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How to fix Syracuse football in the long-term, part 1: What won’t work

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We’re doing “series” again! That must mean something’s going poorly.

NCAA Football: Liberty at Syracuse Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Once upon a time, when the Syracuse Orange football team was just constantly bad or barely bowl eligible, we’d run various “series” on this website about how to fix or save things. Then we went 10-3 back in 2018, and everyone (self included) though things were saved. It wound up they weren’t, as we learned very quickly.

With SU already 1-7 and riding a team of freshmen toward what looks like a (gulp) 1-10 finish, it seemed high time to bring back the series format to talk about the STATE OF THE PROGRAM (TM).

Rather than the usual Sunday thought pieces after games, this is more about how this program can conceivably get back on solid ground — and stay there — in a relatively short amount of time. To get there, we’ll use a format Sean put to use back in 2014. So today, tomorrow and Friday, we’ll explore how to fix (not save) Syracuse football in the long-term in three parts:

  • Part 1: What Won’t Work (Wednesday)
  • Part 2: What May Work (Thursday)
  • Part 3: What Will Work (Friday)

Aspects of these pieces will reference Sean’s previous notes to see how we’ve done regarding the tasks he put forth. Others will be new ideas, forged in the fires of the last six years, dealing with the consequences of the 2018 season and 2020’s unique hellscape. Maybe you enjoy, maybe you don’t. But hopefully, we’re able to generate what should be an interesting conversation for the rest of this week around how to get to sustained success as a program.

As always when I’m handling something, we’re starting with the negative...

What Won’t Work

To me, any endeavor becomes overwhelming if ALL options are on the table from the onset. So might as well toss aside what is virtually guaranteed not to help get you where you want to go, then evaluate more viable options from there. Appropriately, we start with the most obvious point about what doesn’t work. Or at least the most obvious point if you’ve read this site at all since its inception (but especially since I took over).

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Scheduling Tough

Thankfully (in my book), nearly every regular member of this community is on board with scheduling Syracuse into bowl games — something we seemed morally opposed to from 2005-2013. And lucky us, Kevin even did a good portion of the legwork to show how peer programs have regularly done so in recent years, too. Sean’s original piece on what wouldn’t work harped extensively on scheduling. I think SU has certainly gotten better there, but it is worth looking at how the program’s progressed since that 2014 call for change.

Previous years

2015: Rhode Island (W), Central Michigan (W), LSU (L), at USF (L)

2016: Colgate (W), USF (L), at UConn (W), Notre Dame* (L)

2017: CCSU (W), Middle Tennessee (L), Central Michigan (W), at LSU (L)

2018: at Western Michigan (W), Wagner (W), UConn (W), Notre Dame* (L)

2019: at Liberty (W), at Maryland (L), Western Michigan (W), Holy Cross (W)

It should come as no surprise that our best seasons — 2018 and 2019 — in here featured three non-conference wins. They were also the best-scheduled, realistically, since the only truly “unnecessary” game in there was Notre Dame, and that was out of our control due to the ACC contract. I’m certainly not condoning the Liberty game (especially given what transpired this year), but the idea behind the opponent was a good one before considering the complicating factors the Flames come with.

Notre Dame aside, your non-conference P5 opponents should probably come from a list of Rutgers, Purdue, Oregon State, Colorado, Kansas, Kansas State, Vanderbilt, Maryland, Indiana (yes, even with this season in mind) and perhaps a handful of others.

As Kevin already pointed out on Tuesday, here’s what the next six seasons look like from a non-conference scheduling perspective.

2021: at Ohio, Rutgers, Albany, Liberty

2022: at UConn, Purdue, Wagner, Notre Dame

2023: Western Michigan, at Purdue, Army

2024: Ohio, at Army

2025: UConn, Army, at Notre Dame

2026: New Hampshire, at Army, UConn, Notre Dame

This is far more manageable for a program of Syracuse’s caliber and sets the Orange up with a chance to win three most years. Don’t love the 2022 doubling up on P5 teams or having to face Army and Notre Dame in the same year. But you can see an outline of what could work and can continue to improve. We’ll get more into the positives and negatives of what’s already on the schedule in the latter two posts in this series.

Miami v Syracuse Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Going back to the “old uniforms”

Whenever we talk uniforms around here, one constant refrain seems to be that SU should just go back to the old duds from the 1990s. The idea is that if we look like the teams that won a lot of games, then everyone will feel better about things... or something like that. But in reality, what Syracuse, specifically, wears on the field is crucial only in the sense that it has to look like something an 18 to 22-year old kid will find appealing.

