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Syracuse football: A look back at how the program moved on from ‘legendary’ quarterbacks

Eric Dungey left an impression on Syracuse that might not be fully understood for years. But regardless of where Dungey ranks with the all-time greats, the program has been in the position of moving on in the past.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 Camping World Bowl - West Virginia v Syracuse Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Eric Dungey. Donovan McNabb. Don McPherson.

Or does it go Donovan McNabb, Don McPherson, and then Eric Dungey?

Possibly it’s Don McPherson, Eric Dungey and Donovan McNabb?

There are options to choose from in a debate spreading across the Syracuse Orange fan base: who was the most important signal caller in the program’s history?

Personally, I have it as McNabb first with the real question being which one of the greats comes in at number two.

Kickoff Classic - Wisconsin Badgers v Syracuse Orangemen

Regardless of where you stand on it, though, the dialogue will likely continue for a while. We’re 20-plus years removed from McNabb’s last game for Syracuse and I am not sure his time in orange has been totally put in proper prospective. Meaning that Dungey’s impact can’t be measured so soon after his finale. As John pointed out: “We’ll just have to wait and see if he’s important for what he pulled off in a short stretch, or as the player that ushered in a new era for SU football success.”

And that right there is another fascinating aspect to where Syracuse football is and where it has been. Part of what made the other two so legendary was multilayered. They not only took Syracuse to great heights, elevating the entire program. Their leaving also created massive ripple effects.

There haven’t been many “program changing” QBs on campus over the last few decades. It’s those three and then, a tier or so below, the likes of Ryan Nassib and Marvin Graves—who is often overlooked but was one hell of a player during some interesting times. Fantastic talents the both of them, who both deserve to be mentioned in the recent history of SU football, with several others. But in terms of quantifiable impact on the field and off, (in whatever order you’d like), it’s McPherson, McNabb and Dungey.

So what happens next for Syracuse in trying to continue the progress of 2018?

Well, in the past, it’s been a mixed bag once the Great QB has moved on.

For McPherson, he’s someone who will undoubtedly be tied forever to that magical 1987 season. From Syracuse via New York City, McPherson guided the Orangemen to an 11-0 regular season, including a beat down of No. 10 Penn State and an heart-attack inducing last-second victory over West Virginia. Syracuse finished No. 4 in the country and could have been a factor for pollsters who voted for the national championship had it not been for Pat Dye.

Regardless of that unconscionable decision to kick a field goal over going for it on fourth down, Dye’s Auburn Tigers ended up tied with Syracuse, 16-16, in the Sugar Bowl. (punches desk) That changed the course of the season, but it ultimately didn’t erase the fact that SU was on the map and that McPherson was one of the most dynamic players nationally. He was criminally robbed of the runner-up for the Heisman that season and was a staple of Syracuse for three of his four years on campus. The ‘87 run was the culmination. Or so you might have thought.

Syracuse Orangemen Don McPherson Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Once No. 9 was gone, it was...Todd Philcox time. That’s not a knock on the six-foot-four QB out of Connecticut. Not in the least. It’s just, well, it was unexpected when he helped keep Syracuse at a high level. Actually, Philcox ushered SU back into the top-25, leading the Orangemen to a 10-2 record and a victory over No. 17 LSU in the Hall of Fame Bowl in 1988. He, however, was just a one-year stopgap.

As Syracuse transitioned from McPherson to the future, it was the senior Philcox for a season and then Bill Scharr and Mark McDonald combined the following year. Graves came into the picture in ‘90, helping SU to another 10-win season, becoming a stalwart until graduating after the 1993 season.

What’s really interesting is that while Syracuse tried finding the next McPherson, or a close facsimile, in the coming years it also had to replace Coach Dick MacPherson. Coach Mac left to take over the New England Patriots in 1990, and the school ultimately turned to the reigns over to Paul Pasqualoni.

Major upheaval.

Oh yeah, there was also the whole start of the Big East thing, too.

Yet, even with all of that going on, SU from the late 1980s through the early ‘90s was a rock. With the quarterback (and eventually Coach Mac) gone, the program preserved. It in many ways thrived following the heartbreak of the Sugar Bowl, which is a credit to the work McPherson put in and to how far SU had come.

