Football

From scratch: Shafer rejuvenates career as mastermind of SU’s defensive transformation

Scott Shafer

Scott Shafer climbed upstairs to an empty bedroom and hid. On a visit to his brother’s Ohio home during Christmas break of 2008, Shafer was on the phone in solitary confinement — a floor above scurrying children and chatting family members.

The conversation was more than casual. Shafer and Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone talked for three hours. An exchange of endurance and philosophies, and a shot at redemption for Shafer.

‘I had just been fired at Michigan by Rich Rodriguez, and so I was out looking for a job,’ Shafer said. ‘And I was focused in on trying to find the best guy to work for that I felt had the same philosophical point of views when it came to coaching and coaching kids.

‘I can remember hanging up the phone and thinking: This is the guy I want to work for.’

Blinded by the aura of Michigan, ‘The Big House’ and the Ohio State rivalry, Shafer accepted the defensive coordinator job with the Wolverines three years ago without looking at the rest of the staff.

He learned the hard way and was a coaching causality of the worst season in Wolverines history. His loud, brazen demeanor on the field was not received well by the Michigan defense.

But it also put things back in focus, where he knew he needed to find an ideological match the next time around.

The 44-year-old, born and raised in the Midwest, was a wunderkind defensive coordinator on a torrid climb up the college coaching ladder. A hasty decision led to a speed bump at Michigan. And a stroke of serendipity landed him at Syracuse.

Shafer and his family moved interminably — six colleges in the last nine years — until arriving at SU.

Inheriting an abysmal Syracuse defense, it took only two years for the defensive maestro to catapult the Orange from 102nd to seventh in total defense nationally.

Now, the well-traveled coach enters his third year with the Orange.

‘My wife and I had a philosophy that if we can just chase the coaching profession and chase the dream, and just see where we ended up, by the time our children started to get into high school then we’d slow down,’ Shafer said. ‘And hopefully when we’d slow down we’d be in a good position with good people.’

•••

Attack, attack, attack. Forge utter chaos. When a Scott Shafer defense is on the field, it should not be pretty.

Shafer’s personality permeates his defensive philosophies. He’s excitable. Unabashed. Bold. He takes risks, evidenced by the amount of times he blitzes.

‘Coach Shafer made it specific,’ former SU defensive tackle Andrew Lewis said. ‘It’s always on. It’s never off. When you play for me, your switch is never off.’

In his first meeting with the SU defense, Shafer gave them the straight truth of how defective the unit was in 2008.

No. 102 in the nation in total defense, scoring defense and rushing yards allowed. Sacks were not much better: 101st. Interceptions, 99th.

‘He basically said this is not acceptable, he said our first goal was to cut everything in half,’ former SU defensive back George Mayes said. ‘… And that plan really stuck in our heads because we were like ‘OK, that’s attainable.”

At first, Shafer’s coming-at-you attitude threw the Syracuse defense off guard. Former SU head coach and defensive coordinator Greg Robinson was not at all like that. He coached the defense quietly and ran a scheme that needed smart players.

Shafer simplified it all. Former Syracuse cornerback Da’Mon Merkerson said he allowed the players to speed up their game by reducing the amount of terminology they had to know.

From 102nd, to 37th, to seventh in total defense. Shafer was the savior of the Syracuse defense.

‘That’s why I call him a guru, that’s why I call him a mad scientist,’ Lewis said. ‘Anybody who can take an intricate game like football and turn it into something simple and be successful off of it, got to be some type of guru, right?’

•••

Syracuse is gratifying for Shafer in another way, too. Working with the Orange defense is like déjà vu from his time at Stanford working under former head coach Jim Harbaugh.

At Stanford, the rise in enthusiasm and the change of culture was visible in the zeal the two coaches displayed.

Harbaugh and Shafer did pushups together at practice. They added one pushup per day to the regimen, and it turned into a bout to see who could do more.

Shafer said if Harbaugh was going to get 90, he was going to try and get 91.

‘I knew the reason they were doing it was to instill that competition instinct into us,’ former Stanford defensive lineman Chris Horn said. ‘And it definitely carried over.’

Twelve-play scripts turned into 24-play battles as the coaches tried to one-up each other. The players began to take after their fiery bosses.

If the offense was having a triumphant practice, Shafer would mix up the scheme. He’d throw a blitz that Harbaugh did not see coming.

‘The back and forth was pretty funny, but the competitive nature was definitely awesome,’ former Stanford safety Marcus Rance said.

Shafer liked the Stanford players because of how they reacted when challenged. The intelligent, well-versed Stanford kids took Shafer’s boisterous verbal tones and wanted more.

‘They had a great attitude, and they kind of had that ‘Hey, coach, give me more. Give me more, coach, we can handle it,” Shafer said.

After watching film from the Cardinal’s disastrous 2006 season, Shafer pointed out situations where the defense sat back and was ambushed. And he implemented the ‘camera club.’ Seventy percent of the defense needed to be on screen at the end of every play.

