IRVING, Texas – Monte Kiffin remembers well the chain of events that allowed then-USC defensive line coach Rod Marinelli to join forces with him in Tampa Bay, long before the duo would rejoin paths in Dallas.
Kiffin became the Buccaneers' defensive coordinator in 1996, where he led a group chocked full of future NFL head coaches, including then-position coaches Lovie Smith and Herm Edwards.
"That's a pretty good staff to start with," Kiffin said.
Kiffin, head coach Tony Dungy, Smith and Edwards gathered with general manager Rich McKay as they were putting their cast together. They heard about a talented defensive line coach on John Robinson's staff at Southern California and decided to investigate.
"We went out and interviewed him," Kiffin said. "Coach Dungy really liked him, so he had me interview him at the combine after he hired me, and we just hit it off. The rest is history. He was a special guy. That staff we hired with Herm Edwards as the secondary coach, he'd come from Kansas City, but Lovie was a college coach from Ohio State. We all just came together, put it all together, and went on from there."
Marinelli stayed with the staff in Tampa Bay for 10 seasons as the defensive line coach from 1996-2005, also picking up the title of assistant head coach in 2002. The all-star staff led one of the premier defenses in the league throughout that span, finishing in the top 10 in total defense nine times in that 10-year span.
They also finished as the league's top defense twice, including in 2002, when the Bucs would go on to win the Super Bowl, sacking Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon five times and picking off five passes in that game. Tampa Bay ranked in the top 10 in sacks five different seasons during Marinelli's tenure as line coach.
"Rod's an icon," Kiffin said. "He's something else. Everybody will see it. He's tremendous. We've been together 10 years, and then he went to Chicago and did a great job with Lovie."
That transition from Tampa Bay to Chicago didn't happen immediately. Marinelli spent three trying years as the head coach in Detroit, compiling a 10-38 record in that span. But Marinelli soon returned to a role on defense he'd always excelled at, teaming up again with Smith on the Bears.
He coached Chicago's defensive line and served as an assistant coach in 2009 before becoming the Bears' defensive coordinator the next three seasons, helping guide one of the most revered defenses in the league the last few years.
Chicago led the league with 24 interceptions and also ranked in the top 10 in sacks and forced fumbles in 2012, while finishing with the league's No. 5 total defense. Four different Bears players finished with at least six sacks, led by Julius Peppers' 11.5.
Marinelli resigned from his post in Chicago after the Bears let Smith go at the end of the season. It didn't take long for him to fly down to Dallas to interview with the Cowboys' staff, including owner Jerry Jones, executive vice president Stephen Jones and head coach Jason Garrett.
Kiffin was ecstatic when he found out he'd be able to work with Marinelli again for the first time since 2005.
"It was really special," Kiffin said. "He came down and had an opportunity to go a lot of places. When he interviewed down there, he really liked Mr. Jones and Stephen, and of course the head coach, Coach Garrett. They all hit it off, so we're pretty fired up."
Now the process begins for the "Tampa 2" masterminds to turn a 3-4 defense into a 4-3 defense they'd perfected in Tampa Bay.
"Coaching is teaching to get your players better," Kiffin said. "The first rule of getting better is show up. When you show up, you better get coached. So that's our job. It's like a teacher. If you're a bad teacher, it's not going to be stimulating. But you show up here, you're going to get better."