We all knew this wasn’t going to be easy.
Over the past two weeks, we as SU football fans have really been put through the wringer, haven't we? I mean, we went from finally achieving confidence and assuredness in our program following a blowout bowl victory, to the uncertainty of possibly losing our head coach, to losing our head coach, to quickly regaining stability with HCSS, to having that stability immediately thrown out through the departure of Nate Hackett. Add all of this drama to the toil of a four-year climb out of the depths of the FBS, and it’s no wonder many of us are feeling the weight of what seems to be a never-ending stay in a bizzaro state of football purgatory. When is this going to end?…Will it ever end???
Indeed, our journey as a fanbase over the past decade has been a long and burdensome one, and if you will forgive me for being incredibly nerdy, this state of seemingly-constant purgatory leads me draw an analogy to The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri’s novel documenting the physical and spiritual journey from hell through purgatory and ultimately to heaven. It's not much of a football read, but it's great for drawing obscure comparisons!
For those of you who know the book, its title is a bit misleading, for there is nothing at all comical about the story. As SU football fans, we can relate…we too have been on a journey from hell and through purgatory, sitting tantalizingly close to college football’s version of "heaven" – the Top 25. Also, like the title of the story, there has been little to laugh about during the last decade of SU football, unless of course you want to chuckle embarrassingly about our own version of the "ten circles of hell" -- 2005 through 2008 -- where snowballs literally caught fire.
For three-and-a-half years under Doug Marrone's leadership, we continued to toil, not entirely sure where we were headed as a program. Yet starting with a late October game in Tampa, everything started to change. It felt like the 1990s all over again when winning seemed easy and the top 25 was our domain. We stunned teams on the road, and dominated them at home. By December we realized a certainty that hadn't existed in a long time...that we had very good football team. It took almost four years, but on that cold day in the Bronx, we finally seemed to have all the characteristics we needed to get back to the top. We were competitive, hard-nosed, and most of all, stable.
...stable...damn it Doug!
To have the rug pulled out from under us like this is crushing, and reading the reactions to the news of the past few days has clearly indicated to me that a large percentage of you are pretty pissed at how things went down. "Marrone’s an ingenuine hypocrite", an "opportunist", and ultimately a "traitor" for poaching a key member of the coaching staff. I’m not here to debate whether any of you are right or wrong, but the emotions appear strong and raw from even the most pro-Marrone posters.
Personally, I am angry too…but not at Marrone or Hackett directly, but more so because of the realization that the path to the top-25 has once again been obscured by the departure of these two men whom I was wholly confident would stay along for the ride for at least a while longer. I don’t begrudge either man for pursuing their dream and making the right economic decision for their families…I just kind of liked these guys and was really looking forward to celebrating more success with them leading the way.
Back to The Divine Comedy, my feelings toward this unexpected obscuring of our seemingly straightforward path back to the top 25 has been captured brilliantly in one of Dante's more profound passages:
"I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost. Ah me! How hard a thing is to say, what was this forest savage, rough, and stern, which in the very thought renews the fear."
I’m angry because quite frankly, I’m scared. Scared that SU football remains a delicate work-in-progress, and in the savage, rough and stern world of college football, the slightest turbulence could "break" us once more and send the program straight back down to that place that I never want to experience again. Look, I know that we are in a much better place as a program now than we were in 2008, but that hellish past is still too recent and raw for me to ignore it completely.
So what do I do now? For one, prepare for more toil in our unique world of purgatory as we sort out the rest of our coaching staff, and continue to hope that our recruits stay strong with their commitments to the program. But hey, we’ve been "toiling" for so long as fans, one more offseason should be nothing, right?
Beyond that, I/we must simply trust that the foundation that Doug Marrone and Nate Hackett have left behind will remain strong enough for Scott Shafer and his staff to achieve stability in the immediate term, and allow us to prepare for another successful season next fall. The reality is we’ve lost two coaches, but still have a talented, competent football team on campus more than able to win football games in the ACC. Zach Allen and other recruits are staying the course. We also now have an opportunity to bring in people who can offer more to areas that were not great strengths of the program under Marrone…a more assertive recruiting approach that is less dependent on the JUCO world would be an upgrade.
So as we pick up the pieces and prepare to toil just a bit longer as a fanbase, we have to find a way to put the anger and fear aside and admit that our particular struggle back to paradise as a mid-sized private university will continue in much the same way it always has…with an acceptance that the path back to heaven will never be straightforward...it will never be easy. Leave that fantasy land to Alabama fans.
Yes, two important men have left us, but 90 or so remain who are committed to continuing our upward trajectory as a program next season. I, and we, have no choice but to stop focusing on those who have departed and go back to trusting in, believing in, and supporting those 90 who remain…most of whom are the ones actually doing the running, passing, blocking and tackling, and are actually pretty damn good at it.
We all knew this wasn’t going to be easy. But despite the pain, I'll gladly continue this journey through good times and bad. I love this team too much...I wouldn't have it any other way.