The making of a defensive guru

CHAD SCARSBROOK -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:47 AM ET

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have had a long history of dominant defences. That might be hard to remember after sitting through some of the Blue's recent incarnations, but those days appear to be numbered.

A lot of the credit for the Bombers' defensive success so far this year can be attributed to defensive co-ordinator Greg Marshall. The big man with the moustache has helped to transform a team that was, only a year ago, statistically the worst in the history of the CFL.

Marshall is the oldest of seven children. He was an all-state football player on both sides of the ball in Oregon and an all-state baseball player as well. He also played basketball and hockey. His favourite sport to play?

"Whatever was in season," said Marshall at Bombers practice recently. "Baseball was probably my first choice but the way things worked out I ended up getting a scholarship for football and that ended up being the direction I went."

His father Gerry, who passed away in 1995, coached many of Marshall's minor hockey and baseball teams and had a profound effect on his career and life.

"He directed me as far as sports," said Marshall. "He was very supportive, he coached me when I was younger and he taught me the right way and wrong way to do things. He had a strong influence on me not just in athletics but in my life in general."

Born in Beverly, Mass., Marshall was constantly moving across the U.S. due to his father's job as a metallurgist in the steel industry. He transferred from Pittsburgh to Oregon when he was 16, a place he still calls home today. It was at Lakeridge High School where Marshall really excelled.

"Greg was very athletic, especially for a big guy," said legendary Oregon high school coach Tom Smythe. "We were able to utilize him on both sides of the ball. He was very versatile and workmanlike. He never had a lot to say but he got the job done at a level most people couldn't. He was athletic and he was bright. He's a heck of a kid."

Marshall played his college ball at Oregon State along with wide receiver Steve Coury. Coury would later join Marshall on the Ottawa Rough Riders.

"He was a great player, an overachiever," said Coury, now a coach at Lake Oswego High School, on the outskirts of Portland and close to where Marshall grew up. "He was never the biggest or the fastest but he was always one of the best. He was very intelligent, always studying the game and knowing his opponents."

Marshall was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the seventh round in 1978 and ended up in Canada playing for the Rough Riders for nine years. A CFL all-star four times, and a Defensive Player of the Year in 1983, Marshall turned to coaching after his career ended. He coached in the junior and semi-pro ranks in Ottawa before beginning his CFL career as defensive line coach in Saskatchewan in 1994. A stop in Edmonton as defensive co-ordinator produced a Grey Cup ring for Marshall in 2003. He returned to his old stomping grounds a year later to be defensive co-ordinator for the Ottawa Renegades.

"Obviously it was too bad that it didn't work out," Marshall said of the franchise that ceased operations after last season. "I think last year when they had to turn it over to (owners Bernie and Lonie Glieberman), it was just a matter of time. Everybody kind of felt that way. But obviously it's made the league stronger this year ... I think in the long run it would be nice if they could get a team back there or add another team out east somewhere."

After being one of the finalists for the Bombers head coaching job entering the season, Marshall went through the low of being told he wasn't selected to the high of being chosen by the man who was selected.

"It's a good fit," Marshall said of the dynamic between him and Bombers boss Doug Berry. "He brings a lot to the table as a head coach with his offensive knowledge. And I think I bring a lot to the table as a defensive co-ordinator. It's a pretty good mix. He's easy to get along with, and so am I. So far, it's been working out really well."

Marshall's defensive plan is similar to the one he employed in Ottawa.

"I have a base structure and I tailor it to what abilities the players have," he said. "I believe in trying to utilize the strengths of the players you have."

So far, the Bombers defence is 100% better than last year's.

"He's just got this uncanny knack for making the right call in the right situation," said Bombers defensive tackle Doug Brown. "Understanding what the offence is trying to do to us and putting us in the best spot to defend it."

"I like to attack when the opportunity is there, but also play bend-but-don't-break," said Marshall. "We're not 100% pressure and we're not 100% sitting back. We do a little bit of both."

So far in the early games, this defence is beginning to remind people of the bruising squads of the past.

"I bet the players are playing for him," said old friend Coury. "I'm sure they really respect him because he treats people right and keeps things in perspective."

Will that translate into a head coaching job at some point?

"I don't think it's any secret that I would like an opportunity to be a head coach at some point in time," said Marshall. "At this point, that hasn't presented itself so I just keep working hard and keep doing what I'm doing to try and help the Winnipeg Blue Bombers win as many games as we can ... We'll see what happens from there."


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