Is MacPherson/McPherson a common last name? No more-so than most, right? So what were the chances that at the same time a legendary coach with the last name MacPherson was guiding the Syracuse Orange football team, his star player would be named McPherson? 800,000 to 1? 4,000,000 to 1? We have statistics professors, right? Can we finally put them to good use?
The latter, Don McPherson, will be enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame this weekend whereas the former, Dick MacPherson will be enshrined next season. Both were a part of the program before "my time" as a Syracuse fan so I don't have the memories to go with the statistics, though I do vaguely remember watching the end of the 1988 Sugar Bowl, but we'll get there. In case you're like me, it's probably a good idea to understand why we're paying respects to these guys, arguably two of the most important figures in Syracuse football history.
If Ben Schwartzwalder is the father of Syracuse football, Dick MacPherson is undoubtedly it's savior. In 1981, Coach Mac took over an SU program that had fallen from a status of Northeastern power to mediocrity. His predecessor, Frank Maloney, had compiled a 32-46 record over seven years, four of which were losing seasons. The last time SU had won at least 8 games in a season was 1967. MacPherson, fresh off a successful seven-year run of his own at UMass, inherited a program in decline with the small task of resurrecting it.
And he did.
It started slow. Coach Mac's first two seasons were nothing to brag about, 4-6-1 and 2-9. But the seeds were being planted for a resurrection. The next three seasons saw winning records, the first time SU had three winning years in a row since 1968. After stumbling to a 5-6 finish in 1986, the Orange needed to make a statement in order to complete the transition back to the upper echelon of Northeastern programs.
Quarterback Don McPherson had yet to make the impact expected of him by this, his senior year. He'd done well, but coming off a couple injuries and a disappointing 1986 season, this year was going to make or break his legacy with the Orange. And make it he did.
All Syracuse did in 1987 was finish the regular season undefeated, including a 48-21 drubbing of Penn State and the immortal 32-21 win over West Virginia late in the year to cap everything off (in which Syracuse ran a 2-pt conversion to win instead of an extra point to tie...remember that). Don't know what I'm talking about? Have at it:
It was a game and a moment that McPherson calls his favorite from his time at SU.
The Orange went on to play the 9-1 Auburn Tigers in the Sugar Bowl. While technically not the national title game (#1 Oklahoma played #2 Miami in the Orange Bowl), SU fans were holding onto some kind of outside hope that a win here could provide the team with a share of the title. Unfortunately for SU fans, they weren't prepared for just how much of a flaming p***y Auburn Coach Pat Dye was.
Syracuse had taken a 16-13 lead on Tim Vesling's 38-yard field goal with 2:04 to play.
Auburn quarterback Jeff Burger then led the Tigers on a nine-play drive that reached the Syracuse 13, but on fourth down - and with mere seconds remaining - Dye sent in his kicker, who coincidentally was named Win.
Win Lyle kicked a 30-yard field goal with one second left that ensured Syracuse would finish fourth in the final poll.
Despite the huge disappointment of the end, it was still Syracuse's best finish since the National Title season of 1959. McPherson would finish 2nd in the Heisman voting that year to Notre Dame's Tim Brown (another ending that Syracuse fans are still bitter about) though he did claim the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm and Maxwell Awards for the nation's top QB.
McPherson led the nation in passing efficiency with a 164.3 mark and set 22 Syracuse records, including the single-season marks for passing yards per game (212.8), touchdown passes (22), and most consecutive games with a touchdown pass (10). Though his pro career never panned out as most hoped, McPherson has found am amazing calling off the field. He's become one of the nation's leading advocates for the prevention of men's violence against women.
Even without McPherson, Coach Mac would continue to see success at SU. SU followed up their 11-0-1 season with a 10-2 year in 1988, finishing the year ranked #13. After that Coach Mac turned in two more solid years, 8-4 and 7-4-2 before leaving to try his hand at coaching the New England Patriots (didn't work out quite as well...).
In his time at SU, Coach Mac went 111-73-5. He took the Orange to five bowl games. He coached some of the most notable players ever to walk through the Dome tunnel including McPherson, Tim Green, Joe Morris, Daryl Johnston, Michael Owens and some guy named Doug Marrone.
So make sure you carve out a little time to salute McPherson this weekend and remember all of this when we're back next year to celebrate Coach Mac. SU football rises and falls like the tide. These two guys were there for one of SU's most notable rises. We've just endured arguably the worst ebb in program history. On the possible verge of another rise to the high watermark, it's good to remember what that takes and looks like.