Syracuse football has produced two tremendous eras in its history.
The one everybody always seems to remember is the Jim Brown-Ernie Davis days in the 1950s and 1960s. From 1956-1967, Syracuse posted a .740 win percentage.
The second great era of Orange football isn’t as highly regarded, and the program didn’t post as high a win percentage, but it did last even longer than the Brown-Davis era. From 1987-2001, Syracuse went 127-49-4, a .717 win percentage. The Orange won at least 10 games on five occasions during that span.
When Syracuse entered the Big East in 1991, it was already on the national stage again, but the entry into a conference solidified the program’s prosperity. The Orange went 75-31 to finish out the 1990s, and then in 2001, Syracuse hit the 10-win mark for the sixth time in school history.
However, Syracuse football hasn’t reached that level since. Over the last 14 years, the Orange have never won more than eight games, and they have done that only twice. Syracuse lost at least eight games eight times in the past 14 seasons, and in the last two years, the Orange went just 7-17.
So much has changed in college athletics, and Syracuse football has struggled so mightily that one has to wonder whether the successes of the 1990s should determine the standards of the program today. At the same time, the challenges Orange football faces today are the same ones coaches Dick MacPherson and Paul Pasqualoni conquered in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In the early 1980s, Syracuse football was irrelevant much as it is in 2016. Actually, that era might have been even worse. From 1973, which was (decorated coach) Ben Schwartzwalder’s final year, to 1983, Syracuse had seven losing seasons and went to just one bowl game. Attendance decreased to the point where people didn’t care about football. At that juncture, it was probably the first time people starting throwing around the excuse, “Well, Syracuse is a basketball school.”
Then, in 1984, Syracuse upset No. 1 Nebraska at the Carrier Dome.
After that victory, it suddenly wasn’t so hard to recruit. Three years later, SU went undefeated. That led to the Orange landing big-name future NFL stars such as Donovan McNabb, Marvin Harrison and Dwight Freeney.
The reasons why Syracuse football has fallen on hard times since 2001 are all valid. Greg Robinson burned the program to the ground in the mid-2000s, and the decline of the Big East didn’t help. Fans both at the game and on the couch couldn’t get excited about an SU-South Florida matchup at noon, and apathy set in again.
Even now in the ACC, the fact that Syracuse is a relatively small private school hurts in football recruiting. The only true private school powerhouse in football is Notre Dame, although in recent years, Stanford, Duke and Northwestern have all had their fair share of success too. (Stanford is a power within the confines of this decade, but not on a long-term basis.)
Furthermore, New York state isn’t a hotbed for football recruiting. In the 2017 recruiting class, there are no five-stars and only one four-star player in the entire state according to 247 Sports. Whereas SU basketball has inroads to New Jersey, Philadelphia and other areas for recruiting, SU football doesn’t. Furthermore, basketball is a much more popular sport in New York City, Syracuse’s No. 1 recruiting location, than football.
Yes, Orange football has overcome these issues before. McNabb was from Chicago, and Harrison was a Philadelphia native prior to choosing Syracuse. Before McNabb, Washington D.C. native Marvin Graves started at quarterback. Being a private school didn’t seem to matter much when the program was successful 20 years ago.
Orange football has gone so long without winning, it’s tough to imagine the program ever competing for a national title again, but that doesn’t mean the fan base should lower its standards.
There are certainly numerous challenges facing Dino Babers in the program’s quest to return to relevance. All rebuilding projects take a long time, so Babers should receive ample years to construct this team, but the 1990s are absolutely relevant in determining Orange football’s long-term expectations.
SU football revived itself once. There’s no reason the program can’t do the same thing again.