His is a legacy of creating and crafting, of what Syracuse can be when firing on all cylinders.

Then there is the case of McNabb.

The kid from Illinois burst onto the Syracuse scene in 1995, as the Orangemen opened his collegiate career with a road win at top-20 North Carolina. From there, bowl berths and top-25 rankings became routine once again. McNabb was even a legitimate preseason Heisman contender prior to his junior and senior seasons.

While the four seasons with McNabb running the show never seemed to fully live up to the hype, all falling just short of a wholly commissioned masterpiece, those seasons have since become the gold standard. “Syracuse hasn’t been this fun, this good, this important since the days of McNabb!” The cringe-worthy loses to East Carolina, Minnesota, and N.C. State during that time all selectively washed away.

And after McNabb took his talents to the Philadelphia Eagles in ‘99, things for Syracuse started to unravel.

Donovan McNabb #5

The Orangemen were able to win six games and defeat Kentucky in the Music City Bowl the year after McNabb. Yet, anyone who watched that team also saw a 62-point loss (at Virginia Tech) and a defeat to lowly Rutgers. Blow-outs and bad losses began to pile up. Really, for most fans, the program’s slide into irrelevancy the last 15 or so years coincided with McNabb’s graduating. Troy Nunes (the one and only magician!) and R.J. Anderson tried to replace McNabb, yet there just wasn’t enough playmakers around like after McPherson graduated.

During the post-McNabb stretch there was a staleness to everything. And after consistently getting run out of stadiums in big games, the administration fired Pasqualoni (possibly hastily executed) in 2004, it then somehow hired Greg GERG Robinson (possibly done while someone was high), and after years of losing, saw the partial resurrection of Syracuse football by Doug Marrone and Nassib.

McNabb’s true greatness is measured in statistics and highlight reels, in story-times, and also in how far Syracuse football fell without him. Sure, he had future NFL teammates surrounding him—especially so on defense—and you could argue that the Big East was hurting during that period, too. But McNabb was a microburst ripping through college football leaving gassed defenses as debris. And once he departed, so too did the fun, the winning for SU.

Then 2018 happened.

Dungey finished out a season healthy* for the first time in his career. The Orange earned 10 wins, the first time in 17 years, and SU will finish inside the top 20, maybe even the top 15, another long-time-coming first for the program—McNabb-era stuff.

Dungey proved himself to be an entertaining combination of a brick wall and a gazelle. Through his four seasons playing for Syracuse he repeatedly refused to let plays die. Sometimes that led to disaster, sometimes to near football perfection. It might have been a bit maddening for fans but so too is a good roller coaster. It was this combo of fear and adrenaline in watching him play that made fans want to do it all over again and again and again.

Camping World Bowl - West Virginia v Syracuse Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

So now what?

Without No. 2, what will Syracuse football look like? Will SU continue to rise under the play of redshirt sophomore Tommy DeVito? The highly-touted quarterback might be more “NFL ready” than anyone to ever play the position at his age in Syracuse history. DeVito has a pocket awareness and one of the quickest releases in the country. In spot play against Florida State and North Carolina this year DeVito showed real potential. Hell, from what we’ve already witnessed, SU is probably better positioned to move on from Dungey at QB than it was after McPherson and McNabb graduated.

With DeVito at his peak, will eight to ten wins, or more, become a regular occurrence? What does a Dino Babers coached team look like in year four? Can the Orange continue to climb higher in the rankings? So many questions all coming from what appears to be a cautiously optimistic base.

That’s a credit to Dungey for getting Syracuse out of the dark and into the light of college football again. And what happens next should only add to it all.

Dungey’s legacy could be like McPherson in that his accomplishments helped shape future successes. Like a football forefather of the rebirth period. There’s no question that Syracuse has the talent to keep it going.

On the other hand, Dungey might end up like McNabb—be it with fewer truly successful seasons—in that the program might not be able to obtain the lofty heights climbed this past season. Dungey becoming another Last Great Hope.

The odds of that happening are low given that Babers is sticking around for a bit. And given what’s expected of DeVito. In fact, he very well could place his own name on the Mount Rushmore of Syracuse QBs. In DeVito Syracuse could have one more legendary quarterback to replace once it’s all said and done. Time will tell.