Brown University QB Coach Heather Marini is paving the way for women in sports

NFL: MAR 02 Scouting Combline
INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MARCH 02: Brown quarterback EJ Perry answers questions from the media during the NFL Scouting Combine on March 2, 2022, at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

Heather Marini is the QB coach at Brown University. Apart from her time in the NFL and Australia, she has opened the door for thousands of women across the country as the first female D-1 position coach in college football. It’s a title and responsibility she wears proudly as she continues to improve as a coach, and work on the improvement of her QB’s.

After spending multiple years learning the game in Australia, and coaching in the NFL’s Women’s Pathway program, Marini was hired to be the QB Coach for Brown University in the Ivy League under Head Coach James Perry in 2019.

Before her time at Brown, Marini was summer scouting specialist for the New York Jets, and before that, was the Head Coach at Monash Warriors Gridiron Club in Australia. Marini has an incredibly impressive resume but probably the largest boost has been her work with EJ Perry.

Perry had heads turning during the Shrine Game with his superb athleticism and a solid arm. A rising star throughout the draft process, Perry has continued to give more credit to the Ivy League schools and could be the next QB drafted from the prestigious universities.

Earlier today, I spoke with Heather Marini on both her career as a female in a male-dominated sport, as well as her work with EJ.

Let’s start about your football experience. What made you want to be a football coach?

My answer is probably not the same to those who you’ve asked that question to. It’s a long story, but I’ve been coaching almost 15 years now. I started coaching in Australia where my husband introduced me to the sport when we first started dating. It was the craziest sport I’ve ever seen and I kind of got involved more from a human movement side doing athletic training, strength and conditioning. What I realized was that I was doing more position-specific drills.

I went to Oregon St. and did strength and conditioning there and I decided I didn’t like being in the weight room. So when I went back to Australia, I got more and more involved in the football aspect of it. I became a high school football coach and having to be a part of the NFL Women’s Pathway over my career has kind of allowed me to meet people like Coach Perry, and got me an opportunity at Brown, but also got me to do internships with the New York Jets in scouting and working with the immortal Tom Brady down in Tampa Bay last summer. It’s been a different journey.

I hadn’t seen football until I was 18 years old but coming to it from a human movement side, getting to know the sport as the best fits as all the other sports I grew up with rolled into one. I always thought I was going to be a coach, I just didn’t know what sport, until football came along just at the right time.

Being the first female position coach in D-1 football, do you feel that it means anything extra to you knowing it can open the door for other women who want to join the sport of football?

For me, it’s kind of funny. For anyone in their professional career path you have that personal celebration when you get a promotion or when you achieve the goal you set out for. Obviously for me, that came with a lot of added responsibility, and I’m not shy to that fact. You know I really by me being a first that there will be a next, and because of that responsability I know that a lot of people will ask me about my job. Doing a great job is not just important to me personally, my players, or my job but to the wider football community and in sports in general.

You mentioned you felt added responsibility but did you feel any added pressure as you continued to rise through the ranks?

No, I’ve been really grateful and lucky with my football journey. I think players figure you out pretty quickly and I’m really lucky here at Brown that the coaches here were very open to having the best staff that they could have.

Coach Perry has been very strong about hiring the best coaches available and gender not being a part of it. As any person looking to hire a diverse staff would want new ideas and different ways of looking at things and I certainly bring that to the table. But for me, players, like I said, figure you out pretty quickly. They just want to get better and if you can offer them one little tip, one little piece of advice that is going to improve their game, improve them as an athlete and long-term improve them as a good human, then they are going to want to take that on-board. If you can’t offer them that, then they won’t listen but I’ve never had that experience, and I’ve been very grateful and happy to work with the teams I have because of that.

What is your end goal as a coach in football?

I was lucky enough to be a high school head football coach in Australia and see both sides of the ball and develop young men into good human beings. Seeing kids in high school and now coaching kids in college is a great experience and I’ve been very lucky and able to enjoy.