“But what about Penn State and Alabama?” you’ve certainly already started typing. The #BRAND for these schools is a lack of excitement in the uniform sets. This doesn’t work for everyone, though, and foregoing interesting — and clearly SYRACUSE — uniforms not only takes you off the radar for some talented players, but also removes a key branding opportunity for the school and program.

When SU wore plain uniforms and plain helmets, this wasn’t as large of a part in the overall marketing equation. ‘Cuse and UVA and Illinois could all look like one another in the 1990s and it was fine because each team was only on national TV a handful of times and not many games were on and there was a limited amount of money to be made on being more recognizable anyway.

That’s changed significantly since then, with multi-million dollar licensing agreements, expensive jerseys, national recruiting, wall-to-wall games airing every Saturday and the increased costs around running a football program that make marketing opps all the more essential.

Maybe don’t change your uniforms every week like Oregon and various other teams. But wear something that clearly signals to everyone it’s Syracuse, and that they aren’t content to don old, plain jerseys. The kids we’re recruiting now don’t remember Donovan McNabb’s college days, nor do they remember when SU was ranked annually. Using uniforms to call back to those days each week is more a desperate fan play. Save that for the team shop online and maybe one game per year.

Relying Too Heavily on New York Talent

In the 2020 recruiting cycle, New York had just one blue-chip player — the same as New Hampshire, Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska. And less than the likes of Kansas and Colorado, among many others.

Being in the state, it’s obviously advantageous for the Orange to be positioned well with high school programs and try to bring in top players when they can. But at the same time, it also shouldn’t be a priority for the program over continuing to expand its footprint and bring in top players in areas like the DMV, Florida and North Carolina.

As of right now, the 2021 class features three New York players. Last year’s had one and 2019 had zero. We’ve seen great players from New York recently in both Andre Cisco and Trill Williams. However, guys like that are the exception rather than the rule.

This year’s results show you can still build a quality class (it’s currently ranked 47th on 247Sports) with New York players involved. But the majority of your top talent is coming from outside the state. And potentially, even outside the Northeast, too. With New Jersey’s top talent also picked over by every Big Ten, ACC and SEC school, SU’s strategy of locating under-scouted prospects in hotbeds has seemingly led to more success finding great players.

If we want SU competing in the ACC, against teams predominantly in talent-rich Southern states, recruits have to come from a variety of places. If you look around online, however, there are still significant conversations about building a wall around this state. Why expend that energy?

NCAA Football: Duke at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Revolving Door at Head Coach

This one’s a tough balance to strike, admittedly.

On the one hand, if a coach is losing, you probably want to replace him. Dino Babers has the 2018 campaign, of course. But along with those excellent memories are also four losing seasons in five tries. Now, all losing seasons aren’t created equal, and I’d argue you could add plenty of caveats in there. Avoiding those, however, you’re still left with a bit of a conundrum on what to do next.

That brings us to the other hand. How to avoid looking like a revolving door at head coach.

Syracuse has had four coaches since the start of the 2005 season: Greg Robinson (2005-08), Doug Marrone (2009-12), Scott Shafer (2013-15) and Dino Babers (2016 to present). Two of those coaches were fired, one left for the NFL and one’s still here. Even leaving out any discussion around a buyout, having Babers replaced this offseason would continue to fuel an image of instability around this program.

That sort of feeling can take down even the most solid of football enterprises, really. Florida State was a well-oiled machine just six years ago. Now they’re cratered and already have a third coach in that timeframe. Oregon’s struggled for footing since Chip Kelly left and Texas hasn’t been able to figure things out since Mack Brown. Alabama once found itself lost in the wilderness for a bit before Nick Saban showed up. Florida’s zigzagged around with hires that both worked and didn’t to various degrees, and Michigan’s been... Michigan for quite a bit now.

While a football factory can take some turmoil — and extra expenses — en route to a better coaching situation, Syracuse isn’t in that boat. There aren’t a parade of star coaches lining up to coach the Orange. More often than not, we’re looking at rising coordinators, G5 coaches or potentially a retread who also could see us as a stepping stone. Once you become a revolving door, it gets harder to get off that ride. And harder to score on the hire each and every time.

That doesn’t mean you accept mediocrity or keep a coach around for appearances either, mind you. It’s simply pointing out that looking like a place that just can’t figure it out with coach after coach makes it look like the problem is you, not the coach. If you look like you really gave each guy the means to win, you have a better chance of making good hires each time (should your success force you to do so).

***

Cool? Cool. On Thursday, we’ll move on to Part 2: What May Work.