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What if: Syracuse football has just been an elaborate comedy troupe show since 2005?

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Spoiler: This is very much not based in fact, which is fine because our reality may not be either

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

I’ll start by saying that this is 100% satire and definitely didn’t happen. But... given the current state of things for the Syracuse Orange football program, and the last 15 years, really, would you honestly be all that surprised?

THE BELOW IS A WORK OF FICTION

It was 2004 and Syracuse had just wrapped up a disappointing 6-6 campaign under long-time coach Paul Pasqualoni that ended in a 51-14 blowout loss to Georgia Tech in the Citrus Bowl. Signs pointed to Orange football struggling whether they stuck with Coach P or not and budgets were tight as the CNY was also shedding fans and money.

Then DOCTOR Daryl Gross had a stroke of genius: “What if we replace SU football with an elaborate comedy troupe show?”

The plan was simple as an idea, but tougher in execution. How do you replace a once-proud football program with a comedy troupe for a season? And more: how do you do it for several years on end with a rotating cast of young (age 18-22) actors, all the while keeping the plan completely under wraps?

Not only that, but how do you find a way to frustrate fans to no end — never climbing the mountain top (obviously, since you’re employing admittedly athletic actors) while also never completely bottoming out? Gross was concerned they could find a proper director. Then, he interviewed Greg Robinson.

Gross found his man.

Pictured: Greg Robinson, director of the “Syracuse Football Production” from 2005-08

Seasons 1-4: The Joker

Robinson, it ends up, was a comedic genius. He quickly discovered that the key to the entire troupe’s act was to first plunge Orange fans to the depths of despair and THEN spend the rest of the time making them feel like they could dig back out. The “Sisyphus Method,” as it was then called — now the “Syracuse Method” — made fans feel as if they were forever rolling a boulder up a hill.

He’d find his star in QB Perry Patterson, who was not originally a cast member (he was on the 2004 team as a player), but embraced the role immediately by completing just 48% of his passes in year one for six touchdowns and 11 picks. Robinson’s Syracuse troupe played their parts to perfection, testing West Virginia in the opener and then shutting out Buffalo in game two. The stage was set for hope, as they lost to UVA by three and lost every game for the rest of the year to go 1-10.

The 2006 season needed to “rebound” but only so much. Robinson once again made Patterson his star with a diabolical plot: Compete against Wake Forest, lose a double OT game to Iowa, and then take three straight to get fans believing again. Once they’re in, drop five straight to lose bowl eligibility, then beat UConn to make it seem like you built on something.

Hope was in the Dome for 2007, as the show had a new lead in Andrew Robinson at QB. ‘Cuse was blown out in three straight to start the year, then stunned a top-25 Louisville team to get everyone right back in (even the D.O. believed it). Then they went 2-10. Always a gambler, Greg Robinson tested fans a little too much in 2008, however. They’d start 2-8 and Gross wanted to go in a different direction. But Greg wanted to go out on his own terms. SU would beat Notre Dame in South Bend, 24-23, before being stomped by Cincinnati in the finale.

Connecticut v Syracuse Photo by Nate Shron/Getty Images

Seasons 5-8: A Bunch of Bologna

Gross brought in a former player to continue the ruse after Robinson. Doug Marrone’s football coaching experience was an easy cover, and he endorsed a different philosophy entirely — living on constant hope, but rarely cashing it in.

Marrone opted to connect with fans using a simple menu of food items (Gatorade, bologna, Dove bars), some smiles and catch phrases (“tremendous”). The extra personality he added as director made him a character in his own right, yet he still quickly found his first starring man in an unlikely place. Duke point guard Greg Paulus wanted to use his extra year of eligibility to “play football” at Syracuse.

Better still, Paulus looked the part and still holds the record for best completion percentage by any Syracuse QB. In year one, he kept the Orange in game after game, and despite a 4-8 finish, Marrone’s group inspired a lot of hope playing tight against teams like Minnesota and Louisville, while also knocking off a top-25 Rutgers squad. The trap was set.

For the next three years, Marrone was gifted with Ryan Nassib as his star. Nassib was not only a great comedian, he was also a solid football player. Marrone wound up bucking the original idea a bit by bringing in good/great football players who were also solid actors and comedians. That led to standouts like Chandler Jones, Justin Pugh and others who wound up keeping the act alive even after the fact by making it to the NFL.

A year two bowl win for Syracuse was enough to give “Saint Doug” all the rope he could want, and even featured an unintentional assist by Kansas State with a late penalty to help seal the Orange win. In 2011, Marrone went a bit “method,” finding creative ways to win (big comeback vs. Wake, a phantom missed field goal for Toledo) and then scoring a huge upset over West Virginia on national TV before dropping five straight to finish 5-7.

Marrone’s 2012 season was his final joke, however. Starting 2-4 with a new offense installed during fall camp, SU won six of the next seven to earn a tie for the Big East title. They won games by the skin of their teeth and also blew out a top-10 Louisville team. He lost to Cincinnati to make sure they couldn’t play in a BCS bowl, and then after the season, he finally delivered his punch line: leaving to take the Buffalo Bills job and harpooning a strong recruiting class.