The watershed moment of Stanford’s 2007 season came in the fifth game. Five turnovers, including four interceptions by Shafer’s defense helped lead Stanford to a 24-23 upset over then-No. 2 Southern California.

Shafer left all that after one season to become Michigan’s defensive coordinator, a job that he and his family thought would be a lengthy stop on their dream-chasing tour.

‘When we took that job I think we thought, ‘Oh, well that hopefully will be somewhere we can have success,” Shafer’s wife, Missy, said, ‘‘and be there for the next five, six, seven years.”

•••

By game No. 9, it was painfully apparent Shafer made a mistake.

Heading into a game against Purdue, Michigan sat at 2-6 on the year. The Wolverines switched up their defense to a 3-3-5 scheme.

That’s the defense then-UM head coach Rich Rodriguez’s teams ran at West Virginia. It is not the defense that Shafer runs.

Rodriguez, an offensive coach, was officious in his attempts to work with the defense. Purdue put up 48 points and beat the Wolverines anyway.

‘I think (Shafer) liked his players, he gave everybody pretty much a fair chance,’ former UM wide receiver LaTerryal Savoy said. ‘I just think here, at Michigan, in the situation he was in, I just don’t think he was able to do exactly what he wanted.

‘He had the title of a (defensive) coordinator, but he wasn’t technically having the authority.’

Shafer was an outsider with Rodriguez’s crew at Michigan, most of which were West Virginia followers. For the first time in his coaching career, Shafer plunged into a bad football situation.

‘I went to Michigan for all the wrong reasons,’ Shafer said. ‘I went because it was Michigan. And it was, being an Ohio kid, it was Ohio State and Michigan growing up, and I was a little bit blind, and I didn’t slow down and research who my comrades were going to be, and that was a big mistake.’

The results were poor at best. The Wolverines lost nine games — the most in school history. The defense slipped from No. 24 in total defense under Ron English in 2007 to 67th on Shafer’s watch.

The whole situation under Rodriguez was dysfunctional. The coaching staff did not get respect from the players. Rodriguez was an overpowering head coach in his first year there, former linebacker Ohene Opong-Owusu said.

His coaching style proved unpopular with the players, and that only made the situation worse. Shafer’s hooting and hollering was more comedic for the Michigan players than it was instructive.

‘He was cool, he was a good guy,’ Opong-Owusu said. ‘I don’t think people really took him seriously, that’s the thing.’

Shafer’s fate was clear well before Dec. 16, 2008, when he was fired from his position with Michigan. At the time, he called it a mutual decision.

He also took the blame for the demise of Michigan’s program.

‘Unfortunately, because of high expectations and when you take over a program of that magnitude and the success that they’ve had, there’s limited tolerance on what you can do,’ said Bruce Tall, then-Michigan defensive line coach.  ‘Success. Basically, you’re evaluated solely on outcome.’

Shafer did not get to experience the highs of beating Ohio State or winning a Big Ten title. Ann Arbor did not turn out to be the place he envisioned, the place he could have settled in for a long time.

‘Oh, yeah, there’s no question about that,’ Shafer said. ‘But the profession’s a crazy one, that’s for sure. That’s why you want to surround yourself with good people, and I feel really fortunate to have the staff that we have here (at Syracuse).’

•••

Last Thanksgiving, the Shafers welcomed four SU players into their home. The day was an extension of what Shafer’s family has done for 21 years.

Mayes, Merkerson, Jeremi Wilkes and Mike Holmes did not go home for Thanksgiving break, but the Shafers were not going to let them go without hospitality.

‘They’re part of the family,’ Missy Shafer said. ‘And sometimes you have to still separate — as much as I want to take these kids in like they’re my own kid, and I do, I love all these players, but they’re still my husband’s job. So it’s that fine line that you have to watch.’

It is a comfort level not seen at Michigan, one that the right fit at Syracuse has inspired.

They watched the Detroit Lions-New England Patriots game and played Madden with Shafer’s son, Wolfgang, who is a quarterback for Syracuse-area Fayetteville-Manlius High School.  

And they ate dinner. As a family.

‘He’s almost like a father away from home to us, especially as a defensive back,’ Wilkes said.

Shafer said he would like to be a head coach someday, but in his mind there’s no rush. He’s got a good thing going at SU. It was the first time in years he has a defense with many of his own recruits.

Unlike what happened at Michigan, they understand their defensive coordinator’s vociferous ways. Cornerback Keon Lyn said while Shafer is tough sometimes, and he’ll yell at players, he usually ends his berating with ‘I love you, though.’

‘Coach Shafer’s the man,’ freshman safety Shu Mungwa said. ‘He’s the reason why I wanted to come here, so I mean I’d do anything for him. I love Coach Shafer.’

He learned with his last adventure that rushing into the first big opportunity could be a mistake.

But alongside Marrone, Shafer has revived the SU defense. He’s found a home, too.

‘I think ever since I was young I would love to be a head coach someday,’ Shafer said. ‘But when the time’s right and when the time tells me it’s right.’

mcooperj@syr.edu

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