IRVING, Texas– It's hard to believe in 2015, but when Rod Marinelli and Lovie Smith joined Tony Dungy's Buccaneers coaching staff in 1996, they were the low men on the totem pole.
So low, in fact, that they were the only members of Dungy's coaching staff who drew the indignity of sharing a hotel room.
"I came from USC and Lovie came from Ohio State, so just our first year in the NFL," Marinelli said. "We were the only two in the Holiday Inn Express. Everybody else had the Marriott at the airport with their own room."
It might not have been an ideal living arrangement, but it helped spawn an incredible friendship – not to mention a championship-winning defense that would be emulated across the league landscape for years to come.
Smith served with the Bucs from 1996 until 2000, while Marinelli coached there all the way from that 1996 season until 2005. In that timespan, then-defensive coordinator Monte Kiffn's famed "Tampa 2" defense would go on to be the backbone of the 2002 Super Bowl team that featured the likes of Derrick Brooks, John Lynch and Ronde Barber.
"It was all football. We'd stay up at night just trying to learn the system," Marinelli said. "There's a lot of details in it. So we kind of grew together within the system under coach Dungy and Kiff and the whole thing. I mean, it was a special time, really a special team."
Since that time, Marinelli and Smith have had no problem maintaining their relationship. Then the head coach in Chicago, Smith hired Marinelli to his defensive staff from 2009-12, and the two have kept close contact since.
"You guys have been around Rod Marinelli, so you know what he brings to the table – same-type work ethic every day," Smith said. "It's contagious, and it rubs off on his players."
The pair's relationship was close enough that Marinelli was widely speculated to be leaving to join Smith's Buccaneers staff at the conclusion of the 2014 season. That Marinelli re-upped his defensive coordinator contract in Dallas was seen as a bit of an upset – to outsiders, at least.
"He's one of my best friends in my life. But I just felt that we got something started here, and I've really enjoyed it here, and I've been there," he said. "Sometimes it's hard to go back. I've really enjoyed myself here. I love the head coach and the organization."
In Marinelli's case, it's hard to go back on any level – even as an opponent. Since leaving Tampa Bay to take the head coaching job in Detroit in 2006, Marinelli said he hasn't been back.
"This is the first time I've been back in 10 years, so it's a special place. It was at that time for me. It was very special place at that time for me," he said. "It was a very special place with the coaches and players I was around and how we were able to turn that whole thing around."
The focus this time around will be on turning things around for the Cowboys, who are on a six-game losing streak and are ranked No. 30 in the NFL in takeaways. Given their history together, Smith said he wouldn't expect anything less.
"Anything with Rod Marinelli's name on it – you know you're going to get the same-type product, and I'm talking about a good product," he said. "Defensively, those guys are going to play hard, be relentless to the football and be disciplined."