SYRACUSE – Scott Shafer talks the talk – tough talk. He expects his Syracuse football players to walk the walk. It is why toughness is the critical element in his recruiting strategy.
“The five- and four-star guys who say it’s sunny here but not sunny there (in Syracuse), we’re not going to win those battles,” Shafer said. “And I don’t want to. People say, ‘He’s crazy.’ Baloney. I want guys of like-mindedness who want to come here because they say ‘It fits, it feels right and, by the way, I like playing with a chip on my shoulder.’
“And I like the fact that it’s not the sexiest town in the country, because when we get kids to come here, they have to focus in on their values. They can’t go to the beach on the weekend and be here for the wrong reasons. I know that sounds corny, but the people from here, they get that.”
Oh, Shafer certainly knows the Orange – whose proud football tradition was tainted by a 10-37 stretch in the four years preceding his arrival but is a decent 32-31 in the five years since, with three bowl victories in the last four years – still has a long way to go to reach his goal of perennial top-25 rankings. Blowout conference losses to Clemson, Georgia Tech and national champion Florida State hammered home that lesson during a 7-6 season, Shafer’s first as head coach following four years as the team’s defensive coordinator.
“Florida State, you say OK, their horses are way bigger and faster than our horses, maybe we should try to get a couple more of those horses,” he said. “That’s just reality.”
Shafer believes he has taken a significant step in that direction with the signing of 2014’s 25-member class of recruits. It is class that is heavy on receivers – the lack of a legitimate deep threat was the team’s biggest weakness last season – defensive backs and linebackers, meeting the team’s most pressing offseason needs. From top to bottom it is SU’s strongest class in at least a decade, more evidence that the team is on the mend.
That noted, it will likely be ranked toward the bottom of its new home, the ACC. Shafer believes it is more perception than reality.
“The perception across the board in the coaching world is there’s great respect for what we’ve done here,” Shafer said. “The perception from the outside, people who don’t matter and do natter at the same time, is it is still a work in progress. The pundits, the people in the media, the people who get on TV and say the SEC is the best conference in the country even though the ACC just won the national championship. You know that as a coach I always talk about controlling the controllable. Well, as the head coach there are a few controllables I’m trying to get turned, and that’s the perception from the outside in.
“Syracuse has great tradition. Syracuse, you could argue, is one of the top-10 football schools in history. But from the outside in, a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily put us right there. Stats don’t lie, and the data don’t lie. We’re just trying to get it back up to where the perception is reality and vice-versa so we can continue to recruit the kid who fits here.”
Big-City Kids Wanted
Perhaps more significantly than the ranking is the new geographic footprint Shafer and his staff created with this class. It is a departure from Syracuse’s traditional recruiting philosophy of centering on a 300-mile radius (its definition of reasonable driving distance for family and friends) from campus while cherry-picking an occasional prospect from talent-rich states such as Florida and Texas. Instead, it appears that SU’s new strategy is to scour urban areas such as New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Miami, locales that breed toughness.
“Philadelphia kids, Chicago kids, New York kids from the Bronx, from Brooklyn, from Central New York,” Shafer said, describing the “chip on the shoulder” mentality that reflects his own. “That’s the way these kids are used to growing up. And then there are other pockets of the country that have a whole different set of circumstances, but they’re equally strong and tough. I like the Miami Dade kid. He has to get to school, and there’s a whole lot of other things going on for him to get to school. And that kid is tough without even knowing how tough he is because it’s just the way things are. They make damn good football players, and they appreciate the opportunities they’ve given themselves.”
Thus, Syracuse’s Class of 2014 contains only eight players who hail from the Northeast (including quarterback A.J. Long, a Pennsylvania native who played in Tennessee last season). Shafer and his staff have taken their tough-love approach on the road, and it has resonated in some big urban areas east of the Mississippi.
“Collegiate athletics is one of the greatest things this country has going,” Shafer said. “It’s one avenue in which a kid can break the cycle, get out of a situation that was really difficult to get out of and not have to go back, because education changes his life. We offer an unbelievable education at Syracuse, one of the best in the country. That’s something kids can have when they come to Syracuse, and they’re going to graduate.
“Our graduation rate is 77 percent, and 91 percent of our kids in the last four years have stayed in the program. Those are staggering numbers. And that’s our message. You can have the best of both worlds – top-tier degree and top-tier conference. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Shafer’s message will sound familiar to Orange fans, as it is the same one employed by the school’s best coaches over the years, men such as Ben Schwartzwalder, Dick MacPherson and Paul Pasqualoni. Yet, the places he and his staff are spreading the word are decidedly different, a reflection of the team’s new home in the ACC but also Shafer’s belief that some of the sport’s toughest young men hail from the country’s toughest neighborhoods and arrive with a fierce desire to succeed.
Shafer believes that toughness will lead to more victories down the road and Syracuse’s eventual return to the elite of the sport.