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How to fix Syracuse football in the long-term, part 2: What may work

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Alright, these are ideas that have potential, though are no guarantees of extended success

Holy Cross v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

For those that joined us on Wednesday for part 1 of this series, welcome back! If you’ve only just arrived now, here’s a quick schedule for this series of posts around fixing the Syracuse Orange football program for the long-term —

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

Now that we’re past the negatives, let’s progress to the positives. Or potentially positives in the case of today’s article.

What May Work

There are no guarantees in life, and especially not for Syracuse football. Most of you have been around long enough to know at least one of those statements — if not both — to be true. So this list of possibly successful ideas can be just that: possibly successful. Still, even with the qualifier, I do think these steps do have a decent rate of success based on what we’ve observed both at SU and around the country at other schools.

At the very least, pursuing these ideas indicates we’re making an attempt at lasting success and getting this program on more stable footing in the long-term.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Notre Dame Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Spending More Money on Football

The good news is that the current administration under John Wildhack already seems committed to doing exactly this. Since leaving the Big East for the ACC, Syracuse has had to play a little bit of catch-up regarding how it spends money. And specifically, how it spends money on football.

During the 2018-19 season, the Orange reportedly spent $28 million on football, which put them 10th in the ACC. That’s not bad at all, but for context, Alabama spent nearly $70 million during the same season. We shouldn’t be aspiring to be Alabama, of course. That’s foolish. But there’s some validity to spending increasing your chances of fielding a successful team.

That’s also just a chance, though, and you can look at the struggles of various bluebloods as proof of why this just falls into the “may work” category. Schools like UCLA, Cal, Colorado, Arizona State and others in the Pac-12 all spend more on football, yet don’t have much if any more to show for it. Michigan certainly spends more on football, yet can’t finish above third in the Big Ten East. Same goes for numerous SEC teams, several of whom fork over tens of millions of dollars to struggle to go .500 in that league.

The key is to spend more money intelligently on football. So facilities, marketing and promotions, recruiting, coaching and staff salaries... these are what moves the needle for both potential players and fans alike.

Syracuse has an indoor practice facility, but it’s still not really better (nor bigger) than that of any other ACC school. SU spends money on coaches, but not really more than similar programs in the league. Of course, the Dome’s been renovated, but it’s still an older building. One would assume there’s been another locker room upgrade of some sort. The Orange are still just finding neutral ground at best, however, with most progress. Unless they’re willing to make an outward commitment to keeping up with the arms race, closing portions of that gap inherited from joining a true football conference at least a decade later than their peers.

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

Alumni Engagement

You and I know Syracuse has a rich history of football success, with plenty of alums that went on to great careers afterward. But many inbound college students wouldn’t really know that. And even if some SU players didn’t find NFL fame and fortune, they still made a mark on the hill and their experience and presence could be the sort of thing that helps SU stand out when making recruiting pitches.

One of the smarter things the athletic department has done in recent years was a few years ago, when they enlisted the help of noted Orange football alums to record video greetings for signees. That’s an awesome first step that hopefully leads to further engagement between current players and those famous alums. Among the opportunities available to create a clearer association between football success of the past and players who could be part of future winning while making their own possible NFL dreams happen, too:

  • Alumni buddy system - each new signee gets an alumni buddy resource to ask questions about their time at SU, life, classes, the transition to the NFL or other professional field.
  • Regular alumni visits - players like Dwight Freeney, Cam Lynch, Rob Konrad, Kevin Johnson, Donovan McNabb and many others should be guys that current players know personally and look up to as much as possible in the same way that this sort of informal network exists for Syracuse men’s basketball already.
  • Jersey retirements - Obviously if you retire everyone’s jersey, you’ve retired no one’s jersey. But more frequent events honoring the greats at Syracuse only further bridges the bond between the past and present of the program.

Like, ACTUALLY Bring Back 44

The hallowed No. 44 is sort of back in circulation for Syracuse, but still hasn’t been utilized. Like many of you, I’ve been pining to see the number on the field for years, because of what it can hope to be for the program as a motivator for prospective players or successful upperclassmen.

