I Still Don't Know What To Make of Dino Babers

Ed. Note: This was submitted by Jeff Parrotte

Dino Babers has one of the toughest head coaching gigs in the P5. It’s a point that national figures have made multiple times over the years. ACC-quality talent from within 50 miles of campus is a once-a-year occurrence at best, there’s more competition in traditional Northeast recruiting grounds than in previous decades, and blue bloods recruit nationally for blue chip talent that in the pre-internet days would only be regionally noticed. And then there’s the issue of being a have-not financially among conference peers.

With all of those challenges, the outside observer might look at Dino’s 36-49 record at Syracuse and think, "Yeah, seems about right." Others may just take the easy way out and think "Why are they keeping him around?" Football knowers might argue that the team is actually improving, and the growing staff and added investment to facilities, no matter how slow they’re moving, are signs that HCDB is doing a pretty good job. As for me, a guy from the internet, I can honestly say that after watching most of the 85 games of his tenure here (I skipped a few of the 2020 games to preserve my already fragile mental health), that I still don’t know what to think.

While it’s never been confirmed (and Syracuse is a private school, so they don’t have to), the long-held assumption is that Babers is under contract through the end of the 2024 season. In reality, because Syracuse is already working on recruiting the 2025 class, this means that Athletic Director John Wildhack has to make a decision by late November. Either he must extend Dino or fire him. (If Dino has already been extended, this point is moot.)

Does Dino deserve to be extended? That boils down to what the fans’ expectations are and what the athletic department’s expectations are. In his most recent press conference, Wildhack said a bowl game every year is the baseline. While Dino has only made two postseason games in seven seasons, he’s gone 5-7 twice, and in 2017 had some good things going. COVID year aside (and there’s evidence that COVID restrictions made it incredibly difficult for Syracuse to build a cohesive team that year, so these results can perhaps be somewhat discounted), the Orange have been consistently and frustratingly mediocre. Which, sadly, is better than the Scott Shafer era.

To Dino’s credit, he’s shown willingness to adapt, if slowly. The base 4-3 defense that was prone to giving up far too many big plays was scrapped for the 3-3-5, a scheme built on misdirection and weird angles that better suits the type of talent available to the Syracuse Orange. The Baylor-inspired "Orange Is The New Fast" offense was both figured out by opposing defensive coordinators and failed to attract the speed needed to run it at a high level, prompting the offensive staff to quietly scrap the approach for somewhat more traditional tactics.

But then there are Dino’s faults: excessive secrecy, questionable game management, over-reliance on coaches he knows, and inconsistent player development. A have-not like Syracuse football needs to be different and take every advantage it can. Whether Dino is doing enough is ultimately unclear.

If Syracuse is "not bad" this year and makes a bowl game, that’s probably fine. Extend Dino for a couple of years and see if he can keep doing it. Advanced metrics like SP+ suggest there’s 6 or 7 wins on the schedule, so that’s a reasonable benchmark. Syracuse will need a new QB next year, and if they can stay consistent and make another bowl, we may be on to something. An okay 6-6 baseline works because "consistently not bad" can become a magical 10 or 11 win season if everything falls into place. What more can we as Syracuse fans ask for?

Dino just has to get it right this year. And that’s ultimately the problem – this is Dino’s 8th season coaching Syracuse football. Slow builds are rare in the modern college game. Has Dino hit his ceiling or is there still room to grow?

I really don’t know the answer to that, even after 85 games and years of spring practices and fall camp. It’s a weird thing to have to ask now, deep into Dino’s second contract. I feel like the 2023 season will give us definitive answers – it pretty much has to.