Any Syracuse Orange fan knows and understands the history and legacy of the number 44 for the football team. It’s ingrained within the fabric of the university and athletic department to nearly every extent possible. It’s part of SU’s identity, down to phone numbers and the zip code. The number 44 IS Syracuse. But again, you know this already.
The powers-that-be at Syracuse know this as well, of course. Yet they’ve forgotten how the number earned its hallowed place to begin with: On-field success. No one’s worn the number since 1998, and 44 was officially retired in 2005. The calls to restore it were immediate and remain ongoing, but the Orange (or more specifically, administrators) have repeatedly botched its return.
DOCTOR Gross pushed back on the idea of bringing it back throughout his tenure. In early 2015, it seemed like it could be back for “standout” running back recruit Robert Washington. And after it was brought back for a couple days, it was then removed and relegated to the current “council” situation with very little detail around it.
The door was reopened in 2019 while current athletic director John Wildhack and Dino Babers were on a nationwide alumni club hype tour, noting that the number isn’t permanently retired, but would be used with the permission of the previous 44s.
Fast-forward two years, and after a hot start (and a strong freshman campaign), questions arose once more about 44 and when it could be given to Sean Tucker. Babers said back in September that he was in favor, but it was up to “the 44 guys” — an Avengers parody in the making if we’ve ever seen one. Now, after the best start for a Power Five running back since Reggie Bush in 2005 (!!!), this is an easy win to give Tucker the number before Friday night’s Clemson game.
Standout Syracuse RB Sean Tucker won't be given the legendary No. 44 as part of the Floyd Little tribute tonight, or at all this year.— Stephen Bailey (@Stephen_Bailey1) October 15, 2021
AD John Wildhack said on @krockcny this AM that it's "way too premature to really discuss" doing that: https://t.co/nnc36zXmUl pic.twitter.com/nq81bnLDS0
Once again, Syracuse — and specifically Wildhack — slips on a banana peel that they placed there themselves.
Obviously there’s more to putting 44 back in the rotation than just “do you want to do it?” and I get that. But Tucker is having an amazing season, wants to wear the number and understands the legacy and history of it for the program. Syracuse, mired in a bit of a tough stretch since 2018’s miracle 10-3 season, could use a little bit of a PR boost. Wildhack could too, if we’re being honest. Yet we’re not just actively shooting down the idea of seeing Tucker wear it this weekend. Wildhack eliminates the idea for the entire year, AND says it’s way to premature to discuss.
Apparently SU Athletics has spoken to the families of Ernie Davis and Floyd Little, as well as Jim Brown and Rob Konrad, and that’s part of how we got here. Brown’s been on the record as wanting to keep 44 retired, though Little was in favor of bringing it back. Also, there are other living 44s out there beyond those mentioned above... something that’s just getting breezed right by with this 44 Guys/Council of 44 business.
While I understand the importance of maintaining positive alumni relations, what does Syracuse really have to lose by giving it to Tucker — the best running back to play for the Orange in at least a decade — right now? What, Jim Brown stops taking your calls? You’re the athletic department, after all, and the ones ultimately in control of who wears that jersey.
Even if you want to continue this charade around 44, do you honestly think that this is what happens at Syracuse around men’s lacrosse’s number 22? That number’s constantly in circulation, used as a reward and a recruiting tool. It maintains its relevance and impact because it’s still in use.
Here, if you’re avoiding giving it to Tucker through at least the end of this year, you’re telling us that the bar is simply too high for anyone to earn it at this point. Or if they can, it’s the culmination of a career and a carrot on a stick that you just keep dangling in front of guys while they’ve yet to see if they can ever actually grab it.
If you’re saving the number 44 until someone’s a senior, you’re almost guaranteed to lose them (to the NFL Draft) before that if they’re good enough to meet these incredibly high standards at this point.
Just give the man the number already. And if alums and/or their families have an issue with it, there’s an easy response: The importance of 44 comes not just from the legacy it had from great players wearing it, but the legacy it can continue to have when new greats don it as well. There’s a not-far-off reality where inbound players don’t even know who Jim Brown is (and that already might be the case). One way to make sure that doesn’t happen to 44 overall is by keeping it alive and on the field, even if sparingly.