Ted Marchibroda: head coach and mentor to Bill Belichick and Jim Harbaugh

In his lone season on the McNichols campus, Ted Marchibroda was astounding as a quarterback, setting NCAA records for total offense in a season (1,813 yards) and pass attempts (58) and passing yards (390) in a single game.

Marchibroda, a University of Detroit football legend, died on Jan. 16. At 84 years old, he died of natural causes at his home in Weems, Va. He played only a single season here, but his impact on the game throughout his life was significant.

The more you read about Marchibroda, the more he begins to take on this air of a myth. Yes, obviously there is physical evidence of his existence; he did coach and play in the NFL for five decades.

But the way people speak of him is reminiscent of folklore. The only comparison that comes to mind is Jimmy Chitwood, the soft-spoken town hero from the movie “Hoosiers.”

Marchibroda was born and raised in the small town of Franklin, Penn. After graduating high school in 1949, he accepted an athletic scholarship to play football and baseball at St. Bonaventure University. Going into his senior year, St. Bonaventure dropped its football program to cut costs.

Still looking to play on the gridiron, Marchibroda chose to enroll at a small Jesuit school in the heart of Detroit. This is where he met Bob Hernbroth, an offensive lineman for the Titans.

“Ted came over from St. Bonnie’s, so the rest of the team didn’t know what to expect,” said Hernbroth. “But he was humble. He wasn’t coming in all ‘rah rah … look at all my medals and awards.’ He gained our respect as a person and on the football field.”

From the moment Marchibroda came to Detroit, he changed the culture of the football team. He was a natural leader.

“None of that (nonsense and miscommunication) went on when Ted was in the huddle,” said Hernbroth. “Ted was soft-spoken. He stepped into the huddle, gave the play and nobody said a word.”

There’s an energy in Hernbroth’s voice when he recalls the 1952 game against Tulsa when Marchibroda set the passing record. 

Tulsa, which would go on to finish #12 in the nation that year, sported a stellar defense led by two future NFL Hall-of-Famers in Bob St. Clair and Marv Matuszak.

“Both of them had to be on my side of the line. So providing pass protection for Teddy … it was really something!” said Hernbroth jokingly. “I was getting the crap kicked out of me, but that was a memorable day in my life.”

Marchibroda threw for a then NCAA records 390 yards on 58 attempts, but Tulsa blew out the Titans, 62-21.

It says so much about Marchibroda that a 41-point blowout was one of the finest moments of Hernbroth’s football career and life in general.

Playing with Marchibroda was an experience unlike anything. There’s a sense that you wanted to make him proud in that same way you aim to make your father proud. 

U of D finished 3-6 that year. Ironically, after Marchibroda graduated and left for the NFL, the Titans won the Missouri Valley Conference Championship the following year in 1953.

Marchibroda was drafted fifth overall by his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1953 NFL Draft. After his rookie season, he left football to serve in the U.S. Army, but returned to the Steelers after only a year. He ending his playing career three years later, quarterbacking his final season for the Chicago Cardinals in 1957.

Four years later, Marchibroda began his coaching career as an assistant with the Washington Redskins. By 1966, he was an assistant with the Los Angeles Rams.

In search of an offensive coordinator, Washington hired him back in 1971 for the second highest coaching job on the NFL totem pole.

With Marchibroda’s offensive mind quickly turning heads, the Baltimore Colts hired him as head coach. For the first time in his life, Marchibroda was in charge of a professional football team.

Immediately, he turned the Baltimore franchise around, winning 10 games and the AFC East Championship in 1975. For a Baltimore team that finished with two wins the previous year, this was the biggest win improvement in the history of the NFL.

Allegedly, Colts owner at the time Bob Irsay attempted to fire Marchibroda after his fourth season in 1978 when the team finished 5-11. After the final game, Irsay made his way to the locker room to do the deed.

As word trickled down to the Colts players, they began to form a circle around Marchibroda. They decided to physically block Irsay from approaching their head coach.

Failing to reach Marchibroda over the human blockade, Irsay conceded and kept Marchibroda as the team’s coach.

Again, the aura of Ted Marchibroda worked its magic.

After a successful tenure with the Colts that included three AFC East championships and playoff appearances, Marchibroda bounced around the league as offensive coordinator for multiple teams.

In 1987, the Buffalo Bills hired him as the quarterbacks coach. Marchibroda started a revolution there as he was promoted to offensive coordinator in 1989 and helped install the “K-Gun” offense with Bills head coach Marv Levy. This “K-Gun” was an early version of the hurry-up offense.

This fast-paced style allowed Bills QB Jim Kelly to speed up the game and call audibles at the line of scrimmage. The speed of the “K-Gun” prevented the opponent’s defense from making proper substitutions.

This offense caused so much chaos for opposing teams that the NFL eventually created a rule allowing defensive substitutions when the offense makes substitutions.

Thanks to this innovative approach to offense, Marchibroda helped lead the Bills to the Super Bowl in both 1991 and 1992. Although Buffalo lost both games, Marchibroda became the most sought-after coach in the NFL and was hired back as head coach of the Colts, who had by then moved to Indianapolis.

Even though he led them to the 1996 AFC Championship Game, the Colts fired Marchibroda after four seasons.

The Baltimore Ravens immediately hired him as their head man, making him the only person to coach both Baltimore NFL franchises. Marchibroda led the Ravens for three seasons before retiring after the 1998 season. He finished with an overall head coaching record of 87-98-1.

Way back during his first head coaching tenure in Baltimore in 1975, Marchibroda hired a young Bill Belichick to his first job in the NFL. Today as coach of the New England Patriots, Belichick is arguably the greatest coach in NFL history and still owes much of that to Marchibroda.

“Ted is one of the most positive people I’ve ever been around,” Belichick said in a press conference last week. “He was always confident, even when it was fourth-and-17. He was always sure we were going to make the play or do what we need to do. He was such a great person for me… He was such a mentor, and I just can’t say enough about Ted.”

Former NFL and current University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh feels similarly. Harbaugh has been singing his praises since he started at quarterback for Marchibroda’s Indianapolis Colts.

“If you consider all the great quarterbacks he has coached and some of the championships he has been involved in, you would figure this guy would have a huge ego,” Harbaugh told the Baltimore Sun in 1996. “But Ted is just cool. He’s got kind of a swagger. If we played in Ted’s era or if he was playing now, he’d be the kind of guy we’d want to hang out with."

It’s quite amazing the impact Marchibroda had on two of the great coaches in football today.

Marchibroda didn’t have the burning fire and intensity in his gut the way that Harbaugh does. Marchibroda was never the cold, malevolent villain that Belichick became.

Still, there was something, that aura or that quiet confidence, as Hernbroth puts it, about Marchibroda that molded the men around him.

It was true back at U of D in 1952, and it remained true until the day he died.

“Ted added for me – and the other guys on the line – a third dimension (to football),” said Hernbroth. “First, we played for the University of Detroit. The second dimension (was) that we played for the guy next to us, the guy beside us and the guy behind us. You did well because your buddies expected you to do well.

“I’m not going to lie. For me and the other guys on the line, we played for Ted. He brought us that third dimension, that motivation to do a better job because we didn’t want Ted to get hurt. We respected him. We went that extra foot, extra inch, extra mile because Ted was our quarterback.”

With the Titans football program forever frozen in time, Ted Marchibroda will always be our quarterback.