When John Marinelli was offered the Greenwich coaching job in 2015, the FCIAC’s new two-year schedule had not yet been released. There was no way of knowing that one of the opponents the Cardinals would be adding was New Canaan, whose coach happens to be John’s father Lou.
“When Johnny was first considering Greenwich, little did I know that Greenwich was going to all of a sudden be on New Canaan’s schedule,” recalled Fran Marinelli, the family matriarch. “Maybe if I had known, maybe I wouldn’t have encouraged him as strongly as I did.”
Fran paused for a moment and laughed.
While the game labeled as The Marinelli Bowl arguably reaches the next phase Saturday night, it is still an unsettling week for father and son. There was the awkward pregame handshake prior to the start of the first meeting. Last year son defeated father for the first time.
If the game is emotionally taxing for the two coaches, it is excruciating for the wife/mother, who is guaranteed to leave the field with mixed feelings.
“It was definitely the next step for him,” Fran said of the youngest of her three children, who has done a masterly job with the Cardinals. “That being said, the first few years were a little rough. Really hard. Oh my gosh. They weren’t speaking to each other and they had to play against each other. Johnny really wasn’t speaking to him more than the reverse. The second year was hard. Last year it started to ease up a little bit. I think this year it’s more professional rather than personal.”
The storyline started to turn last fall, but Saturday’s game feels like the first where the novelty has worn off and the focus is more on the players and playoff implications. Fran said while this continues to be her least favorite week of the season, she senses a change.
“This year for them it’s more about the teams, which makes it easier,” Fran said.
If you were going to start from scratch to build the prototypical football coach’s wife, the end result would be Fran Marinelli. She is the yin to Lou’s yang, a fan of the sport, outgoing and personable, equally at ease sitting by herself in the stands or catching up with the many parents of players she has come to know almost as well as her husband.
When Lou traveled to Texas two weeks ago to watch Lucas Niang and Michael Collins, two of his former New Canaan stars, play at TCU, he was accompanied by Fran, who made the trip because she wanted to. She has a collection of hats representing the schools of former Rams she has gone to see play in college.
Fran is a professor of the game. Football with Franny, as it is known, has been a New Canaan mainstay as she holds film sessions in a social setting for the mothers of players. She has now started imparting her knowledge as well with Greenwich mothers.
This is the week when the extroverted sides of the family get shelved.
“Lou is quieter and more introspective probably,” said Fran, using words not associated with her husband the other 51 weeks of the year. “He loves the competition but it is still his son so it is in the back of his mind. I keep to myself. Because what do you say? Because Lou really doesn’t enjoy playing against Johnny. I don’t even think he does now. It is not something he relishes. John on the other hand, his perspective is a little different because it is the son to the father rather than the father to the son. Not that John looks forward to it.”
After losing the first two meetings, the Cardinals came away with the win last season on the road to reaching the Class LL championship game.
“Last year when Greenwich won John actually said to me this isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be,” Fran said. “It was mixed.”
This is the second time the game is being played in New Canaan, where until recently the Marinellis resided. If you are wondering which side of the stands Fran can be found, the answer is neither. She’s not on the 50-yard line wearing a jersey featuring whatever you would get if crossing a Ram with a Cardinal.
“I just walk around,” Fran said. “And I get to cheer every touchdown. I haven’t sat in any year. This year I think I’m just going to hide.”
Fran will be as edgy as the players prior to Saturday night’s kickoff because, well, she continues to get the jitters after nearly four decades.
“After all these years I still get nervous,” Fran said with a chuckle. “It’s funny. Some people don’t understand that. They say it is just a game but it is a little more than that.”
At a recent Football with Franny in Greenwich, a mother tried to convince her that she was in a win-win situation, which had a glass-half-full feel until she realized that wasn’t really the case.
“The win is good but I don’t like either to lose,” Fran said. “Last year was like crossing the threshold. John had the win but I didn’t want Lou to lose. I’m not sure about that win-win thing. I guess it is a healthy way to look at it.”
Hopefully Fran is unaware that the Rams have moved up to Class LL, and that this could be the first of two meetings between her husband and son this season. Keep it quiet, because this week is stressful enough, until about 10 Saturday night.
“I’m more relieved than those two probably,” Fran said. “They may be second and third.”