they didn't tell us they loved us, hardly ever had a positive word. But Denny was always positive and encouraging. You could tell he cared, he never used harsh words. It was a real privilege to play for him. He had a calm demeanor, he was always in control of his emotions and never got disjointed. He let his players play, and he coached them to be the best they could be.”
Carr was recruited out of his home of Alexandria, Va., primarily by Priefer, but he was ultimately sold on coming to Chapel Hill when he looked up during a track meet and saw Marcin sitting in the stands.
“That hit home, that made me feel like I was really wanted at Carolina,” says Carr. “Coach Marcin was genuine and someone I felt I could learn from and grow under. As it turned out, he was not only a great coach, but he taught me how to be a man. He was one of the best coaches I ever played for. He was attuned, the preparation was great, and it's almost like he knew things were going to happen before they did.”
Marcin was known for wearing his cap on backwards during a game, calling himself “the old ball coach” long before a certain ex-Duke head coach adopted the moniker, and spent his free time chasing a ball around Finley Golf Course. In later years, he enjoyed gardening and attained his Master Gardner certification. He was also renowned for burrowing through a slice of watermelon in the blink of an eye.
“We'd have a watermelon eating contest at the end of training camp every year,” Carr remembers. “All these freshmen would come in and think they could win it. But no one in four years ever beat Coach Marcin. He never lost a challenge.”
One of Marcin's recruiting areas was Greensboro, where he zeroed in on quarterback Rod Elkins from Grimsley High shortly after arriving at Carolina. Elkins signed with the Tar Heels and played extensively from 1980-82.
“Coach Marcin was a special guy to be around, a great man, a great coach,” Elkins says. “I thought so highly of him. He was a fun guy to be around. Everybody on the team loved him. He was one of those guys who attracted people.
“He even brought his kids along when he came to recruit me, which kind of personalized the whole thing. Those coaches didn't get much time with their families, always being on the road. I thought was kind of cool, him bringing his boys. I think once he might have brought his girls, too. He was just a really genuine guy.”
The Tar Heels played some ridiculously stout defense during that era. After a 5-6 opening season in 1978, Carolina over the next five years allowed an average of 14 points a game as it won the ACC title in 1980 and won four straight bowls from 1979-82.
The defense was built around Lawrence Taylor, the linebacker who had burst on the scene in 1979 with a scary combination of speed, strength and ferocity. He shed some blockers like straw men. He pancaked others. He pounced on quarterbacks in the blink of an eye. He'd pound your fanny and run his mouth at the same time.
“I saw something from ‘LT' I'd never seen before,” Marcin said. “We were playing at Texas Tech that year, defending the option. He goes down the line, checks the fullback, who didn't have the ball. So then he goes to the quarterback, who does have it. He hits the quarterback, causes a fumble and then recovers the fumble. We called it ‘The Trifecta.'”
As for that call on the goal line in 1980, Marcin correctly sensed that the Tigers and QB Homer Jordan would have to pass in a desperate situation created by Taylor having nailed Jordan for a nine-yard loss on the previous snap. On fourth down, Jordan rolled out, away from Taylor, was hurried by a six-man Carolina rush and threw wide to his receiver in the end zone.
The Tar Heels ran the clock out and collected their fifth ACC title since the ACC's inception in 1953—and their last one since.
After Chapel Hill, Marcin coached nine years at Illinois and then seven with the New York Giants. Jets coach Herman Edwards was quick to snare Marcin's services after he left the cross-town Giants in 2004.
“When you have a coach with Denny's record, what he's done, you don't let those guys go,” Edwards said at the time. “I think it's a good match for us. He was a guy I wanted to interview. It went very well, he felt very comfortable here, and I said, ‘I won't let you get out of the building.' You're not going to get a better defensive line coach than this guy.”
Services were planned for Tuesday morning, Sept. 26, with a funeral mass at 10 a.m. at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Southport.