D.A.: Babers Became Syracuse's Perfect Person At The Perfect Time

Syracuse won 10 games – its most in almost two decades – and Dino Babers was the reason why

Damon Amendolara
December 31, 2018 - 4:17 pm

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It's a good problem to have, but also a terrifying one. Your team becomes so successful other programs begin trying to poach what makes you great. Syracuse fans went on high alert as Miami's head coaching job opened after Mark Richt's abrupt retirement. Would the Hurricanes come calling for SU's popular head man? The answer was no, as The U opted for assistant coach Manny Diaz, but the stage had been set. The good news is Syracuse has a resurgent program. The bad news is other people have noticed. 

SU’s win over West Virginia in the Camping World Bowl put an exclamation point on one of the most memorable seasons in program history. Ten wins, finishing the season ranked in the top 20, and a bowl win over a solid opponent is as impressive as any resume in nearly 20 years. The last time SU reached 10 wins was the ’01 team that had three losses, all to top 10 squads, and an Insight.com Bowl win. But that roster was the last gasp of the good ol’ days of the ’90s. Paul Pasqualoni’s bunch had been in Orange Bowls and Fiesta Bowls just a few years earlier, and every season was a battle for the Big East crown. After ’01, the wheels began coming off, recruiting took a dip, and the program lost its stranglehold on northeast talent. Coach P would follow it up with a 4-8 and two 6-6’s before being fired.

2001 would be the last bright light of SU football until this year. Doug Marrone brought respectability, and perhaps with a few more years, he could’ve put the Orange where they are now. Scott Shafer held onto that fleeting success for just one year before plunging back into irrelevance. But “winning” seasons were 6-6 or 7-5 and Pinstripe Bowls and Texas Bowls. 2018 was totally different. Double-digit wins, weeks in the top 25, national notoriety, and a winter destination SU fans were actually excited to visit for a change.

All of this points to Dino Babers. There are few coaches on Earth that could have accomplished this. It took a rare combination of experience, confidence, and progressive thinking. Babers is a lifetime coach, now already in his late 50s, yet has only had the head job at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green before SU. He was deserving of a power 5 job long before this, and so he walked into the Carrier Dome with the pelts of a man who knew what he needed to do. This wasn’t some young 30-something who was learning on the job.

That experience fed his confidence. He was convinced his scheme would work. He was right. He had watched it put up gobs of yards and points at all of his stops over the previous decade. He knew what it took to click. He was confident it would take shape as long as he had enough time. “Belief without evidence.” So he installed the system, he impressed it upon his kids, he found the few on the roster that could make it work immediately, and then allowed the results to sell itself.

In his first year (2016) he beat the #17 Hokies, and actually had the Orange at 4-4 before the bottom dropped out. He had a quarterback that he could make it work with in Eric Dungey. But most importantly he uncovered the single most important player of the rebuild: Amba Etta-Tawo. 94-1482-14. Those stats may as well be engraved on a block of stone outside the new practice facility. The wideout’s ridiculous receiving numbers were largely ignored nationally as a product of a gimmick offense for a losing team. That was missing the point.

Etta-Tawo’s stats were proof to skill position recruits this worked. Babers could now go into any home in the northeast, but more importantly Florida and Georgia and the Carolinas, and point to this line. Son, would you like to catch 94 passes? Interested in 1,500 yards? Want to celebrate in the end zone 14 times? Well, do I have an offense for you. After that year Babers recruiting classes improved in ’17, ’18 and now ’19. His sales pitch has clearly worked.

Babers also did something no one had ever tried at Syracuse: to think new-school. From Schwartzwalder to Coach Mac, P to Marrone and Shafer, the concept was throwback football. Run it, play defense, then run it some more. Ball control, play smart, physical, pound the opponents. Sure there was the Don McPherson and Marvin Graves option offenses, and Donovan McNabb was allowed to sling it when needed, but those offenses were considered conventional by most college football standards of the time. Babers took a chance.

Editor’s note: Yes, Greg Robinson tried to think new-school with the West Coast offense and it didn’t work. But it was mostly because Robinson is a coaching buffoon and has been relegated from winning Super Bowls to high school sidelines. He was a disaster, and we shall never speak of his name again

The Air Raid had worked at Texas Tech and Washington State with Mike Leach. Sure, Art Briles used it at Baylor and Big 12 offenses began utilizing all of those spread concepts. But a northeast team, a former Big East school, the ACC? No, this was not the norm. The idea has always been in colder climates, without the Texas or California athletes, you’re better served playing more traditionally. On the East Coast, including the SEC, they don’t do Air Raid. Babers tossed that notion out the window.

He knew the Dome was an inherent advantage. SU is one of the only FBS programs with a roof over its head. It’s an anomaly in the Power 5. Make it work for you. Instead of smash-mouth, air it out and play video game football. Controlled conditions. Fast turf. No weather. Just throw it, baby. Some old-heads might scoff at this “soft” brand of football. But Babers didn’t care. It won games, it put up numbers, and he could corner the market on the recruiting trail. He needed to beat Rutgers, UConn and BC to the best kids in the region first. He took the “negative” of SU’s rep as an arctic tundra and flipped it for millenials. His pitch: You won’t ever have to play in cold weather. You’ll play indoors here, and then in warm weather across the rest of the conference. It was brilliant.

He has been an incredible fit. He understands the power of social media and viral videos. He uses fun and smiles and jokes to connect with his players, especially recruits. He’s a salesman, in the best sense of the word. Because so is Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney and Urban Meyer. They sell. The best college coaches have to sell all of the time. He’s not just a good interview, he’s a great interview. And more importantly, he embraces the new world of media and young people and how that melds into modern college football.

No one can be sure how much longer Syracuse will have Babers. He has signed an extension, but people around the nation have certainly noticed what he has done on the Hill. The elite jobs didn’t open up this winter so he knew it was smarter to stay put, maybe he's just waiting until one of those comes calling for him. If he has another fine year at SU in '19, USC or FSU or Auburn may send him an offer next winter. And can you really stay at Syracuse if one of those are your other option?

This was a turning point season for SU football. Babers has proven you can win and win big there in the modern era. Sure, he took advantage of a down year in the ACC. Clemson and Syracuse may be the only teams in the final rankings. But the glow will last a long time. For now SU fans can only thank Babers for doing what he has done. Being the perfect person at the perfect time for Syracuse football. And while the fear is he may not last much longer in Central New York, the work he's done will last forever. 

Damon Amendolara, known by his fans as D.A., hosts “The D.A. Show,” from 9:00AM-12:00PM, ET, across the country on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. “The D.A. Show” is known for its unique perspective on sports, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, colorful listener interaction, and candid interviews with athletes and coaches. Amendolara also appears regularly on NFL Network as part of the “NFL Top 10” documentary film series, CBS television and SNY TV. He is a Syracuse University grad and native of Warwick, N.Y.