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2008 Big East Preview: Syracuse's next coach

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Daryl Gross can't afford another mistake.

The Greg Robinson story is quite familiar to us in Piscataway. We lived it. For five, long, miserable years, our football program was driven into the ground by a naive outsider. We became the laughing stock of football. Our pathetic, hopelessly inept, completely out of touch coach was widely perceived as a lame duck, and had no luck connecting to sorely-needed recruits in the close-knit, parochial regional football community of the Northeast. Personal connections are everything here, and he had none.

Sound familiar?

If Syracuse wants to avoid jumping off the cliff into Duke-style oblivion, they can't afford to let Robinson ("GRob" for short) make it to year five. To be fair, the blame for the downfall of Syracuse doesn't entirely rest on his shoulders. GRob did not have a lot in the cupboard when he arrived. His 2005 defense would have been ranked highly if it had been carried by even any semblance of offense. Not helping was that Syracuse admissions refused to let in Junior College quarterback Colt Brennan.

That's not to excuse the utterly pathetic, historically miserable job that GRob has done, failing in every imaginable aspect of running a program. Syracuse football is at its lowest point in decades - and how does he react - the first stage was arrogance, but more recently, he seems to have fallen into a sad acceptance of his fate. Let's not forget that Daryl Gross was AAD at USC, and that Greg Robinson came straight from Texas, and had been a long-time coordinator in the NFL. Both probably assumed that they would steamroll the Big East, and would soon be moving on to bigger and better things. Neither realized the difficulty of the task facing them until it was far too late.

Does the Big East need a successful Syracuse? As the last three years have shown, no. Would a successful Syracuse help? A lot more than Cincinnati does, at this point anyway. Syracuse still has enough name cachet and tradition that a successful program would be an undeniable feather in the BE's cap. Practically half of the sports media went to their Communications School (Marv Albert, Len Berman, Bob Costas, Ian Eagle, Dick Stockton, Mike Tirico, Ralph Vacchiano, etc...), and those are people that we need beating the BE drum.

When making its next hire, Syracuse's athletic department needs to ask itself several important questions. Do they want merely to escape the basement, or to aim for the program's former glory? Do they want a retread, or an up-and-coming star? Most importantly, do they want to hire a coach based on his qualifications with Xs and Os, or for a perceived ability to lure top athletes to campus?

The realistic candidates:

Al Golden (HC Temple): If you can't beat them, join them. As a defensive-oriented coach and tremendous recruiter, Al Golden is the next closest thing out there to Greg Schiano. Don't be perceived by his poor record in his short tenure at Temple. The team drastically improved in 2007, and has a legitimate chance to crack .500 this year. Golden is well thought of in coaching circles. He received a late interview for the UCLA job last year, and would be a finalist for any job in the region that may open. Golden would immediately make Syracuse a player in New Jersey and Pennsylvania recruiting, and has consistently brought the best recruiting classes in the MAC to Temple.

This hire, like all on the list, is not without its drawbacks. Like many coaches, Golden may see Syracuse as a stepping-stone towards his next job. Golden is a Penn State alum. Hypothetically, he would probably leave Syracuse if offered a better job. He may even be willing to wait for one to open up, content with his relative success at Temple and not eager to go through another rebuilding process. Obviously, this is all contingent on Temple improving as much this year as they did in 2007.

Mike Locksley (OC Illinois): Locksley has no head coaching experience, but may be the best possible hire on the recruiting front. He could form a devastating 1-2 punch with assistant coach Chris White in the Maryland/Virginia/DC region. After all, he did lure all-everything receiver Regis Benn and cornerback Vontae Davis to a miserable Illinois team. Was rumored to be on West Virginia's short list last year, and is likely the odds-on favorite to be the next head coach at Maryland. Would possibly be the riskiest hire on this list, but has the greatest potential for reward.

Glen Mason (Former HC Minn): Originally from central New Jersey. Went to college at Ohio State, and hence has recruiting ties to two key areas for Syracuse. The safest bet of the list to restore Syracuse to credibility with his zone running attack, but the end of his tenure at Minnesota felt a lot like the end of Pasqualoni's. Safest choice, but with one of the lower ceilings. A serial job flirter ala Petrino. Longed for years to become HC of Ohio State, that possibility is likely dead at this point. Is getting older, and may only have one job left in him.

Dan Mullen (OC Florida): Grew up in New England, so he does have local ties going for him. More importantly, Mullen brings the hot spread option offense to campus, and the pedigree of working by Urban Meyer's side for nearly a decade. Mullen's coaching star has been rising under the tutelage of Meyer.

