Vince Marrow's presence can be overpowering. The former NFL tight end doesn't so much shake your hand as he does suffocate it when greeting you before settling back in his reclining desk chair and propping his feet on the desk.
Vince Marrow has been close with Kentucky coach Mark Stoops since they were kids growing up in Youngstown, Ohio
Then there's the laugh. The thick, booming, hearty laugh that makes it easy to see why the Kentucky assistant coach has been a hit in recruits' living rooms. And few things make Marrow laugh more than one of his closest friends still not being able to correctly pronounce his last name after more than 30 years of friendship.
“Vince and I went to school together and I still call him "Morrow," and it's actually "Marrow," UK head coach Mark Stoops said.
The very mention of Stoops' mangling of his name makes Marrow – pronounced like bone 'marrow' – shake his head in playful disdain. Having known each other since before they turned 10 years old and maintained a tight bond through childhood, their high school playing days at Cardinal Mooney in Youngstown, Ohio and then as their coaching careers evolved, Marrow is willing to forgive such a minor infraction.
“This is a true story: Ever since I went to Mooney I said my last name wrong,” Marrow said. “I'd say 'Morrow' and my brother out of the blue one day said, 'Your name is 'Marrow', not 'Morrow'.' I blame Mooney. My name used to be Vincent Marrow and now it's 'Vince Morrow'. They always say it's the Italian.”
How did Stoops, the son of a football coach in industrial Youngstown, and Marrow, an African-American kid from the other side of town, ultimately become such fast and lifelong friends? In many ways football, but also because of personalities that attracted each one to the other.
“I was an inner city kid and his uncle, his dad's brother, coached two of my older brothers at Youngstown South,” Marrow said. “At that time in the inner city Youngstown South football was kind of down and they needed a guy to kind of come in and change the direction and culture of the southside. I just remember my older brothers talking about how this coach came, and I was probably like eight, that this guy was more than a coach, he was more about relationships. He would go to guys' homes and pick them up. I'm going to be honest with you, back then you just didn't see where coaches got in that deep with their players.
“I would go down to my brothers' practices and be like a manager sometimes and Mark would be a manager too. He was like two years older than me but we would play, throw the football on the side, and that's where I met him, through Youngstown South. We were probably eight to 10 years old, it would have been like late 70s. That's when I first met Mark and grew accustomed to his family.”
Despite career paths that have been vastly different the two have remained close, so much so that Stoops always told Marrow he would bring him aboard his staff when he finally got the opportunity to become a head coach. That call finally came this winter.
Mark Stoops hired Marrow, in part, to bolster Kentucky's recruiting in Ohio
“I knew when (Stoops) got the job I wanted to go and work with him because I knew the type of person he was,” Marrow said. “I knew what he stands for and what you see right now with the success we're having in recruiting, that's all credited to him and who he is.”
But coming to Kentucky meant leaving Nebraska, where Marrow had been given an opportunity by another close friend and Youngstown family member, Bo Pelini. Marrow was technically listed as a graduate assistant on the Huskers' staff but had received an exemption from the NCAA to take on more responsibility because of another assistant's health issues. When Stoops came calling it put Marrow in a difficult position where he would have to walk away from one of his longtime friends.
“Me and Bo were very close, but it was a unique thing when Mark took this job,” Marrow said. “I said, 'Man, it's so close to Ohio.' My mother-in-law lives in Columbus and we wanted to get closer. I'll be honest, it was hard (to leave), but I knew we could do some serious, serious damage in Ohio. I had kids coming to Nebraska and that was 12, 13 hours away so I said, 'Man, once we get (to Kentucky) Ohio will definitely be a main target for us.' It's the SEC. I don't care how you spin it. I know what the SEC is all about. To me, it's a no-brainer.
“When (Stoops) got this job and brought me in he was like, 'Look, we've got to hit Ohio. We're going to hit Ohio hard.' We're going to hit it hard because of our background, who we are and what those names mean. We knew we had a strong chance to pull some kids.”
It hasn't taken long for the Stoops-Marrow combination to pay heavy dividends for Kentucky in the state of Ohio. Previously unable to ever gain a foothold in the fertile recruiting ground, Marrow helped land Marcus McWilson, one of the nation's Top 20 safeties in the 2013 class, plus highly regarded offensive lineman Kyle Meadows and cornerback Jaleel Hytchye. He's also secured verbal commitments from five players who hail from Ohio in the class of 2014.
“I’ve got him just in Ohio right now,” Stoops said. “What makes him a great recruiter, I think, is just his ability to make everybody feel comfortable. He’s very good at just building relationships. He works at it extremely hard, and he has a lot of ties to Ohio. He’s lived in three or four different parts of Ohio, grew up in Ohio, went to the same high school that I did. So Vince knows me very well, he knows how we want to go about our business in recruiting. So, I think with just with his work ethic and his ability to (create) relationships are some of the best qualities he has.”
The level of respect for one another runs deep, which makes Stoops and Kentucky an easy sell for Marrow on the recruiting trail. Not only does he work for Stoops, but Marrow believes in what his friend is doing.
“I know what he's about,” Marrow said. “I know the core of what he is as a man, what type of family he comes from. He's a hard worker. His dad was a hard worker, had six kids, mom didn't work. It's not surprising to me who he is. I know him.
Marrow still laughs about Stoops pronouncing his last name incorrectly. It rhymes with bone 'marrow', not 'tomorrow'
“What he's doing today, and what makes Mark even greater and surrounding the whole man who he is, is he understands the inner city and he understands people. I think that's the most lethal thing you can have as a coach, as a head coach. He just knows how to relate to people, no matter who you are, and it's not fake. He was always that way. We didn't know each other (as kids) and we just hit it off right away. I didn't look at a color, he didn't look at a color, we were just young kids playing. I know that's the reason he's been so successful, the reason why those kids relate to him. He's a people person. He has the type of charisma that makes people comfortable and say, 'Hey, this guy is a good dude.' If I'm a parent I would love my kid to go play for him.”
Not that everything has been sunshine and roses. Kentucky's early success in recruiting has created waves in a no wake zone. Suddenly, the Cats are players in Ohio in large part because of Stoops and Marrow, which has led to some blowback from competitors. More than once Marrow has had potential recruits ask if he and Stoops plan to be in Lexington for the long haul.
“Here's what you've got to deal with: it's kind of like when a bully has been bullying you for a long time and then you start taking some lessons and start getting confident and that bully knows you're about to get in his tail,” Marrow said. “That's what we are starting to get from other schools. They're trying to negative recruit off old stuff but the reality is we don't know about the old stuff.
“People are attacking me, saying he's a great coach, a great recruiter, but he ain't going to be here (long). Where am I going? I'm in the SEC. I'm close to home. My wife would kill me if we left. Where else is there to go? You're in the SEC. I think this place can be like Alabama. We can have that. We can recruit Ohio, Georgia, Florida. You get those facilities, why not Kentucky?”
There are plenty of challenges ahead as the childhood friends help try to build Kentucky football into a consistent winner but one thing that remains in place is trust.
“It's great working here with Mark,” Marrow said. “The guy has it. I'm just telling you, he has it, and he will get this thing where it needs to go.”
Even if he can't pronounce his buddy's name.