Again, we have a rich history of gridiron triumphs and great individual players. At least a few of those great players have worn No. 44, but the longer we wait for another running back to do so, the less the number matters. We want the number to be part of both our history and our future. Why put a big part of what makes ‘Cuse unique in mothballs?

Will offering up 44 help land a bunch of five-star halfbacks? No, potentially not. But like 22 functions for men’s lacrosse, bringing it back creates an aspirational goal. Maybe an elite player wants to come at some point, under the condition he gets to wear it. Or perhaps someone like Sean Tucker does enough by his junior year that we can’t escape the possibility that he should join that elite list of players that have worn the jersey. Even one player bringing back some of those memories and history could be enough to jumpstart the whole thing again.

If it brings in even one four-star back, it’s probably worth it, no?

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

Firing Dino Babers... or Keeping Him Around for a Long Time

As mentioned in yesterday’s piece, you don’t want Syracuse to look like a place that’s in chaos, with a revolving door of coaches. But you also don’t want Syracuse to be a place that just gets stagnant and lets a coach stay around for too long without much progress either.

If you fire Babers — or any coach, for that matter — you better know who you’re bringing in to replace him, and he better be better than Dino. That’s a crapshoot, obviously, because you never really know how hires will turn out. When you’re Syracuse and you haven’t had the best recent luck with coaches (you’re one for the last three and if you can Dino, that’s one for four), are you okay with a 1-in-4 shot at bringing in someone better?

Beyond just the idea of bringing in someone new, though, are you okay with what it’s going to take to pay for that? And more importantly, is Syracuse as an institution... especially in the wake of COVID-19?

Firing Babers right now could cost upwards of $10 million in buyout money. Tack on another $3-4 million per year to hire his replacement. And another possible $5 million or more to buy out the next coach. Now suddenly you’re in the tank for at least $19 million on football in year one of the new regime before you even play a game.

That doesn’t work for most FBS programs. It certainly doesn’t work for one that has more travel costs than any other ACC school and arguably needs to spend more on recruiting as well given its geographic location and lack of nearby talent.

Let’s just assume you can get a great coach to replace him, however. So perhaps it’s Sean Lewis. Or Clark Lea. Or sitting head coaches who haven’t spent any time previously working at Syracuse like Seth Litrell, Lance Leipold or Jason Candle (among others). It’s not as simple as just changing coaches to change coaches. You have to change coaches and then better arm them with what’s needed to succeed. And the same goes for keeping Babers, too.

See the first item in this article for more there. You need to spend more (SMART) money on football to succeed. Facilities are part of that support system for coaches. Recruiting another. Marketing and promotion another. But the ability to pay assistant coaches and support staff competitive rates does help a ton. It doesn’t guarantee success either, mind you. Yet, the ability to hand over close to a million bucks to an offensive or defensive coordinator provides you with a much greater chance of success with him.

That long-term stability can pay dividends too, if the fan base is willing to have the patience (something that may not be fair to ask them of at all turns). David Cutcliffe took years to figure things out at Duke and now consistently hovers around .500 with a Blue Devils program on solid ground. Pat Fitzgerald turned Northwestern into a sometimes-competitive Big Ten team. Kansas State’s not always that great, but even in the wake of Bill Synder’s departure, they’re something resembling good because of the foundation he was able to establish over time.

I think the comparison’s dated at this point given how much the sport has changed. But think about what Dick MacPherson was able to do here at Syracuse after it took him a while. That stability eventually helped last through an entire head coaching regime after him into the next century (20 years after he’d initially taken the Orangemen job).

This is not to claim that Babers is MacPherson or that he just needs to stick around forever. It’s just looking at some examples of what happens when a coach gets both resources and time to compete and put a program back on solid footing for awhile. You can argue we aren’t right now. Yet 2021 is probably a much better gauge of whether or not that’s true.

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We’re in agreement, right? Great. Now on Friday, we’ll discuss Part 3: What Will Work.