Is Orange Playing Tough to No. 1 10 Grand Short of Full Enough, AD Coyle?

Nov 17, 2015

Back when he arrived in our city to take over the college athletic program to which so many folks attach so much of their civic pride, I wrote a welcome to Mark Coyle in this space with the wish that he concentrate on a task that could and should go a long way toward heads held higher.

Please fix Syracuse football, is how I closed that column of June 24.

That was when this third football team guided by Coach Scott Shafer still held the high hopes that senior quarterback Terrel Hunt would return from his season-ending injury and lead this Syracuse University squad back to its third bowl game after last year's 3-9 nightmare.

Now, after Saturday's brave but seemingly inevitable 37-27 loss to No. 1 Clemson in the not-packed Carrier Dome, the pretty in that please has evaporated with the awful that has stuck on the snowball that has rolled downhill into a 3-7 record.

With two ACC games left, on the road Saturday at North Carolina State and home the Saturday after Thanksgiving against old former Big East rival Boston College, you've got a big decision on your plate, sir.

Will Scott Shafer return for season No. 4?

Perhaps you've made it already, and you're waiting for the right time to let everybody know which way you're going with this thing. Or maybe you're still looking at all the factors. Because a good man's livelihood is on the line here as well as the future of the program.

Let us again ponder what you have been and may be still.

Moments before kicking off against No. 1 Clemson, and there are plenty of empty seats in the Carrier Dome.
The players and their families love Shafer. Their devotion and loyalty signals that the coaches treat them with respect and wisdom. Yet there's also the fact that he and his staff have given them a chance to play at a Power Five conference, when for most of them, their other offers came from colleges further down the college football chain of influence.

Proponents for a coaching change say it's time to get a staff in place that can regularly fight for players who also have a chance to go to the Clemsons and Florida States and Alabamas and Ohio States of the game. (Like Robert Washington, the running back who picked Syracuse over Florida for a projected 2016 signing, but backed out of his oral commitment after a disagreement with the assistant coach who was his main recruiter.)

But will those pick-of-the-country players ever want to come to a working-class environment with so much snow, a university where statues of football greatness just unveiled come from decades when their parents weren't even born?

Another platform pontificates that the level of battle to seek is recruits considering more mid-level conference rivals Pittsburgh and Virginia and Georgia Tech, players that you can then coach up to fit your style of play.

But can you consistently beat the smooth talkers from the other schools with the same plan, and out strategize them in the classroom, and teach your players well enough to beat their players more than half the time, to make a bowl game every year and a good bowl game sometimes and a great bowl game once in a while and a conference championship and playoff appearance more than a pipe dream?

And then there's the matter of how performance factors into interest in the program, contributions and turnstile count, too.

Syracuse scores to pull within 7 in the third, and it's a game for all.
This much I saw Saturday, when the team everybody has called the best in the country at this moment, with Heisman Trophy candidate Deshaun Watson running the show, showed up in the Carrier Dome. The attendance was announced at 36,736, some 10,000 below capacity. That's beyond ill. Watson led those Tigers to a quick touchdown, and then junior transfer walk-on quarterback Zack Mahoney -- again playing because freshman Eric Dungey is out with a head injury -- fumbled on the first play, and Clemson scored again to go up 14-0 before two minutes had gone by.

But Syracuse showed plenty of heart, forever battled hard, tied the score 14-14. When Mahoney scored on a 12-yard run in the third quarter to pull the Orange within 31-24, the Dome got loud with hope. 

It didn't work out, for many reasons. Talent gap, weird plays, odd judgment calls.

Yet those still on board, still attached, are ready to jump back in in a flash. Waiting and wondering.