Turner Gill (HC Buffalo): I expected Al Golden to turn around Temple, but Gill's success, or the very concept that Buffalo would ever not be the worst team in I-A took me completely by surprise. In 2007, Buffalo saw its best season in recent memory, and may be poised to finally contend in the MAC this season. Gill is a Nebraska legend, and until recently served as their quarterbacks coach. He likely has designs on eventually taking the reins at his alma mater, possibly in a decade after Bo Pelini's tenure comes to an end. One can't just jump from Buffalo to Nebraska however. This gifted offensive mind will be looking for a stepping stone program to lead in the meantime. Syracuse is fairly close to Buffalo, and would provide a nice marriage of convenience for Gill; turning the program around while building his resume for Nebraska.

The not impossibles:

George O'Leary (HC Central Florida): Coming off a successful tenure at Georgia Tech, O'Leary was hired in 2001 to resurrect Notre Dame football. Before he would get the chance however, he was forced to resign as errors on his resume came to light. He has subsequently rehabilitated his image by turning around an unsuccessful UCF program. One of his bigger positives is that O'Leary grew up on Long Island, which should give him an understanding of the Northeastern football landscape. He also spent seven years as an assistant at Syracuse in the mid-eighties under Dick MacPherson. O'Leary's main drawback is his age. He just turned 62, meaning that he may not have the patience for rebuilding, and may be inclined to stay in Orlando until retirement and beyond. If he was ten years younger, this would be an absolute slam dunk.

Tim Murphy (HC Harvard): Former Cincinnati coach is highly regarded in I-A football circles. Reportedly wants another chance at a BCS conference job, but is currently in a good situation and won't leave unless it's for the right opportunity.

Norm Chow (OC UCLA): How different would Syracuse's past few years have been if Gross had went with the known quantity and hired Pete Carroll's former top assistant? He may have many local recruiting ties, but his reputation as an offensive coordinator is so sterling that it may be sufficient to bring in elite talent. Just left the NFL's Titans for UCLA, and age is another factor working against him at this point.

Kevin Rogers (QB Coach Vikings): A sleeper candidate. Rogers was Syracuse's offensive coordinator during their McNabb glory years. He left for an ill-timed stint at Notre Dame under Bob Davie, and later ended up tutoring Bryan Randall and Marcus Vick at Virginia Tech. An excellent recruiter of the Northeast who brought many stars to Syracuse, and was beginning to make in-roads in the region for Virginia Tech.

Mitch Browning (OC Syracuse): New Syracuse OC. Worked under Glenn Mason at Minnesota. Might be a choice if Gross wants to keep some semblance of continuity, but I can't imagine why he'd want to. More likely to help ease the transition of a potential Mason hire.

Larry Johnson (DL Coach Penn State): Would probably be a BCS conference defensive coordinator right now if he wanted to, but is comfortable in his current role at Penn State. Might be eying their top job when Paterno retires. Longtime Maryland high school coach with extensive recruiting ties to the region. Impressive resume of developing defensive line talent at Penn State. Father of Kansas City running back Larry Johnson.

Skip Holtz (HC East Carolina): Former HC at UConn. Father was/is a perennial job hopper, and Holtz may have had interest in recent openings at UNC, NC State, and Duke. Probably needs to build up his resume during the next few seasons. Just signed a new contract with ECU, not that it really means anything.

Steve Logan (OC Boston College): Very successful run as HC at East Carolina in the nineties. Was burned out near the end of his tenure there, and might not be interested in another HC position. One of the most talented Xs and Os options available.

The longshots:

K.C. Keeler (HC Delaware): Wildly successful coach at Rowan (Division III), and later at Delaware. The next Brian Kelly? Is a Delaware alumnus, and may not want to leave.

Mark Mangino (HC Kansas): Hear me out. Originally from the Pittsburgh area. Later spent a long tenure as an assistant under Bill Snyder (other Snyder assistants? Bob Stoops, Jim Leavitt, and Bret Bielema). Has had a lot of recent success at Kansas, but it would at least be worth calling him to gauge his interest in coming back east. A glimpse into the future?

Bud Foster (DC Virginia Tech)/Tom Bradley (DC Penn State): Listed together for good reason. Both career assistants and top-notch defensive coordinators have passed on several opportunities in I-AA and mid-majors, as they've been eying gigs currently held by Frank Beamer and Joe Paterno respectively. Both reportedly had interest in the West Virginia opening last year, and may desire some head coaching experience to improve their resumes. Both would likely be out the door as soon as their alma mater came calling, but would likely do a good job before then.

