Greetings! I hope you are well. Did you happen to catch The Walking Dead last night? That was a hell of an episode, wasn’t it? For the record, I’m going with “not really dead” in case you were wondering. But enough small talk, let’s get down to business. The business today is Syracuse University football, and our head coach, Scott Shafer.
It’s been fairly discouraging to see the shortsightedness of many members of the fanbase, many of whom demand instant gratification and lack the vision to see what’s coming down the road. These are the people who look only at the team’s record, and don’t see anything beyond wins and losses. While these people are certainly entitled to their opinions, I think you’d agree with me that it’s the wrong way to look at both the long term potential of a program, as well as the people shaping both the culture of that program and the young student-athletes trying to get it back on top.
I’m firmly in the camp that believes Scott Shafer’s seat should be far from “hot” right now, and that he should be able to coach at least through 2016. You may agree with me on this; having not publicly commented on it during the season, it’s obviously impossible for any of us to know what you’re thinking right now when it comes to Scott Shafer’s future as the head coach of the Orange. And you know what? You shouldn’t have to comment. I remember back in 2004 when your predecessor came aboard, and gave his public support to then-head coach Paul Pasqualoni…only to turn around and fire the long-time coach a couple months later.
That’s not a very good way to do business, and I think you’d agree. I also think that if you come out and make a public statement, there’s the risk of drawing even more attention to a perceived problem. Perhaps you haven’t said anything because you don’t feel like it’s the kind of situation that needs to be addressed. I’d like to think that you’re so firmly behind Scott Shafer right now that you feel commenting publicly would unfairly shine a negative light on a man you’re planning on keeping around anyway, thereby creating drama where you don’t see any. It’s one of those situations where you might be thinking, “Why would I comment on something that’s not an issue?”
Obviously, I want to see success in the win column for the Syracuse football team. So does every other Orange fan. But even in losses, I’m seeing growth from a very, very young team. Stephen Bailey of the Post-Standard pointed out this morning that nearly half of the players on the team’s depth chart are in either their first or second year of college football. That’s almost impossibly young, yet those young men are going out there and competing every week.
They competed with LSU, albeit in a game we never had much chance to win. The loss to USF was tough to stomach, but were it not for a late hit penalty, I firmly believe the tide would have turned and the Orange would have at the very least tied things up on the next drive. A fourth quarter face mask penalty was the difference in the overtime loss to Virginia. This past week, against a good (No. 23 in the most recent poll) Pittsburgh team came down to a fake punt that was executed, unfortunately, to perfection. Otherwise, the Orange are either marching down the field to get the last second victory, or headed to overtime again. What I’m saying is, this team may be 3-4 right now, but it’s obvious to anyone watching without an anti-Shafer agenda that the team is making strides. I hope you’ll allow this coaching staff to continue making strides as this extremely young team matures, with more young talent added to the mix in the recruiting class of 2016.
I’ve spoken to several parents of the team’s current student-athletes, and without hesitation, they’ve told me they believe in Scott Shafer. These are the parents of the young men in your football program, whose sons love their coach and want to fight and win for him. The parents trust this man with their children’s well being, and I’ll be perfectly honest: a number of the young players are on the verge of pulling a Jimmy Chitwood. You’re a Midwest guy, you know Hoosiers. But for anyone who doesn’t get the reference, this is what I’m talking about:
People might think I’m exaggerating things here, but I assure you, I’m not. You run the risk of losing some of the most talented young players this program has had in awhile, along with a number of commitments for 2016, by losing Scott Shafer. I know that retention is a huge deal in college athletics, and if Shafer is shown the door, retention will take a big hit.
What people don’t understand is that building a program takes time. Yes, Doug Marrone left us in a better place than he found it, but it was far from a complete turnaround. People forget that, prior to a hot streak to end the 2012 season, Marrone’s teams were 19-24 and had suffered an epic collapse to end the 2011 season. He did good things, but Scott Shafer wasn’t exactly inheriting a finished product. Yet despite losing a record setting, NFL quarterback and the most prolific pass catcher in program history, along with an offensive coordinator and the bulk of the coaching staff, Shafer took the team to a bowl game the next season. Last season was so riddled with hugely impactful injuries that it’s impossible to really judge Shafer’s performance, because he was missing so much of his team for so many stretches.
The Orange finally have what appears to be a solid new offense installed (albeit one I’m sure a few people wouldn’t mind seeing tweaked a little, but it’s vastly improved). Shafer has built up a strong group of offensive playmakers who have been thrown to the wolves, but will emerge stronger and ready to compete over the next few years. The defense has struggled, obviously, but it also has to be noted that the team lost eight starters from a year ago, and is playing an incredible number of freshmen and sophomores who will continue to grow and improve.
This is a program that is not very far from being competitive and winning games. Hell, they’re already competitive. The losses have basically come from young players making mistakes that most would attribute to youth and inexperience. That will come, and so will the wins. But if the program gets blown up and we’re forced to start over, now that will be disastrous.
I’ve always firmly believed that a football coach needs four full years to implement his systems and find players to fit those systems. So far, Shafer has had 2.5 years to work with, and only half a year to get the current offense installed. These things take time, but then you already know that, given what you told the Post-Standard after being hired this summer:
“You can bring a coach in who’s absolutely the wrong fit for an institution. You can bring in a coach who’s a great fit. Look at Rich Brooks at Kentucky. When I got there, he might have been there three or four years and we were struggling. And the fan base was, like, ‘You gotta make a change! You gotta make a change! This is terrible!’
“I remember sitting down with Mitch Barnhardt, the athletic director, and we were saying, ‘What are we going to do here? This is an issue.’ And we said, ‘We need to give him time.’ The next thing you know, we’re upsetting Georgia and we’re going to five straight bowl games.”
That’s a quote that gave me tremendous faith that you’ll allow this head coach to see this through, at least for another year or two. I believe you’re an athletics director who “gets it” and sees the potential of these young players. And I’m sure you know how badly they want to win for this coach.
For the time being, I’m going to keep rooting my ass off for the Orange, because despite what so many want to say, the season isn’t over. It’s a tough road ahead, but there are winnable games left on the schedule. A bowl appearance isn’t out of the question, and if we can rally down the stretch, this entire debate will have been rendered pointless.
In the meantime, please know that myself and a great number of other Syracuse fans stand with Scott Shafer. We very much hope that you do, too.