Wilson: Syracuse reaches bowl eligibility after players buy in to Shafer

Scott Shafer’s first press conference at Syracuse was something out of a Hollywood sports movie. There were heaps of clichés — he talked about “controlling the controllables,” the 12th man and, of course, his soon-to-be signature “hard-nosed” — and they spewed from the mouth of the quintessential football coach. The intense attitude, an angry demeanor and unrestrained passion made him the picturesque character to match his lines.

Eleven months and six wins later, Shafer addressed the media once again. He knows the ropes now and isn’t any less timid than when he made his first public appearance as the Orange’s head coach.

“Our creed has always been character wins out,” Shafer said after SU’s season-salvaging 34-31 win against Boston College on Saturday. “We’ll never, ever, ever give up. Never. Never give up.”

Twelve games and a claim of bowl eligibility into the Scott Shafer Era, the goofy, passionate clichés are still there and the first-year head coach has lived up to — and perhaps even exceeded — the monstrous levels of excitement and buzz he generated when he made his first public appearance as the Syracuse head coach. Everything he said then, he’s proved true with his team’s performance during the course of his first 12 games.

Shafer is just the second SU head coach since 1946 to finish the regular season at least .500 in his first season and the first since Paul Pasqualoni went 10-2 during his first year in 1991 — when most players on this year’s roster weren’t even born.

For the first time on Saturday, Shafer spoke about the remarkable challenges that the Orange had to overcome this season. They were the players that Syracuse lost — Ryan Nassib, Alec Lemon, Shamarko Thomas and Justin Pugh — and the apparent lack of talent their departures left it with. The Orange was heading into a stronger conference with a roster littered by first-year starters and an almost entirely new coaching staff.

He didn’t tout his own accomplishments, but putting the season in perspective served as a reminder to the sensational job he did this season. A 6-6 record wasn’t outside the realm of possibility for SU, but a bowl game would be a success considering the losses.

Shafer instead praised his players, whom he called an extension of the assistant coaches. But his assistant coaches are, in turn, an extension of the head man.

“I said, ‘Let’s just win ugly. Let’s find ways.’ If we’ve got to win ugly, we win ugly and we take the criticism on our shoulders and say, ‘It’s OK,’” Shafer said. “The guys have been extremely resilient and the kids are definitely a reflection of the assistant coaches. They have resilience, they fight and that’s the way these coaches are, too.”

For more than 11 minutes after Syracuse’s win, the glimpses of passion that had flashed throughout the year reached a crescendo. He ranted about his players and coaches, the fans that attended the game and the city he calls home — “I love this frickin’ town,” he said. He appreciated the sheer excitement the game brought and the prospect of making Northeast football a presence in the ACC.

The Orange will never be able to recruit at the level that Florida State or Miami (Fla.) can, no matter how much offensive coordinator George McDonald hopes it can, so Shafer is the ideal representation of an underdog head coach.

“We don’t give up. We’re not letting anybody push us down. We’re not taking that from nobody,” defensive tackle Jay Bromley said. “And what we want to instill on the rest of this team for the future is that Syracuse, whatever you want to say about them, they’re not going to give up on nothing. They’re going to be a hard team to face each and every time you face them. We’ll have our bad games, but you better be prepared for our best.”

Marquis Spruill has already played in two bowl games for an eventual NFL head coach in Doug Marrone, but the senior linebacker said this year’s team is the closest he’s ever been on.

For all the wins that Marrone compiled — and there were enough for him to land a job in the pro ranks — the fire was never there. He ran a pro-style program often devoid of personality.

Marrone’s teams were talented and put SU on the right path, but Shafer’s team has a certain character, one that matches the head coach as he continues to lead Syracuse back to glory.

“Coach Shafe used to talk to us about how we could build the program back up and get it back to the level of prestige that it once was, so that’s what we try to do,” Spruill said. “We’re getting there. Three bowl games in four years. We’ve set a bar in the ACC — not a bar as high as we wanted to — but for the first year in a new conference it was good for me.”

David Wilson is the sports editor at The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @DBWilson2.


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