Jon Tenuta (Assistant Coach Notre Dame): Former blitz-happy DC of Georgia Tech. Left of his own accord, and is currently working at Notre Dame while waiting for another high-profile DC gig or head coaching opportunity to open up.

Randy Edsall (HC UConn): May not be willing to leave UConn, especially to another Big East school. Is a Syracuse alum though, so it's at least worth a call. Not the greatest recruiter, but excellent at player development.

Paul Pasqualoni (DC Dolphins): This has bad idea written all over it. The GRob tenure makes him look good in comparison, but let's not forget that while he overall had a nice run, his teams had grown mediocre on the field near the end. After Donovan McNabb graduated, Pasqualoni and George DeLeone consistently failed to land and develop another star quarterback. That created a vicious cycle - his latter teams were consistently mediocre, which made subsequent recruiting classes even worse. Firing Pasqualoni was not necessarily the wrong move. Hiring GRob was.

Pat Shurmur (QB Coach Eagles): Donovan McNabb's QB coach with the Eagles. Is familiar with the college game, having served for a number of years as an assistant at Stanford and Notre Dame. If they want to go the NFL route, this is an underrated choice that sounds better each time I think about it.

Brian Schottenheimer (OC Jets): Another longshot to cover all my bases. Did briefly spent time at Syracuse as an assistant. If that's the sole relevant criterion, I'd have to mention the Ed Orgerons of the world too.

The retreads:

Mark Whipple (Former HC UMass): Was rumored to be in line for the BC job a few years ago, but wound up not getting it. Former QB coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and currently works as an assistant coach for the Eagles.

Ted Cottrell (DC Chargers): Longtime NFL assistant was interested in the job in 2004. Was a defensive assistant for Rutgers under Frank Burns in the seventies, and was interested in the Rutgers job when it opened in 2000.

Kevin Gilbride (OC Giants): From the same part of the woods in Connecticut as George DeLeone, Chris Palmer, Chris Rippon, and Paul Pasqualoni. Oft-rumored as a candidate should the UConn job ever open, and reportedly had some interest in the Hawaii opening last year as well.

Chris Palmer (QB Coach Giants): There's no indication that he has interest in returning to the college game, and he would not be a particularly inspired choice.

Marty Mornhinweg (OC Eagles): According to Tom Dienhart , "Donovan McNabb will play a big role in the selection process" of Syracuse's next head coaching hire. Unfortunately, I have to question Dienhart's credibility, as he proceeds to make an absolutely ludicrous suggestion.

There seems to be no doubt that if Syracuse parts ways with coach Greg Robinson, the school will pick a coach with an offensive background. Figuring that, expect McNabb to make a push for Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.

Mornhinweg has developed a strong Philadelphia offense since becoming coordinator in 2004. His 2006 offense set franchise record for yards (6,103), and Philadelphia's offense ranked sixth in the NFL last season.

The same Marty Mornhinweg that went 5-25 in his two years in Detroit, which was bad even for the Lions? Marty Mornhinweg, an Oklahoma native who has spent the last two decades climbing the Bill Walsh tree of cronyism, would simply be a redux of the GRob error. He does not have experience in the college ranks, and hence, any track record recruiting players from the Northeast. Nor does he possess a resume as a successful head coach. If Syracuse wants to finalize their descent into irrelevancy, he is the perfect choice. If Donovan McNabb really wants to help Syracuse, he should be pushing Shurmur, or even Whipple.

Conclusion:

There is no perfect candidate out there. If there were, he would likely already have the job. I likely made several glaring omissions, and regret any errors in advance.

I'm a Rutgers fan, so of course I believe in demographic determinism and the primacy of recruiting. Great coaching can win a team a championship, but adequate coaching and good recruiting seems to be a much surer way to Zook your way to a winning record. If it fails, you can always look for the next Urban Meyer to coach up the resulting roster. Were I a Syracuse fan, my number one candidate to replace GRob would be Al Golden, who is close to turning Temple into a winning program in the MAC and is an excellent recruiter. Close behind as far as realistic possibilities go would be Locksley, Rogers, Johnson and Shurmur.

What I expect, based merely on inference, guessing, resume, and the hiring of Mitch Browning, is that Glen Mason will be the next head coach of the Syracuse Orange. Daryl Gross knows that if the Syracuse football program does not show significant improvement soon, he will soon be out of a job. He will look for the surest path back to .500 football.