True grit: Shafer implements ‘hard-nosed’ culture at Syracuse in 1st year as head coach in ACC

Three yards and a cloud of dust. That’s the way Syracuse starts every practice.

The offense tries to move the ball three yards in three downs while the defense vehemently tries to impede its progress. The winner revels in the glory while the loser is punished with up-downs.

It’s a drill that first-year head coach Scott Shafer learned from legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes while growing up in Northeast Ohio. When Shafer played quarterback for his father, Ron, at Riverside High School in Painesville, the practice fields were all mud, dirt and dust.

Shafer knew that when he became a head coach – a job he’s wanted since before college – he’d make sure his team used three yards and a cloud of dust.

“It’s a frickin’ war,” Shafer said.

The drill epitomizes the brand of football Shafer wants his team to play in its first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Orange will rely on “hard-nosed” football – as Shafer has dubbed it – to succeed. It’s a phrase he has uttered frequently in his first eight months as head coach, while mastering his already adept visor toss and assembling a crew of assistant coaches equally fiery and focused.

Syracuse doesn’t have the raw talent that teams like No. 8 Clemson and No. 11 Florida State possess, but Shafer hopes intensity, relentlessness and toughness will be enough to compete. He expects passion to emanate from every drill, every workout and every game.

“We may not be as big, we may not be as fast,” Shafer said, “but doggonit, we want to play a style of football where we’re knocking the hell out of people and playing a hard-nosed game.”

Defensive line coach Tim Daoust knows all about hard-nosed football. He’s known Shafer for 12 years and believes in his relentless approach. That’s why Daoust unremittingly yells at his players – he feels the intensity will prepare them for the regular season. It’s why he lost his voice just three days into training camp.

During an Aug. 20 practice, the defense jumped offsides during a live-game simulation of a field goal. Shafer lost it.

He threw his trademark white, wide-brimmed visor on the ground in disgust. Those nuances and “controlling the controllables,” as Shafer puts it, are what he believes will determine the team’s success.

Daoust said the visor toss isn’t a new element in Shafer’s repertoire.

When Shafer was a defensive coordinator at Western Michigan, his players even made a compilation video of his best visor tosses.

“The county fair’s this week, right?” Daoust said, completely straight-faced. “We could take him to the fair and he could knock down those little milk pints or whatever they are.”

Much like Daoust, offensive line coach Pat Perles rarely lets his players off the hook. If they make a mistake, they’re always held accountable.

“F*ck you guys,” he yelled to his linemen moments after completing a Shafer-esque hat chuck. They stopped pushing forward into the cushiony orange mats before Perles deemed the drill finished.

Syracuse center Macky MacPherson detailed one drill during which Perles has his players grab 35-pound sand bags, squat and shuffle their feet. Five reps. Twenty seconds per rep. Shafer said games are won in the trenches. Drills like those showcase the hard-nosed mentality he’s tried to infuse into the Orange’s culture.

“It’s not just a gimmick,” MacPherson said. “It’s something Coach Shafer really does believe in.”

Shafer’s wife, Missy, said she hears the phrase all the time: “Don’t you change.”

The Shafers still live in the same house despite Shafer’s promotion. Missy Shafer still shops at Wegmans with a baseball hat, no makeup and a mismatched shirt and shorts.

Just because the team lost a crop of stellar seniors – including star quarterback Ryan Nassib –doesn’t mean it has to change its ways. The approach is unwavering. Do what’s gotten you this far and you’ll be fine.

So they won’t alter too much. But the question remains whether staying the same and being mentally and physically tough will be enough.

The team has bought in. MacPherson described the Orange as an “intense, ground-and-pound, we’re-gonna-impose-our-will-on-you kind of team.”

“#Hard-nosed,” MacPherson said. “It’s nose to the grindstone, blue collar, anything you can possibly imagine. Outwork your opponent and beat him down while you do it.”

It’s no secret. ACC teams are faster, stronger and certainly more skilled from top to bottom than Big East teams. Shafer knows Syracuse is in for a tall task. Doug Marrone’s departure to the Buffalo Bills in January left unanswered questions, and made the conference switch even more daunting.

The Orange is the underdog. But Assistant Athletics Director for Athletic Performance Will Hicks said that’s just fine.

“I think Coach Shafe embraces being the underdog a little bit,” Hicks said. “It gets him fired up.”

That’s who he is. Praise from his players, assistant coaches and wife is consistent. The 46-year-old Shafer’s fusion of passion and compassion is showcased in everything he does, and that blend seems to have permeated throughout the entire team.

One of the staples of Shafer’s approach is that he always holds people accountable and never lets them feel sorry for themselves. When Missy Shafer was diagnosed with malignant melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – while the family lived in Michigan more than four years ago, Shafer told her not to feel sorry for herself. He supported her and helped her, never letting her give up.

“This is unfortunate, it’s tough, but it’s life,” Missy Shafer said. “It’s how you handle it and how you get through it.”

And she did. After getting surgery at one of the premier melanoma-treating hospitals in the country, the cancer was history.

Ups and downs will come in the ACC – just like they did in Missy’s case and in the Big East. It’s a matter of staying resolute and bouncing back.

Shafer took training camp as an opportunity to see how players responded to adversity. He said he was most proud of the team last season, when it dug itself out of a 2-4 start to finish 8-5 by not changing its approach and continuing to plow forward with determination.

Change is the only constant in Syracuse, but Shafer said his team is up for the challenge. He’s not concerned that SU was picked sixth out of seven in its division. He’s more preoccupied with ensuring the Orange finishes on top, despite the seemingly infinite mountain ahead.

“It’s a challenge that we relish,” Shafer said. “We’re not afraid of anybody at Syracuse. Never have been.”

Never back down. Put in the effort and control the controllables by playing hard-nosed football. The rest will work itself out.

“He wants things to be done the right way,” Hicks said, “but it’s all in a positive approach. He’s not going to accept things not being right. There’s no gray.”

Defensive tackle Jay Bromley laughed when asked how many times Shafer says the phrase “hard-nosed” in a typical practice.

“Hard-nosed,” Bromley said, scratching his chin. “Hard-nosed. Anywhere between five,” Bromley paused and laughed again, “and 20. It depends on how we’re playing.”

Bromley said Shafer has to yell at both the offense and defense now, which means he’s shouting “hard-nosed” twice as much as he did as Syracuse’s defensive coordinator.

Even the team meetings are more intense, running back Jerome Smith said, with Shafer at the helm.

“His press conference made someone want to go out and play for him right now,” Smith said. “He has everybody fired up.”

The team believes in Shafer’s approach. Syracuse is confident it can shock some teams. The Orange opens the season against Penn State and No. 22 Northwestern. It faces national title contender Clemson just three games later.

That doesn’t faze Bromley, though. He said confidence is soaring and the players truly believe they can leave a dent in the conference. When asked about his realistic goal for the season, Bromley said he wanted Syracuse to win the ACC championship.

It sounds farfetched to an outsider, but those inside the bubble are starting to believe in Shafer’s ways. Maybe they can shock the world.

If Syracuse finds itself in a third-and-goal situation with the ball on the three in the game’s waning minutes, Shafer hopes both the offense and defense will know exactly what to do.

Finish how they start every practice – three yards and a cloud of dust.

Banner photo by Ziniu Chen | Staff Photographer