Women In Football: From Coach To Player To Coach, Heather Marini Is Reinventing The Game

Photo: TDN Staff

UPDATE: Heather Marini has since been promoted to Brown's quarterbacks coach, the university officially announced Monday. She is Division I football’s first female position coach.

Head coach James Perry exclusively told TDN, “Heather has earned the coaching position. She has done a great job for us, and she has proven through her efforts in the office every day with us in an off-the-field role that she's ready to run the quarterback room. I know our team benefits from her efforts already and I expect the team to benefit even more from her expanded role.

She stood up in front of San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch, Washington Redskins head coach Ron Rivera and Tennessee Titans play-caller Mike Vrabel and said: I’m going to be an NFL head coach and I have a question for you, coach Rivera.

Heather Marini went on to ask Rivera about a defensive scheme he used in Carolina and how, or if, he would transition it to Washington. Marini is currently an offensive quality control coach at Brown University. When Rivera inquired about her role, he jokingly said she would take this information back to Brown to assist its offense. He probably wasn’t far off.

Marini, who was one of 40 participants at this year’s Women’s Careers in Football forum held at the NFL Scouting Combine, has used every bit of football IQ she has to trailblaze through the collegiate field. 

Last season, Marini was the only full-time female coach in Division I college football. She was part of head coach James Perry’s new staff at Brown. It was a connection that was made through the forum and again invited back to the event, when Marini asked Rivera about scheme fit, her heavy Australian accent filled the room of promising talent and women who have already shattered the glass ceiling in the NFL. 

Prior to joining Perry, Marini already had head coaching experience. She was in charge of the Monash Warriors Gridiron Club in Melbourne, Victoria, for three seasons and had spent a decade on the sidelines in various staff roles. Marini, herself, also played football after being exposed to the sport through her now-husband. 

“I was so lucky to have the experience of being a head coach and to run my own program in Australia and really help the players develop,” Marini told TDN. “I always said I didn’t want to be their last coach. I wanted them to take something away and go and build.”

Marini was first introduced to Perry in 2018 when he was a guest speaker at the forum then held in Florida in conjunction with the Pro Bowl. As a courtesy, Marini sent letters to all of the guests, thanking them for their time, advice and respective presentations. One of those letters turned into texts, emails, saying hello at coaching conventions. Marini wanted to keep those connections and her name in the scene even if she was an ocean away. 

One day, Perry reached back out. He was looking for a staff to take to Brown. Marini wasn’t his first female hire. Perry had previously employed Phoebe Schecter and Sue Lizotte as assistant coaches during his two years at Bryant University.

For him, the bigger the pool of candidates, the greater the chance of finding some of the best talent and he credits the forum — and one of its originators, Sam Rapoport — for continuing to advocate for qualified women.

Rapoport, and now Venessa Hutchinson, use every interaction with women in sports as an unofficial interview for the forum. After it was moved from the Pro Bowl to the combine, space became limited and they don’t yet have the resources to vet all of the qualified women who would apply. The change in locations also broadened the forum’s scope. There were only a handful of clubs available during the week of the Pro Bowl and, ideally, the best of the best were absent, preparing for the Super Bowl.

Both Rapoport and Hutchinson saw the success candidates were having and used that blueprint to shape this year’s event.

“We aimed for the 40 participants [to] have experience in college football because we realized the clubs are willing to take someone with one-three years of experience and put them in an entry-level role, internship, what have you,” Hutchinson said. 

Marini wasn’t just a coach. She was a coach turned player turned coach and already came with American football experience after spending a summer as a scouting specialist with the New York Jets. Her wealth of knowledge, experience and persistence stood out. 

“It was really important for me, you know if I want the best coaches, to be tied into another pool,” Perry told TDN. “In Heather’s particular case, she was tireless. She would call me. She would email me. She made it clear that she wanted to coach. 

“If you are going to coach, the No. 1 characteristic I’m looking for is how smart you are, how driven you are, but there is some baseline information that is nice [for an] entry-level position staff member [to have]. Heather had a really good understanding of football prior to getting here. She has played it and she has coached it but in the end, she’s just a driven person.”

Marini is on a similar trajectory as Callie Brownson, who is now the chief of staff for the Cleveland Browns. Brownson, who also previously attended the forum, worked as the Jets scouting intern in 2017, and in 2018 was hired as Dartmouth’s offensive quality control coach, becoming the first full-time female football coach at the Division I level.

For Marini, that was almost a relief. She didn't want to necessarily be the first.

“It’s much easier to be the second," Marini said. "Let someone else knock down that wall, break through that window. Honestly, there are a lot of women in positions that they could be the first head coach and that is great. I’m cheering for them. 

“The more we can lift each other up and pull each other up as well is amazing and that’s what the forum really is all about.” 

Marini was taken back to a memory of the first forum. She recalled seeing over 200 different women from 20 different countries all in the same room. From the USA Football roster and the players from Budapest, China and the United Kingdom in conjunction with Women’s World Football Games, it gave Marini an early sense of belonging.

This was a thing that she could do. 

She had already taught players who were never exposed to the game prior to stepping on the gridiron in Australia. She had dealt with pure passion-projects — although football, as we know it, has grown since Marini first started coaching overseas, many of her players had inadequate gear and paid-to-play; a vast difference than top-of-the-line collegiate facilities that are spread across the country.  

Marini’s ability to stand up in front of a room full of people, impose her belief that she belongs, that there will — even though it has yet to be done — be a place for her at the highest level has been her catalyst. Her delivery while poised and thoughtful is firm. 

She will be an NFL head coach. After all, football is football. 

“Sometimes the language is a little different, just like the language is a little different if you’re going to go coach in Japan,” Marini said. “But trying to build up the complexities and the nuances, stuff like that it’s going to be different program to program, just like it’s going to be different level to level. 

“I coached players who had maybe never seen a football before so being able to use my words and really explain concepts was something that was a real strength of mine. Now that I’m starting to learn more strategy and more X’s and O’s and stuff like that, my strength has then been to deliver it to players.”

Click here for Marini’s full interview. 

This is the second installment in a three-part series featuring women in football at the NFL combine. The first story featured Briazja Wade, director of on-campus recruiting at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and the final installment will highlight Salli Clavelle’s career path to becoming the NFL’s first full-time Black female scout.

Written By:

Alexis Mansanarez

Associate Editor and Feature Writer

Editor, Feature Writer for The Draft Network. University of Washington alum. Big believer in the Pac-12.