When Scott Shafer’s Syracuse Orange football team won its last game with him at the helm -- a 20-17 victory over Boston College -- he was carried off the field. With tears in his eyes, he later addressed the media one last time.
Despite the 14-23 record, the man truly cared about the program, the community, the school, the fans and above all else, the kids that played for Syracuse football.
That was the most arresting thing for me when I met Shafer for the first and only time in Los Angeles back in April 2014. With the glow of the 2013 Texas Bowl still on him and the program, it was easy to buy in. Here’s what I said afterward:
“Missy and Scott are the nicest people I've ever met. Seriously. And that comes out in everything they do. From Syracuse community involvement, to the way they feel about the Orange football team's players, to their interactions with alums. On the way out, when Missy found out I was involved with TNIAAM, I got a big hug from her. Any time Scott spoke with me, he had an arm around my shoulder. These people are fantastic, and I hope they're part of the Syracuse University family for a long time.”
That “era of good feelings” would vanish over the course of the next two years. We encouraged Coach to get out of the car every once in awhile, and as the losses piled up, the #IStandWithShafer/#FireShafer divide grew within the fan base. Shafer himself obviously had a side there. We did too.
The previous paragraph is what many might remember first and foremost when discussing Shafer, but that honestly does a disservice to what he achieved at Syracuse -- especially in his earlier days as defensive coordinator. Shafer’s defenses were top-50 in three of his four seasons, and the 2010 unit was a phenomenal seventh overall. His aggressive style made stars out of Jay Bromley, Shamarko Thomas, Chandler Jones, Doug Hogue and Arthur Jones.
Despite Doug Marrone being an offensive mind, that side of the ball didn’t click until his final year, 2012. But part of that was facilitated by what Shafer established with the defense. Even as a middling Big East team, Syracuse matchups were exhausting for opponents because of the relentless pressure applied. Shafer didn’t have a ton of NFL-looking talent to work with early on. But he helped mold a lot of unsung guys into future pros.
That takes coaching smarts, and truly caring about building a program.
Despite my own jokes about Orange recruiting under Shafer, it’s hard to deny his impact there with a straight face. Current standouts Eric Dungey, Ervin Philips, Steve Ishmael, Dontae Strickland, Zaire Franklin, Parris Bennett, Antwan Cordy and more were also recruited under his watch. Dino Babers’s scheme might be more entertaining. But it was also a little easier to hit reset in part because of some very talented players ready to step in.
This is not an apology for how we covered him in the final year and a half. Nor is it an excuse for his poor W-L record as a head coach or the bunker mentality that ultimately undermined his position and success.
But it is a reminder that Shafer did care, even if it was a little too much at times. And despite the finish, the lead-up to that unceremonious end featured quite a bit of good as well.
So when we see him return to the Carrier Dome on Saturday, you’re free to feel a little conflicted. But it’s worth cheering for the guy and appreciating what he did while he was here. Even from my couch, I know I will.