Standing on the sidelines of a Sunday morning practice at Bills Camp, James “Boots” Donnelly has the look of an NFL coach. Arms crossed with a firm stance, he’s focused as he observes drills, interpreting what he sees on the field.
But you won’t find Donnelly on the Bills coaching roster, and ask him what he’s doing at camp and he’ll tell you he’s on vacation.
The longtime head football coach at Middle Tennessee is here simply because he can’t get enough football – and because he’s lucky enough to get an invite for the week from head coach Doug Marrone, his son-in-law.
“I absolutely love football, there’s no doubt about that,” said Donnelly. “To come up here and watch Doug operate, I’m really thankful that Doug invites me up here and gives me an opportunity so I can kind of go wherever. I love being around the players, and coaches, going to coaches meetings and listening to what they say. This is what I did when I coached.”
His sideline demeanor is indeed no fraud. Donnelly presided over successful football teams at Austin Peay and Middle Tennessee, where he coached for 20 seasons with a combined 140-87-1 record and many conference title wins. Coincidentally, Donnelly’s son-in-law ended up at the Bills with a former rival coach, Buddy Nix.
“We became very close friends,” Donnelly said of Nix. “Well, I didn’t like him on gameday and he didn’t like me on gameday. But before and after that we were good friends, along with our families.”
Though incredibly influential on his children’s upbringings, Donnelly never saw his family growing to include another football coach. He says his wife spent enough time counting rosary beads and yelling at the TV during his games for a lifetime, and his daughter wouldn’t make that same mistake. But the apple often doesn’t fall far from the tree, and despite his best guesses, his daughter Helen had taken after her mother.
“She’s been raised in a coach’s family. She knows all of that stuff. She went to Boston College. She is an attorney. She is smart. She is not going to marry a football coach. She’s not going to do that,” he recalled with a hearty laugh about his reaction to his daughter’s engagement. “Well, that’ll tell you how smart I was. She did. And here we are. I just thought she was smarter than that. She wanted more misery I guess and she’s got it!”
Despite his initial shock and occasional mockery, and regardless of the familial lifestyle a coaching job brings, Donnelly recognized Marrone’s coaching ability early on, and says that his quick ascension to NFL head coach wasn’t by accident.
“He’s moved fast. He’s moved very fast,” said Donnelly. “When he was at Georgia Tech he developed a great reputation. With his movement up the ranks, obviously there’s a great deal of respect for him around the league and in the college game. Amazing how quickly he moved and I’m really proud of him. Everyone in the family is really proud of him.”
Donnelly attributes Marrone’s success largely to inherent personality traits befitting of a head coach.
“He is a very honest individual,” he said. “Very knowledgeable. A stickler for detail. Almost to the point where he’s anal. He’s got a great personality.”
And while this was Donnelly’s first trip to Bills Camp during Marrone’s inaugural season, he’s not afraid to praise what Marrone's already done with the team.
“As an outsider looking in, I like what I see, I really do. I didn’t know what to expect, but I like what I see. I came out here about 7:30 a.m. and the fans were already here. They deserve something good.”
As a celebrated college football coach and an insider on Marrone’s personality and drive, he was concise and decisive when asked if he thinks his son-in-law will deliver for those fans.
“Oh yeah. I don’t think there’s any question that Doug's team will win here.”