The long road to redemption

Been having a lot of conversations lately about the future of Syracuse football. It's becoming more and more clear that this season is going to be a step back for the program. Even if they're able to win 3 more games and make a bowl game, it will likely be because the rest of the ACC downright stinks (other than Clemson, FSU and a few other teams at the top like Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Miami). Six or seven wins this year will likely still not be as good as last year.

But my point here is that we should not be discouraged by this. This is natural and all part of the resurrection of Syracuse football from the ashes of the Gerg nightmare.

When times get tough around here, it's easy to wonder if we can ever be relevant on the national stage again. I've wondered this many times. A Northeast, private school, in today's college football landscape is not exactly in a great position to compete with the sport's elite programs.

Which is why I always come back to Northwestern.

There are a lot of similarities between SU and Northwestern. Both are Northern private schools. Both have relatively small student bodies - Northwestern with 8,400 undergrads and just more than 10,000 grad students, and SU with just less than 15,000 undergrads and 6,000 grad students. Both compete with conference mates that are much larger and better funded. Both have had periods of success and periods of abject failure. Hell, Northwestern's stadium resembles Archbold Stadium so much they used it to shoot some scenes in The Express.

I remember Northwestern as a bottom feeder that had a brief rise in the mid 90s and promptly fell back to the basement of the Big 10. In fact, it was even worse than that ... the Wildcats actually went completely winless in 1989, and went 5 seasons in a row with 3 wins or less. But over the past 10 years or so, Northwestern has developed into a contender in the Big 10, hosting College Gameday this year and boasting an extremely potent offensive attack, filled with future NFL players.

How did they get here? Well, it wasn't easy. It wasn't quick. And it wasn't without bumps in the road.

Thanks to I took a look at how Northwestern emerged from the rubble of its worst season in program history, and how they eventually made it back to national relevance.

Year Wins Coach
1989 0 Peay
1990 2 Peay
1991 3 Peay
1992 3 Barnett
1993 2 Barnett
1994 4 Barnett
1995 10 Barnett
1996 9 Barnett
1997 5 Barnett
1998 3 Barnett
1999 3 Walker
2000 8 Walker
2001 4 Walker
2002 3 Walker
2003 6 Walker
2004 6 Walker
2005 7 Walker
2006 4 Fitzgerald
2007 6 Fitzgerald
2008 9 Fitzgerald
2009 8 Fitzgerald
2010 7 Fitzgerald
2011 6 Fitzgerald
2012 10 Fitzgerald

The bottom was just as bad for Northwestern as it was for Syracuse under Gerg, if not worse. Gary Barnett had three-straight years of 4-win seasons before the sudden and shocking run to the Rose Bowl in the mid 90s. That appeared to be Northwestern's comeback, but it turned out to be just an aberration before Barnett fizzled out by the end of the decade.

Enter Randy Walker, the next savior. Walker too struggled in the beginning, posting 3 wins in his first season at the helm. He followed that up with 8 wins and again Northwestern appeared to be back. But that was promptly followed by 4 and 3 win seasons. But that's where the work began to pay off for Northwestern, as you can see them start to climb slowly but surely back into the spotlight. A 6 win season, another 6 win season, and a 7 win season.

But then the shocking development. Walker had a heart attack and died before the 2006 season. A tragic loss for the community, and from a pure football standpoint (read: heartless and only about sports), a major setback for a program seemingly on the rise.

Enter Pat Fitzgerald. Now we know Fitzgerald as the star head coach of a rising program. He could probably have nearly any job he wanted, but he's also an alum, so for now he seems locked into the job. Though we know how that can go. But Fitzgerald didn't fire out of the gate with 10 wins. He had to build up from a first season with 4 wins. Then even after jumping to 9 wins, he seemed to be heading in the wrong direction with 8, 7 and 6, before bouncing back last year with the 10-win campaign.

Now let's look at how this all compares to Syracuse. For the sake of this argument, we'll make 1989 year 1 for Northwestern and 2005 year 1 for SU.

Year NU Wins Coach SU Wins Coach
1 0 Peay 1 Robinson
2 2 Peay 4 Robinson
3 3 Peay 2 Robinson
4 3 Barnett 3 Robinson
5 2 Barnett 4 Marrone
6 4 Barnett 8 Marrone
7 10 Barnett 5 Marrone
8 9 Barnett 8 Marrone
9 5 Barnett
10 3 Barnett
11 3 Walker
12 8 Walker
13 4 Walker
14 3 Walker
15 6 Walker
16 6 Walker
17 7 Walker
18 4 Fitzgerald
19 6 Fitzgerald
20 9 Fitzgerald
21 8 Fitzgerald
22 7 Fitzgerald
23 6 Fitzgerald
24 10 Fitzgerald

Many of us thought Marrone would be our Pat Fitzgerald. The alum coming home to resurrect the program. In some ways he did. Marrone got SU back above .500 a year before Barnett did. So in some ways, we're actually ahead of schedule when compared to Northwestern.

Based on this comparison, Marrone would be our Barnett, which means we're still a long way away from being consistently good. So maybe Shafer is our Randy Walker. He'll have some rough seasons, but in time we'll start moving in the right direction.

But I tend to think SU is actually farther along on the spectrum. Marrone's successes were not a fluke. He genuinely had the team moving in the right direction. If he stayed this year, we would be in much better shape, in my opinion. So I think he's more of our Walker. His departure was sudden and somewhat unexpected (obviously nothing like Walker's though).

So hopefully Shafer is our Fitzgerald. I don't know. Maybe he's just learning on the job like Fitzgerald had to. And maybe he'll be better in year 2, like many coaches are. Or maybe our Fitzgerald is the next guy down the line, and this is another inevitable bump on our road back. That's certainly possible.

The point here is that SU cannot go from 1-10 to national powerhouse overnight. I know we all think of 2005-08 as being so long ago, but it really isn't that far behind us. We will have some up years and we will have some down years. We will not steadily rise, gaining 1 more win each year until we're undefeated. At the same time, having one or two bad years in a row doesn't mean our program is doomed forever either.

There is hope. It's been done before. And it will be done again.

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