By taking an NFL job with a team many Syracuse fans rooted for, he’d be able to keep tormenting them from close by. And by leaving after an eight-win season, the job never felt “done,” making the NFL move even more infuriating for Orange supporters. But he helped earn the program an ACC invite, upping the ante on the troupe’s task of remaining competitive while infinitely frustrating all at once.

Boston College v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Seasons 9-11: Hardnosed the Clown

Marrone’s protege was Scott Shafer, who learned Doug’s methods while working as an assistant director (defensive coordinator) in the act from 2009-12, but also wanted to apply his own style. His direction for the troupe was one part real hope and the other, chaotic despair.

To put his stamp on things, Shafer quickly installed a “transfer” star in Drew Allen, then replaced him in week three with Terrel Hunt. This started quarterback issues as a story beat for years to come, even past Shafer’s time as director.

Like Marrone, Shafer also made himself a character in the show, but unlike Marrone, he was a heel. He courted a feud with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, then the city of Atlanta before eventually setting his sights on Syracuse’s media. His character was able to earn sympathy from locals and scorn from media, receiving grace while losing and leading to what some saw as a controversial ouster after just three seasons.

A bowl win in year one — even after various blowouts, including a 56-0 disaster vs. Georgia Tech — set the stage well, and made the next two years a complicated story arc.

After inspiring hope in 2013, SU started 2014 by needing overtime to beat Villanova, and played closer in losses to teams like Notre Dame and Clemson en route to a 3-9 season. In 2015, Hunt would hand over his on/off starring role to Eric Dungey and his understudy Zack Mahoney, who both did a masterful job in Shafer’s final season.

Dungey was electrifying and provided hope for the future, while Mahoney helped test LSU and Clemson in defeats. Shafer provided fiery quotes and cover for the losses, but eight straight Ls in 2015 forced the hand of new AD Mark Coyle. He wasn’t necessarily on board with the whole “replace your football team with a comedy troupe” bit, so losses equaled firing Shafer. But there was one more trick for Shafer: going out with a win over rival BC and getting carried off the field so no one would ever feel certain that moving on was the right call.

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl Practice Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Seasons 12-Present: Orange is the New Laughs

As mentioned, Coyle wasn’t a fan of mailing in football for an elaborate jest, so he hired a legit coach in Dino Babers. Knowing Coyle wouldn’t play along created friction with the administration, however. They “parted ways” before Babers coached a game, installing an alum — John Wildhack — willing to play along, and guide Dino as he merged the act with his desire to win.

Dino took a completely new approach from his predecessors. He went for calling attention to Orange football and inspiring players and fans. This got everyone to buy in pretty quickly, and fantasize about the long game of what could be. An early upset over Virginia Tech in 2016 and a post-game speech did some heavy lifting. Dungey, already a folk hero by this point being injured again sold more promise amid disappointment.

Babers repeated the formula again in 2017. Early struggles led up to a huge upset win over Clemson and another post-game speech. Eventually Dungey was injured, and the QB issues narrative was baked and ready to go as the team got to hit reset again in 2018. Anxiety was climbing, and the troupe cashed in every card.

Syracuse would go 10-3 in 2018, only missing a New Year’s Day bowl due to the Orange Bowl rotation — as was the plan all along. Dungey finally got through a full season and went out a legend. But when he was banged up, Tommy DeVito performed well enough to sell the future once more.

The 2019 season as a first for this comedy act. SU was ranked, dreaming of hosting College Gameday and saw a major influx of season ticket sales. There were REAL expectations and fans were all the way back on the bandwagon like they hadn’t been since the late 1990s... so Wildhack and Dino put the Orange on the road for two straight games to start the year. They started with a win, then were blown out at Maryland to create frustration anew.

Syracuse would go 5-7 in 2019, with various frustrating highs and lows. They played another final card right, though, as Trill Williams (another great football player AND comedian the likes of which were few and far between under the previous director) capped off a thrilling win over Wake Forest in the finale. Once again, the act could sell future success.

The troupe was rewarded for its hard work in early 2020, when spring practice was basically wiped off the map, as was the intended (easy) schedule to get fans bought right back in. Instead, they received a gauntlet of a slate and soon, an unheard of number of injuries. Babers played his cards well again, pushing UNC and Pitt for a half before collapsing, then beating Georgia Tech. The 1-2 start still got to bank on promise, before another loss vs. Duke.

It all led up to last weekend’s loss to Liberty, and a complete fan base meltdown to follow. Where Babers and this iteration of the troupe’s cast excels as a director, though, is in guessing what’s next. A win over Clemson would be an amazing story wrinkle, yet would almost be too obvious. Wildhack’s already said he’s back for another season too, creating even more frustration for fans who may be getting wise to the act in its 16th year.

***

If these last 16 years truly were a comedy troupe at work, one has to ask where the funny parts were. I’d argue that they excel in dark comedy, and that this is really a parody of the previous couple decades of Orange football success. But you could also make the case that I’m the darker parody of the previous decade of Orange football blogging success...