While I do try to attend a Syracuse Orange (road) game every year or so, the in-person connections with the team I cover here are still usually few and far between. So when it was announced that SU would be hosting an alumni event in Los Angeles with football coach Dino Babers and athletic director John Wildhack (plus “voice of the Orange” Matt Park), of course I had to make it there.
This isn’t the first time parts of the Syracuse football team has made the trek out this way. You may recall I covered a Scott Shafer event back in April 2014. Then, however, I bought into the future we were all being sold for the Orange. Five years later, it’s a much different situation. We’re buying into a future we’ve already seen clear proof of.
Sitting among some truly historic athletic artifacts at the Sports Museum of Los Angeles, both Babers and Wildhack started out as strong as anyone would when coming off a 10-win season and a top-15 ranking. Coach’s early message, in short? “Sustain what we started.” From Wildhack: “Make a foundation of poured concrete.”
The takeaways were clear: This thing’s just getting started and it’s being built for the long haul so we don’t see a downfall like the program experienced before Babers arrived.
Continuing to establish that foundation is something Dino is heavily invested in too, as he discussed. He told the group that he didn’t get a chance to enjoy the fruits of his labors at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green. But entering year four at the helm for SU, he’s excited to sit in front of groups of fans and alums, and feel the energy and pride in the room. “The juice is strong,” as he put it (and I feel like we should, going forward?). He stressed how important and endearing that was.
On his end, Wildhack emphasized how in year four, Babers is the type of person you want to work with — telling him exactly what he needs and why/what he’s going to do with that additional resource allocation. He also talked about some of the new Carrier Dome details: LED lighting and improved sound system, enhanced wifi, a four-sided video scoreboard as the big “wow” factor, plus upgraded and added restrooms and concessions. Nothing on troughs, however...
Fan experience was at the center of the improvements, but it was also making the Dome a tougher building for opponents (directly tied things to the most recent peak of Orange football in the late 80s and 90s). He also shared that the plan for 2021 and beyond is seven home games per year to take advantage of that environment.
Interestingly, he also said Syracuse’s non-conference schedule was completed up to/through 2023 (admittedly, didn’t hear precisely which). Either way, if accurate, that means our 2022 questions have been addressed somehow.
Speaking of schedules (and no, I didn’t ask any of these questions myself), one attendee asked about games out in California. Wildhack, who said he never schedules a game without talking to Dino first, shared a philosophy we’re pretty familiar with around here: Our previous non-conference strategy was “ridiculous.” The new approach is to add non-conference opponents that are attractive but also give us a chance to win. First, build a schedule that accounts for the ACC’s opponents when considering difficulty. Down the road, home-and-homes with teams like UCLA and USC (and Fresno State and San Diego State) could be considered... but they’re (thankfully) not in the cards right now.
As promised in the headline, the legendary No. 44 was also a topic of conversation, when one alum asked about the status of it (retired/unretired), it seems like we got one of the most direct answers in some time:
Wildhack doesn’t believe it should be permanently retired, but used with permission of previous 44s for a student-athlete that exemplifies characteristics of those that wore the number before. Babers agreed, taking it a step further that he’d write a letter to each of the living 44s (and Ernie Davis’s family) recommending a player should one reveal himself. He’d send tapes and grades too, so they could vote on someone that managed to be both an outstanding citizen, student and player.
Not sure what this means for the vaunted “Council of 44,” but that sounds like it’s unretired — even if not in circulation right now. Making an assumption based on that, it also seems like it’s not a recruiting tool (or at least no freshman would get the number).
While both men discussed a variety of different topics, the other big item was from Wildhack around player compensation. He remains against paying players in the traditional sense (due to the value of all that comes with the scholarship and degree), but restated his desire to explore how you can let players make money from their name and likeness. He cited Eric Dungey as a prime example of one that could’ve done so recently with the Orange.
Personally, I came away impressed with both Wildhack and Babers and their respective abilities to command the room and provide a good bit of insight on where SU is headed — both as a school and as an athletic department. Definitely want to know a bit more about the 44 idea, however, as I’m sure you do too. Curious if it is “back,” then what exactly would it take for them to go through the steps outlined? Maybe that’s an entirely different piece, though.
Regardless, share your feedback below.