Coach Marc Mattioli: From the SEC to Italy

At the end of another long, productive practice, Parma Panthers head coach Marc Mattioli claps his hands energetically and calls out:

“Alright guys, get ready to run!”

Night has fallen and the practice field lights gleam off the players’ helmets. Some players grumble, others smile. Dripping with sweat, they quickly line up at the goal line and await Mattioli’s call. This is the kind of coaching for mental toughness that helps a team prepare for a big game against the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Georgia Bulldogs in the mighty SEC of the NCAA. Mattioli has been there, done that.

Tonight he’s getting his team, sporting and unbeaten record, ready for a different opponent – the Milano Seamen in Italy’s Division 1. The Southeastern Conference and Italy – more than an ocean separates the two places and the two leagues. And yet Mattioli says that coaching football is, nonetheless, a bridge between such diverse environments. Much of it comes down to motivation and brain-power.

“Physical fatigue is more of a mental thing than people realize. The brain controls the body, so players can learn to tap into their mental resources and help their bodies give just a little bit more.”

Mattioli is definitely a bright young mind among the ranks of football coaching. Having coached as an assistant at Stanford and most recently as defensive backs coach under Derek Mason at Vanderbilt, he suddenly found himself looking for a job when Mason was fired towards the end of last season.

“I got a few calls, did a few interviews, but something in the back of my mind was telling me that I wanted to expand my horizons and try something new.”

So how did he end up coaching so far away from big time football in the SEC?

“My friend, former NFL receiver Kris Durham, played here, and is still involved with the Panthers. He asked me if I knew any players who might be interested in coming over to play in Italy. Joking around, I answered him: ‘I know a coach who might be.’”

It was mid-February and as it turned out, the Panthers, who’d already begun their pre-season workouts, were in fact still searching for a head coach to lead the team in 2021. Soon Panthers’ owner Ugo Bonvicini made an offer and Mattioli mulled it over for a few days. He had potential opportunities at prestigious universities lined up, and yet something about this Italian offer spoke to him. Mattioli accepted the job.

“When you put yourself out there, when you’re willing to try something new, you gain new experience, you learn things that you can apply to different contexts. Right now, especially with the way things have worked out thus far, I am so glad I made this decision.”

Indeed, with the top spot in the regular season standings, and a place in the Italian play-off semifinals already clinched, Mattioli has brought a renewed winning attitude and aggressive play calling to Parma.

“This is a proud franchise. There is a lot of passion for football around here, from the owner to the coaches, from the players to the fans. I consider it an honor to be head coach of the Parma Panthers.”

So what has surprised you the most about football in Italy?

“I think the zeal and the commitment of the players is something that’s no different from what you find in the SEC. We may be talking about different skill levels in certain areas, but when these guys practice and when it’s game time, the competitive fire is the same.”

Parma head coach Marc Mattioli in discussion with QB Reilly Hennessey and Panthers’ offensive coordinator Sandrino Baci Photo: Luigi Felisa

The Panthers’ three American players have had a key role in the team’s success thus far. Quarterback Reilly Hennessey and powerhouse multi-tasking tight end Nick Diaco in particular have been outstanding. But the Italian players have been no less fundamental.

“The Italian players make up the core of our team. They are the heart and soul of the organization. We are fortunate to have a very talented group of Italians. Guys like Alinovi, Malpeli-Avalli, Pooda, Grossi, Viviani, just to name a few. I could go down the list, we have so many good Italian players. Every player on the team has a role, that is a big part of our success. They have so much pride for this team and organization. It is really special.”

Back in the SEC, after a game, the team might indulge in some barbecue or hit a Waffle House. Things must be a little different in Italy, right?

“We have players ranging from sixteen to thirty-six years old on this team. They’re all unique. After our games, it’s a little like what I’d imagine happened in the NFL back in the 70’s and 80s. Let’s just say that their exuberance and joy in living goes on full display.”

With a laugh, Mattioli concludes:

“Somehow Italians are able to combine hard work and having fun, so they’re not mutually exclusive things. It’s something you have to experience in order to truly understand.”

With another grueling sprint across the practice field, the players are visibly exhausted, but by now they know that coach Mattioli wants to get the best out of them, and they are building up reserves that will come in handy against their rivals. You can see it from a distance: they are working hard and having fun.


Alex Byrd Jones is a freelance writer from Atlanta, Georgia currently living in Italy. Besides teaching high school English and working as a translator, he is the English-language play-by-play voice of the Parma Panthers home streaming broadcasts.