No detail too small in Syracuse makeover

Originally Published: April 20, 2005
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The first sign that life has changed at Manley Field House, the home of Syracuse University athletics, is the question, "Why?" Daryl Gross has asked that question a lot the last five months.

He has asked a question as simple as "Why do we have this logo?" And he has asked one as challenging as "Why do we have this football coach?"

Syracuse is getting a new logo. Syracuse has got a new football coach. And there's no question whatsoever that Syracuse has a new athletic director.

"I'm following a legend," Gross said. "I can't think about that."

Greg Robinson
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIGreg Robinson is bringing a West Coast offense and aggressive defense to SU.

You hear it all the time: College athletics is big business. Athletic departments have eight-figure budgets and bosses who are referred to as CEOs. The title of athletic director is almost quaint, a relic of a time before anyone had heard of a "corporate partner."

Syracuse University has all the trappings of the successful athletic program. The school sponsors 16 sports. The Carrier Dome, a novelty when erected 25 years ago, remains instantly recognizable to sports fans across the country. Syracuse has won an NCAA championship in men's basketball or men's lacrosse in four of the last five years

Syracuse football, however, proves that whether it's the dictionary or real life, it's not a long journey from stability to stasis.

For nearly a decade, Paul Pasqualoni kept the Orange at or near the top of the Big East Conference. Over the last six seasons, the Orange averaged 6.3 wins and 5.5 losses. The former athletic director, Jake Crouthamel, a fixture on campus for 25 years, believed in Pasqualoni and resisted sentiment to get rid of him.

Crouthamel retired and was replaced by Gross. Less than a month into his tenure, Gross fired Pasqualoni.

"The exact formula that made you successful can become habit-forming," said Dennis Gillen, chairman of the strategy and human resources department at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse. "They forget how they got there. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes looks at where it is and what it's doing. [Management expert] Peter Drucker says the very things that make you successful can bring you failure, eventually. It gets to the point where there are things built in that can't be seen from the inside."

Gross is a people person, with a charming patter and a self-assuredness that comes from career success. As the consigliere to USC athletic director Mike Garrett, Gross engineered the hiring of football coach Pete Carroll at USC. If you hired a coach who won consecutive national championships and had a four-year record of 42-9, you would think you had most of the answers, too.

"People are just used to a certain style," Gross said. "Jake had been here 25 years. I want people to manage growth and do great things and have great ideas and not be afraid of them. Jake thought a little differently than I do. I'm not being different to be different, but different to be better."

At Syracuse, different is different. It did things the same way for so long. The university enjoys an insularity that is partly geographical and mostly attitudinal. Canada is 100 miles north. The Catskills are 150 miles south. In the middle, Syracuse athletics is all the fans have.

Syracuse fans are equal parts loyalty and pessimism. They will back the Orange to their dying breaths – and complain about them with every previous one. But it's almost like complaining about a family member because the best coaches at Syracuse don't leave.

Jim Boeheim arrived on campus as a player in 1962, returned as a graduate assistant in 1969 and never left. Last season, he won his 700th game as head coach and took the Orange to his 24th NCAA Tournament.

Three generations of men named Roy Simmons have coached the lacrosse team since 1931. Roy Sr. retired in 1970, to be replaced by his son, Roy Jr. Roy III is currently an assistant to John Desko, who replaced Roy Jr. in 1998. Desko arrived at Syracuse as player for Roy Jr. in 1975. Desko never left, either.

They are the good side of what can happen when you let a coach do his job.

Pasqualoni arrived at Syracuse in 1987 as an assistant to coach Dick MacPherson. When the New England Patriots hired beloved Coach Mac after the 1990 season, Pasqualoni took over. That was the Syracuse way. In his first eight seasons, Pasqualoni went 69-26-1. Over the last six, Syracuse went 38-33.

The hallway of the football building adjacent to Manley is filled with framed sports pages detailing great victories in Syracuse football. The most recent one is from the 2002 season, a 50-42, triple-overtime defeat of Virginia Tech. In each of the last two uncelebrated seasons, Pasqualoni went 6-6.

Gross didn't make the following comment about football in particular but about the business of college athletics as a whole. It explains why he decided to fire Pasqualoni only a few weeks after chancellor Nancy Cantor announced that Pasqualoni would coach next season.

"Instead of saying, 'We can't do this,'" Gross said, "Let's think of what we can be and work back from there. Let's think about what we need to be number one in the country. Let's see what we need and work backward."

Gross worked backward and found Texas co-defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, who had been in Austin after 14 years in the NFL. Gross had worked with Robinson at the New York Jets in the early 1990s, just as Gross had worked there with Carroll.

Robinson is not Pasqualoni, a man who seemed perpetually disappointed that he couldn't spend all 24 hours in his office.

"I knew it had great history and not ancient history," Robinson said of Syracuse. "Hell, they were in a bowl game last year. There were a lot of reasons to find it appealing. The players were ready for a change. They were disappointed in the way their season ended. It shocked them all, the timing [of the coaching change]. They were ready to try something new."

Robinson said it took the Orange eight practices under him and his new staff before the lightbulb began to go on. The offense is adapting the West Coast attack. The defense will employ a more aggressive scheme.

"They're beginning to perform," he said Friday. "The inhibitions are beginning to break down. Everybody wants the guys to fly around and play real hard and execute. That's easier said than done. So many things come into play that inhibit that: mentally, physically, emotionally."

Robinson, a career assistant and defensive coordinator, is still figuring out how to wear the big whistle at practice.

"I'm moving around a lot," he said. "I'm growing into it, I suspect."

After years of the same, the only thing that remains constant in Syracuse football is change.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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