Spending time on the Syracuse campus last week, I had the chance to interact with people from various schools and departments. While opinions varied on the value of the new promenade and the basketball team’s Final Four potential, there was one topic that seemed to be universal.
The notion that Syracuse Orange AD John Wildhack is going to do a great job.
We’re still in the honeymoon phase of Wildhack’s tenure (he was hired in July) and perhaps we’re all just hopeful that he sticks around for more than one year (unlike some other people), but on a local level the longtime ESPNer is saying and doing all the right things so far.
I had a chance to follow up on our conversation with Wildhack in July and talk with him again now that he’s had a few months to get the lay of the land, meeting him in his office at Manley Field House last Friday.
The obvious question? How’s it been being the person in charge of Syracuse Athletics?
“It’s been fun. It’s been a fast, furious three months, but I really am enjoying it. All aspects of it. There’s no question that we made the right decision.”
Wildhack says he hasn’t had any big surprises so far. Because of his sports business background, he already knew the lay of the land and had enough relationships with the school and staff that he was able to accelerate in the onboarding process.
But of course, that doesn’t mean SU has made it easy on the new guy. He comes to the university at a time when serious changes are on the horizon. The Carrier Dome is on the brink of a major renovation that could end up changing the roof, the layout, and potentially even the name.
Wildhack says the school continues to be in the planning stages in this “incredibly complex” project. He says “it’s gonna take time to arrive at the right plan,” but Wildhack is excited about the potential for what he considers “one of the iconic buildings in all of American sports.”
As for the major sports program that plays inside that iconic building, Wildhack also has to deal with the impending departure of legendary Syracuse Orange coach Jim Boeheim. Although Boeheim and SU announced that he would retire following the 2017-2018 season and Mike Hopkins would finally be elevated to head coach, there have been rumblings (from Boeheim himself) that the ironclad agreement isn’t quite so iron or clad.
I posed the question to Wildhack and his answer was right down the middle. He said he came to Syracuse and that was the understanding he was made aware of. He knows that there are certain deals in place and “That's the basis I’m working from.”
I don’t want to put words in his mouth but I couldn’t shake the feeling that his answer was definitive in a potentially-not-definitive way. He said it’s the understanding he’s working with, but didn’t exactly say this is a dead issue. Again, Wildhack backed up the assertion that Boeheim is done in 2018, but....we’ll see.
And then there’s the Syracuse football program. For years now the squad has been seen nationally as an under-performer and local fans have reflected that in poor attendance. Does Wildhack have faith in Dino Babers to be the guy who will finally turn it all around?
“Regardless of whatever profession he was in, he’d be successful. He’s a really smart person who happens to be a really good football coach. I think we’ve seen this year the potential of his system.”
The AD was also a big fan of Babers’ post-game speech after the Virginia Tech win. The “genuine, real moment” was not only great for the current players but the coverage it generated for the program was “impactful.”
As for the current incarnation, he understands that this team is a young in progress and that progress is just beginning.
“We’re incredibly young. We don’t start a senior on defense. [Against NC State] we played a chunk of the game with four true freshman on the defensive line simultaneously. I mean, that’s unheard of in the Power Five. And yet they competed very well and competed very, very hard.
“I’m optimistic about the future of the program under Dino’s leadership. I think when he has a chance to get in a few recruiting classes that fit how he wants to play on both sides of the ball, I think we’ll begin to achieve the success that we covet.
“I feel good about this year in terms of starting to build that foundation. And you can’t have success without a solid foundation. Now let’s build upon it.”
Because there’s no way that someone from TNIAAM couldn’t bring up Syracuse football scheduling, I asked Wildhack what he thought about the balance between scheduling high-profile games against opponents SU is less likely to beat vs. scheduling in order to build the program. He seemed to feel as though there’s validity in both approaches but the Orange certainly need to be more strategic in how it’s done.
“Anytime we’re a part of a national broadcast, I think that’s good. I think it’s good for the brand. I think it’s good for the Syracuse University. So I’m a proponent of that. There’s so much out there in the college football landscape...in terms of content, so when we have the opportunity to a part of a telecast that’s a national telecast, I think that’s good.
“I think we need to have a strategy. It starts with your conference, because the number one objective is to be competitive in the conference. The number one objective is ultimately to win your division. If you have aspirations of playing into January, well step one is you have to win your division. We happen to have the pleasure of playing Clemson and Louisville and Florida State every year. Arguably, this is as tough a division as there is in the country. That’s fine. That’s where we are, that’s who we compete with. The conference is deep. The ACC is a quality, quality football conference.
“Knowing that, what do we want to do from a non-conference perspective? We want to play good caliber opponents. At the same time, we need to balance. We’ve got eight very competitive [conference] games. Nine when we play Notre Dame. We also want to have the opportunity for us to have some success so I don’t want to over-schedule. It’s something Dino and I have talked about.
“I’d like to see if we could play some of our more traditional rivals. We played UConn this year. I’d love to play Rutgers. Temple. Maryland. Army, who we’ve scheduled a four game series with.”
Rutgers is an interesting choice, because some would argue it’s not worth the risk of losing to a regional recruiting rival. However, that series does get SU back into New Jersey and, let’s face it, the Knights looks pretty beatable right about now. If you like the UConn series, you’re probably good with a Rutgers series.
From there our conversation veered across the many other sports that SU currently plays, excelling at a top level for many of them. Wildhack has a strong commitment to helping coaches and student-athletes to maintain those levels of success as much as possible, on and off the field.
What about helping sports that SU doesn’t actually play right now at the Division I level, like baseball or men’s hockey?
“At this time we have no plans to add additional sports. I think what’s most important for us right is that in the twenty sports that we compete in is let’s focus and make sure we’re providing our student-athletes and coaches with the best opportunity to have success.
“If at some point it makes sense and there’s an opportunity to add a sport, we’ll certainly look at it.”
We ended our conversation with a look to the state of the nation. Donald Trump has spoken a lot about making sweeping changes to immigration and many people who come to America looking for opportunities are wondering if those opportunities are still going to be there. Some of those opportunities are sports-related and Syracuse University has a large population of international student-athletes playing all kinds of sports, from basketball to lacrosse to soccer. Will SU have to change the way it conducts business with international student-athletes now?
“Syracuse Athletics and Syracuse University will be a safe space for anyone who wants to be here.”
That notion was backed up the next day when I was watching the SU Football team get thumped by Florida State. An advertisement appeared on the big screen with Wildhack and student-athletes talking about how Syracuse is a welcoming environment for LGBTQ student-athletes. That notion that all are welcome and SU will be there for you was reiterated over and over.
Whether it’s about immigrants coming to SU for a chance to change their lives, LGBTQ students looking for a safe environment to be themselves, or just any student-athlete who wants to excel on the field and in the classroom, John Wildhack seems committed to making sure that’s the case. He’s only been on the job for a few months, but so far, so good.