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Raiders’ new defensive coordinator learned to lead in Vietnam

The infantry in warfare is tough duty. It’s military combat on foot.

Leading one takes a special kind of leader. Rod Marinelli was that guy while serving in Vietnam.

Keep that in mind as he takes over as interim defensive coordinator for the Raiders, Marinelli having been elevated to the position from line coach following the firing of Paul Guenther on Sunday.

When a head coach says a new voice is needed in the room, as Jon Gruden did when explaining his dismissal of Guenther following a 44-27 loss to the Colts, he most often believes the one fired wasn’t being heard by players any longer. Or at least not enough to deliver winning play on the field.

Marinelli’s been heard in football for over four decades, including the last 25 years in the NFL. He’s 71 with the energy of someone far younger.

Remember when

Hank Bauer first met him in another time, when he and Marinelli were teammates at Cal Lutheran in the early 1970s. Bauer, a running back and one of the NFL’s best special teams players for the Chargers from 1977-82, remembers not the few words Marinelli said but more the outsized impact they had.

“Rod just had an incredible aura about him,” Bauer said. “He didn’t have to say a lot and he didn’t. Everybody was just like, ‘Whoa.’ He was that respected and revered. The first thing you need to know about Rod Marinelli is how selfless he is. It’s never about Rod Marinelli.

“I don’t know if he became that way during the war or growing up in East Los Angeles. But that’s just him.”

How different things might look with Marinelli in charge will be known Thursday night when the Raiders host the Chargers at Allegiant Stadium, the home team still harboring thoughts of earning just their second playoff berth since 2002.

They can’t be exponentially different on defense. We’re talking like 72 hours.

But it’s a mistake to underestimate the change a leader like Marinelli can engineer, even in a short period of time.

A man of few words

How the story goes: After beginning his college career as an offensive tackle at Utah, Marinelli joined the Army and his playing days were split by a tour of duty. When he returned, a Division I opportunity was no longer available, so he went and played on a national championship team at NAIA Cal Lutheran while earning All-America honors.

A tough guy? Back in 1966, Marinelli reportedly wrestled a bear as part of a car dealership marketing campaign. He had the animal, which was de-clawed and muzzled, on its back in 10 seconds.

You wonder if such spirit will rub off on the defense he’s now instructing.

These are the NFL rankings Marinelli inherits: 25th in total defense, 25th against the pass, 25th against the run and 30th in scoring defense. The Raiders also have just 15 sacks, which ranks tied for 31st. Only three of them have come at home.

“I think you got to be efficient with your time and efficient with your message,” Marinelli said. “And it’s got to be clear and precise, and then believable, so you can give yourself an opportunity to achieve.

“The star of the defense is the defense. Nobody else. And it’s not a call, it’s not a coach, it’s not a player; it’s trying to get that continuity together in this week.”

Leader of men

Bauer remembers a day after practice at Cal Lutheran when he and Marinelli found themselves in the training room receiving treatment. Hank likes to talk. A lot. Rod, not so much.

At one point, Bauer ratcheted up the nerve to inquire of Marinelli about his time in Vietnam, if things got as perilous as others had suggested. Marinelli shot Bauer a glance, got up and walked out.

“You can understand why he is the way he is — a leader of men — by what he saw and experienced over there,” Bauer said. “You’re at that age leading other young men and he survives it. He went. He was going to go and make the best of it and became the leader he is.

“I was around Dan Fouts and Don Coryell and Joe Gibbs with the Chargers. My first taste of the NFL was with the Cowboys, where Dan Reeves was my running backs coach, Mike Ditka my special teams coach and Tom Landry the head coach.

“Rod Marinelli ranks right up there with all of them if not higher. The best leader. The best.”

Marinelli’s next assignment: Improving what has been a reeling Raiders defense.

Might be easier just to wrestle another bear.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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