Chase Gaewski | Photo EditorFootball
‘Shakes and intimidates’: After lifetime of learning, Scott Shafer ready to apply lessons as new head coach
Scott Shafer learned it in his teaching methodology classes at Baldwin-Wallace College, in the inner city of Akron, Ohio and on an Indian Reservation in Arizona. He watched it every time his father hugged his hulking Riverside High School football players, tears streaming down their faces, on senior day.
All of it defined Shafer’s understanding of football, coaching, and perhaps more importantly, teaching. It led him to a life as a football coach, where for the last 22 years he’s applied a lifetime of learning and experiences. Shafer, Syracuse’s newest head coach, is stepping into a role he started preparing for decades ago.
He exudes passion for the game through this intensity on the practice field and his fiery pregame speeches, which he says are more for him than his players. His emotions are rooted from the lessons his father taught him and a playing career cut short by injury. All of it has shaped Shafer’s coaching philosophy.
“He is by far the most passionate person about the game of football that I have ever met in my entire life,” former Syracuse linebacker Derrell Smith said.
Shafer’s father, Ron, was the head football coach at Riverside High School in Painesville, Ohio before he died at the age of 53.
Shafer said he would watch his father shake his players’ hands on graduation day, or give them those hugs on senior day. And when he realized he could have that much effect on someone’s life and be paid to do it, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“The greatest thing I learned from him is that you actually do have an opportunity to touch peoples’ lives, and give them a chance, because of their abilities, to make a difference and elevate themselves as young men and people,” Shafer said. “That’s the greatest thing about this job.”
So Shafer, who said he was always in the backyard throwing around a football or a baseball when he was growing up, decided he would continue to stay outside on the field.
After a year at Ohio University, he transferred to Baldwin-Wallace College. He was a quarterback for the football team, but injuries often crept up. Shafer had surgery the middle of his junior year, and made it back for the final game of the season.
It was the last game he would ever play.
During a scrimmage in the last part of training camp for his senior season, he threw a post route to one of his wide receivers, but got hit in the knee. It required another surgery.
His wife, Missy, was his girlfriend at the time. She told him it would make him a better coach. And it did. It helped Shafer understand what a player feels when he suffers the same fate, and Shafer knows exactly what to say when he does.
“When I have a kid in my office who’s in the same situation, I can tell him my story,” Shafer said. “And tell him, ‘You’re going to be OK.’”
An education major at Baldwin-Wallace, he took teaching methodology classes that he said were boring at the time but valuable now. He learned different approaches to teaching, which meant he learned different ways of getting through to his players.
After he graduated from Baldwin-Wallace, he went on to Indiana to work as a graduate-assistant coach and earn his Master’s degree. Part of his fieldwork was to immerse himself in the inner city of Akron where he spent time with Thomas Lewis, a wide receiver at Indiana and eventual first-round draft pick by the New York Giants.
Shafer said the more time he spent with Lewis, the more he listened to the way Lewis viewed things, the more it helped him as coach.
During his time at Indiana, he was also sent to live on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation in Whiteriver, Ariz., for more fieldwork. It was a completely different environment than anywhere Shafer had ever lived, and yet it was the same.
The kids on the reservation liked to play basketball as much as they did in Akron. It was a new culture that molded his understanding of teaching and coaching. Wherever he was, he learned to “keep it real” with recruits.
The inner cities of Chicago and Miami are two of the areas where he’s spent the most time recruiting. When he goes into kids’ homes and talks to them, Shafer understands how they see things because he’s been there and studied it.
So when Shafer helped bring stud recruits like Garrett Wolfe and Michael Turner to Northern Illinois, one of his early coaching stops, he knew how to reach them.
“He brings in the right recruits, he has a good rapport with all the players,” former Syracuse defensive end Mikhail Marinovich said. “Everyone loves him.”
All through his coaching career, that’s been a common theme. Several of his former players said they played hard for him because they respect him so much. The proof is in the results of Shafer’s teams.
“It was a pregame speech for the defense but even the offensive guys on the other side of the locker room would get fired up about it. That’s the type of intensity that he brings to the program.”
Nico Scott, Former SU defensive back
Shafer said he views the field as a quarterback, and develops schemes based on what he hated when he played. Press coverage on the outside, pressure packages that look like they’re coming from one side but come from the other, showing a blitz but then dropping into coverage, it all gives quarterbacks fits.
In 2004, Western Michigan was 1-10. Shafer arrived as the defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach in 2005. In 2006, the Broncos went 7-4. Shafer’s defense led the country in interceptions, sacks, and was 11th in the nation in total defense.
In 2006, Stanford was 1-11. When Jim Harbaugh, now the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, took over in 2007, he hired Shafer as his defensive coordinator. The Cardinal finished 2007 4-8.
Lance Anderson was Shafer’s defensive tackles coach that season, and said the program started to turn around in 2007. Much of it had to do with Shafer, he said.
“He drove the kids to play hard and believe in themselves,” Anderson said. “That’s what really started to build the program. That kind of attitude, that kind of intensity.”
But it also goes back to how Shafer learned to teach. Shafer learned how different environments shape the way kids learn.
Smith, his former linebacker at Syracuse, said Shafer fits the system to his players, rather than making his players fit the system. That also enables him to play the best players he has, even if that means putting a true freshman on the field.
“He’s a master at that,” Smith said. “He’s a master at teaching.”
Smith was a redshirt junior when Shafer joined Doug Marrone’s staff at Syracuse in 2009. He watched Shafer transform another defense.
In 2008, the season before Shafer arrived, Syracuse ranked 101st in total defense and 101st in scoring defense. In Shafer’s first season, the Orange improved to 37th in total defense, and 81st in scoring defense.
And in 2010, Syracuse had a top-20 defense. The Orange was seventh in total defense and 17th in scoring defense. Syracuse finished that year 8-5, its first winning season since 2001.
Shafer’s become known for his fiery pregame speeches to his defenses, but the entire team usually ends up listening. Shafer said they’re his opportunity to let off some steam before the game so he can clear his mind and think. Regardless, they have a discernible effect on his players.
“It was a pregame speech for the defense but even the offensive guys on the other side of the locker room would get fired up about it,” former SU cornerback Nico Scott said. “That’s the type of intensity that he brings to the program.”
Now his pregame speeches, which he says he might adjust now that he’s the head coach, are for the whole team. They help him connect to his players and challenge them.
The day Shafer learned he was going to be the Orange’s next head coach he was at the American Football Coaches Association conference at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, Tenn.
Moments before Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross called to offer the job, Shafer’s wife, Missy, ran into Floyd Keith, who gave Shafer his first full-time job as the secondary coach at Rhode Island.
When Shafer accepted the offer from Gross, memories flooded his mind. He thought of his father and his mother, he thought of his wife and his kids.
The day before he left Nashville, word of his hiring having already spread throughout the convention, he met up with more people from his past.
There was Danny Roushar, now the offensive coordinator at Michigan State, who worked with Shafer at Rhode Island and Northern Illinois. There was Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State’s defensive coordinator, who worked with Shafer and Roushar at Rhode Island and Northern Illinois.
Tim Daoust, Syracuse’s defensive line coach, then walked in. Then Jason Rebrovich, a defensive assistant for the Orange, joined. After a little while, Shafer’s past and present collided. The people who shaped him were right there with him.
He said the feeling of being Syracuse’s head coach has sunk in. Everything he’s learned, from Ohio to Arizona to all his coaching stops in between, led to this.
He’s the head coach at Syracuse. He has more players to reach.
“The team won’t just play to win the game,” Smith said. “They’ll play to win the game for Coach Shafer.”
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