Having a little taste in the NFL has been really fun too. I’d love to get back to being a Head Coach one day at whatever level that opens up. Everyone talks about it’s all about being where your feet are at. Do a great job and people will recognize that like going to the NFL and Tampa and people will realize it. Obviously last year was a great opportunity to coach EJ (Perry) and now it’s about focusing on improving these other young guys coming up at the QB position here at Brown and trying to win a championship here. I’ve always been one to take every opportunity that comes my way including flying across the other side of the world to work in football so I’ll continue to do that and continue to hope to have a long career in football.

You mentioned your work with EJ Perry. Let’s tilt the conversation to him a little bit. What has he been like to coach?

Obviously he transferred from Boston College in 2019 and while I wasn’t in the QB role at the time, just for me, it was about watching him develop. He came into a new system, with high expectations being a transfer from BC, as well as the nephew of the Head Coach into a system that was very different than what he had run before and then you throw in a COVID year right in the middle of a crucial development time for him. But to watch him from 2019 to now, he has really done the hard yards to get everything to get all the ducks in a row to get everything right. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen. During COVID he did everything right in getting himself ready from a weight room perspective, getting his body right, as well as getting in the playbook and it was really an advantage to have that film time, so while when everyone was trying to get ready for the next opponent, he could really digest and absorb what our offense meant and you saw that when he came out last season and he had the year that he did. He went from nearly 1,000 yards rushing as a player in 2019 to half of that this year and that was because he was able to see the game in a whole new way, find those passes, and put that ball in the RB’s hands when needed. His development from 2019 to now has been tremendous and especially as a leader. You saw him as he gained confidence in the system, confidence in his teammates, and coaches around him, he was really able to shine as a great leader as well.

Perry continued his collegiate success at the Senior Bowl where he really turned a lot of heads. What do you think are his biggest strengths and weaknesses are as he prepares for the next level?

Obviously he is an exceptional athlete. I expect him to perform very well at the combine drills. I think that transfers to him playing the game so well. Because he is such a terrific athlete he has that extra moment before he busts out and escapes before all hell breaks lose. He is such a gritty player in that he’s just so tough. The reality is going to the NFL from college is tough. You have to be able to do long hours in the playbook, weight room and you have to do everything right and that transition is really tough. I think he’ll be up for it because he’s a very tough player, and he’s able to take the hits at the next level and bounce off and run the next play. The way we play at Brown is such a fast tempo style. We ran more plays than anyone else in the league. EJ certainly has the reps and it’s been a huge benefit to him as he moves on.

The Ivy League schools don’t have a lot of pedigree when it comes to the NFL. EJ is trying to follow the footsteps of Ryan Fitzpatrick however in showing just how good the Ivy League talent is. Do you think his success could mean more exposure for more kids in Ivy League programs?

Yeah I really hope so. Ivy League is not D-1-Lite. These guys come to play every day and they are very intelligent people. It’s not just about their football I.Q. but they are also very intelligent in the classroom. It’s why NFL scouts come through the building here at Brown. I think we had 31 of 32 scouts from NFL teams to see EJ. When you walk into training camp, and they hand you a playbook that’s as large as a phonebook, you need players that are able to digest that information quickly, as well as when you get out onto the field, being able to make quick decisions that change the football experience for the thousands of fans that are going to sit in the seats. Having that experience against incredible D-1 athletes and having that intelligence is such a perfect combination to go and play in the NFL.

One more question for you, as EJ gets ready for the NFL Combine and the NFL Draft, what words of encouragement have you given him to help him prepare?

Yea I always text him the same thing. “Have fun”. We love football. There are good days and bad days. If you love football enough, it’s all going to be great. Being able to project confidence and playing the game at the highest level you can play. You really have to love what you do and enjoy every second of it. That’s true whether you’ve got a career like Tom Brady and you’re playing for your 22nd year in the league, or you’re a first-year rookie showing up at training camp. It’s long, and tough, and hard, but if you love football, you’ll enjoy every second of it and have a long successful career.

Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire