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Gino Mariani achieves greatness as Highland’s winningest head football coach

August 20, 2018
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Highland head coach Gino Mariani

Gino Mariani is a state championship-winning football coach.

A four-time state title-winning football coach after last season, but successes were not topical as the 2018 season neared and the first day of practice played out in August at Highland High School’s practice field, where Mariani stripes the grass by mowing it extra short every five yards instead of painting lines.

Players were not wearing pads yet, but Mariani could still coach his helmeted offensive players, who heard little yelling from Mariani and more repeated phrases and words at the start.

“Quick, quick, quick.”

“Good feet, good feet, good feet.”

Even if you already know Mariani’s accomplishments, they also bear repeating. The 18-year Highland coach has won more games than any football coach in Rams football history, sporting a 151-41 record. Over the last five seasons under Mariani, the Rams are undefeated in 5A District 5-6 and have a .857 overall winning percentage. His four state titles are tied for the most by a Highland football coach.

Mariani’s offensive IQ among his top attributes

When Mariani is discussed, so too is his offensive acumen, which developed when he was an Idaho State University quarterback in the 1980s. The one-year starting college QB is one of 14 Bengals who have multiple 300-yard passing games with two.

“He’s probably the greatest football mind I’ve ever met,” said Payton McCarthy, who started as Highland’s quarterback in the last portion of the 2015 season and all of 2016. “He understands the game so completely, and he can do anything depending on what the defense throws at him. He’s got an adjustment for it, and that’s what makes him so great as a coach.”

Mariani deploys a complex West Coast offense that features some spread components and is adjustable to a quarterback’s strengths. He first deployed his offense as Pocatello’s sophomore team head coach in 1990.

“He just runs a lot of formation combinations and motions,” Coeur d’Alene coach Shawn Amos said. “He’s good at getting his best players the ball in different positions and situations on the field, so it challenges your defense. There’s a lot of moving parts.”

The core of Mariani’s offense comes from Jim Koetter, who he played for at Idaho State.

“As far as how to run a program, knowing the Xs and Os and the intricacies of the West Coast offense and that type of stuff, he’s phenomenal,” said Mariani, who added he asks his quarterbacks to take what the defense gives them, just like Koetter.

That could be why the screen pass is alluring to Mariani. It was a consensus among those around him that the play is his favorite. A condensed field is not normally where that play is called, but inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, he called one for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of a 56-21 win over Mountain View in the 2014 state title game.

“We throw countless screen passes,” incumbent Highland starting quarterback Kobe Tracy said. “It gets the defense off guard a lot. A lot of teams are always coming hard and sending blitzes. And if you can dump it over the top, it’s a lot of yards. It’s an easy throw, an easy catch.”

For offensive plays, Mariani uses multi-word names and noted that he has added passing routes to running plays, creating an opportunity for a run-pass option. The Highland coach shares his playbooks with his coaches, but not his players, because he fears transferring players showing it to opposing coaches.

“They have to learn it,” said Mariani while chuckling. “We teach it all summer and the offseason.”

That, along with other matters, makes the quarterback position one of the most difficult jobs on the Highland football team.

McCarthy, now an assistant coach on Highland’s freshman football team, knows all about it. In 2015, the Rams faced a 14-0 halftime deficit to Hillcrest in his first varsity start. Mariani decided to name him starting quarterback because the Rams needed a big-play receiver, making Connor Harding a suitable option to switch from starting QB to wideout.

But McCarthy learned that decision could be quickly reversed. Outside of Holt Arena, where the team met on a hot night at halftime, Mariani pulled his new starting QB aside and told him he had about one second-half drive to prove himself.

“You get to that situation, and you understand it’s do-or-die time,” McCarthy said. “I was ready to do everything in my power to not lose that starting job, and so I started making throws better and making more plays on my feet and just performing at a higher level because that’s what I had to do.”

The final score was: Highland 28, Hillcrest 27.

McCarthy was responsible for all four Highland touchdowns, with two passing TDs to start before scoring on two quarterback sneaks. After a first-half pick-six, he finished with 397 yards passing and completed 23 of 35 passes. Even better, McCarthy was complimented by Mariani during a film session of the game and started at QB the rest of his career.

McCarthy has nothing bad to say about Mariani or about his halftime ultimatum, though he did have something humorous.

“There were some times where he would go call a play, and he’d start saying it and then he’d go, ‘No.’ And then start saying it and go, ‘Well, no.’ And then start saying something else and say, ‘No, that’s not what I want,’” McCarthy said. “I’m sitting there during a game going, ‘Come on Gino, there’s a play clock.’”

Offensive-minded coach happy to win with defense

Mariani has called offensive plays every season as a head coach, including from 1996-2000 when he led Pocatello’s varsity football team. But as attached as Mariani is to the offensive side, he allows his defense to win games, like it has many times over the previous three seasons with Division I defensive players leading the way, including Wayne Kirby, Aisa Kelemete and Tommy Togiai. The score of Highland’s 2017 state-title win against Coeur d’Alene was 14-8, after all.

Three-year Highland defensive coordinator Nick Sorrell said he has Mariani’s trust and calls 100 percent of the defensive plays. It helps that the 2003 Highland graduate has worked in some role or another in the Highland program since 2004, when he started as a defensive coordinator and linebacker coach for the freshman team.

“When he hires coaches, he trusts them enough to do their job,” Sorrell said. “Of course, he has final say on everything, but he lets us coach. He trusts us enough that we’re going to put in a game plan and put in the right personnel. And of course, if he sees something that he wants changed, he’ll tell us. But for the most part, he trusts us and he lets us coach.”

More than a football coach

As long as Highland is succeeding, it does not matter how to Mariani, who also helps other Highland teams achieve glory. The Highland High English teacher will continue to be a track and field assistant and has taken over as Highland’s varsity girls basketball coach after serving as a defensive assistant coach for the Highland varsity boys basketball team the previous two seasons.

“What I think about Gino is all the things that he does at Highland High School that people don’t see,” said Warren Whitaker, a Highland offensive line coach from 1985-2015. “You’ll see him on the weekend mowing lines and getting the field ready to go, or doing a little extra watering of some spots and stuff like that. The amount of time that he puts in is — in my opinion — why Highland wins, because it starts with him.”

Mariani’s commitment to Highland is strong and over a long period. In fact, he has been Highland’s head football coach longer than anyone in school history. Second to the Carson City, Nevada, native is his mentor Jim Koetter, who was head coach for 15 seasons at Highland from 1965-79.

When the new Ridgeline High School in Utah asked Mariani to be its first football head football coach in 2016, he declined and stuck with Highland.

“I enjoy the school. I enjoy the people there. We have a tremendous administration. We have tremendous fans and a following and alumni,” Mariani said. “I have a staff that I’ve been able to put together. We’re comrades in arms.”

Highland has stuck with him, too. Mariani pointed out that while he never doubted his coaching abilities, his Highland teams were 1-4 in their first five state championship appearances. Before the 2008 state title game Mariani won with Taysom Hill at quarterback, the Highland coach said he was “very stressed,” thinking about all the misses.

“In my mind it was like, ‘Ok, we’re getting there, but we’re not winning,’” Mariani said. “‘What do we need to do to win that game? What are we missing? What am I not doing as a coach? Is it my play calling offensively? Is it our play calling defensively? Is it we’re not as good as the other teams?’ There’s a lot of things that go through your mind.”

Since 2008, Mariani is 3-1 in state championship games, making his concerns moot.

Mariani reveals high character in moments of someone else’s distress

The night of Mariani’s latest state-title win in 2017, he had a surprising companion. It was 22-year Coeur d’Alene coach Shawn Amos, whose team just lost to a Mariani’s Rams.

“We enjoy each other’s company,” Amos said. “We kind of have the same burning desire to be successful and helping young men, but we’re not so consumed that we can’t develop a friendship because we’re so competitive.”

The hours-long conversation, occurring around 10 p.m., featured no bragging by Mariani. They complimented each other’s players in addition to talking about Amos’ son, Gunnar, who lived at Mariani’s home that fall because he transferred late from Idaho to Idaho State’s football team in August 2017 amid fall camp.

The housing move was initiated by a text from Shawn. At first, Gunnar was going to stay at Mariani’s home while looking for a place, but it was decided he would remain there for the entire football season.

“They really made Gunnar’s transition to Idaho State a lot easier, and — as parents — made us feel a lot better about our kid living with people I know,” Shawn said. “To know your kid is kind of in a safe environment with someone I know that he can talk football with, he can decompress with — it was really a big deal to our family.”

It wasn’t the first Mariani gesture that Shawn witnessed. Another occurrence was during warmups before the 2013 state title matchup, which ended with the Vikings getting the better of the Rams.

In the Kibbie Dome, Gunnar was at midfield in a wheelchair because he broke his leg at the start of the 5A playoffs. By his side for a couple moments were Mariani and another Highland player and coach, talking to Gunnar and telling him how much they respected him as a player.

“I teared up when I saw that,” said Shawn, who was not as close with Mariani then as he is now. “We’re ready to go to war. It’s go time. I was locked in, preparing for a game and I looked over.”

What Shawn saw was a state-championship football coach, an offensive savant, Highland purveyor and a caring man.

“For them to disengage from their focus of getting ready for a state title game and come over and talk to a kid who’s heartbroken because he can’t play in a state title game was pretty special,” Shawn said. “That’s why I knew Gino had a heart for kids.”

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