On paper, DOCTOR Daryl Gross did an excellent job as Director of Athletics for ten years at Syracuse University.
- He took over an athletics program that was unbalanced and directionless and turned it into one of the better overall programs in the nation. The turnaround on women's sports in the last decade is especially commendable.
- He is the face you can put to Syracuse's decision to join the ACC and get out of the crumbling Big East before it swallowed SU's future whole.
- While controversial, tactics such as "New York's College Team" and the Metlife games brought newfound awareness to SU and kept them in the conversation, locally and regionally.
- His hiring of Doug Marrone turned out to be a move that saved Syracuse Football, for at least a while.
- He helped make Ernie Davis' life into a movie, brought Floyd Little back into the fold and worked hard to make sure Syracuse was always among the other top programs in the nation in terms of high profile events, announcements and (ahem) uniforms.
But Gross committed one cardinal sin that ultimately did him in. It's not actually anything he did that's outlined in the NCAA's massive report on violations that took place on his watch. The things that ultimately led to his reassignment out of the job. No, his greatest failing was the one he's been perpetuating the entire time he's been here.
Gross never let you feel like he was "one of us."
Now for the record, I abhor the idea of things like the "Michigan man" and running the athletics department at Syracuse does not require someone to have SU ties in order to do it well. Clearly. And you can perform the job well even if you don't go out of your way to be liked by the fanbase. Hell, Gross would probably have been able to write his own ticket had NCAA sanctions not come down so hard.
What I'm referring to is that sense that Gross never quite got what it was to be a Syracuse fan. I've said in the past that Gross saw college athletics for what it is, a business. And that's been a successful strategy at times.
But it's the kind of strategy that values money and branding over rivalry and tradition. He's the kind of guy who would gladly give up a yearly football game against Boston College for the chance to play more often in bigger media markets like Miami or Atlanta. While there are certainly times when tradition can hold you back from making progress, there's also times when a little tradition helps to strengthen the bond between fans and teams.
The laundry list of things Gross did that broke with tradition and angered fans is a long one but the highlights include...
- Retiring 44
- Platinum uniforms
- Dissolution of "Orangemen"
- Moving bigtime football opponents from Carrier Dome to MetLife Stadium
- Seemingly inserting himself into every major Syracuse moment
Gross, and his underling Joe Giansante, would often made belittling remarks such as, "I don't think a lot of people understand the idea of brand" as a way to deflect criticism from Syracuse fans who didn't really care that an ad promoting SU appeared during Dancing With The Stars, especially when the game promoted ended up being a predictable loss on the field.
Gross embodies the Nike Ethos. Brand above everything. Better to be talked about negatively than not to be talked of at all.
Syracuse fans just aren't built that way. It's not that we're backwood yokels that don't understand how marketing works. We understand how the sausage gets made. But we also know the difference between actions that have tangible effect and a lot of shiny bells and whistles that do nothing but distract us from the truth.
Of course, Gross probably never recovered in the eyes of many Syracuse fans when he not only hired Greg Robinson, Destroyer of Worlds, but also kept Greggers on for a season too long. That hiring decimated the Syracuse Football program is ways that it's still trying to recover. On the field, we've seen some success.
Reputation-wise, that battle is still being waged.
The Daryl Gross Era will probably not be remembered fondly. In a way that's a shame because he was actually good at his job. You could make a good case he was better than Jake Crouthamel, who will be remembered in a much better light. Gross did what he thought was best in order to make Syracuse Athletics a recognizable brand. He figured that if he rose the tide, it would life all of Syracuse's boats.
What Syracuse fans would have preferred is if Gross tended to each individual boat first to make sure they could all still float.