Orange Watch: The greatest modern era in Syracuse sports history

We’ve been fortunate to have covered Syracuse University sports in one form or another since before Jim Boeheim became head coach of the basketball program.

It was the last year that he served as one of Roy Danforth’s assistants, a year removed from the school’s first-ever, out-of-nowhere trip to the Final Four in March 1975.

Heck, it’s been so long that the first team we witnessed in person as a Syracuse visiting opponent was Villanova, in Division I football, not basketball.

Therefore, our 37-year perspective happens to be unique, and when we hear talk about the greatest this or the greatest that when it comes to Syracuse sports (football, basketball, lacrosse), there is undoubtedly no question over what was the greatest one year (plus) period in modern ‘Cuse athletics history; the 14 months between March 1987 and May 1988.

In that time frame all three programs either competed for, or achieved, a national championship, and all three programs were directed by eventual hall of fame coaching inductees in their respective sport.

Nothing can top those dual hat tricks in one compacted time frame in the modern annals of Orange athletics, and the incredible ride began and ended in the Carrier Dome with Syracuse playing in NCAA Tournament competition on its own court/field, unheard of today for basketball and the lacrosse Final Four.

» Share your memories of this incredible era below

March 1987-The Orangemen played the first/second round of the NCAA basketball tournament in the Dome for the second straight season, following the swan song of the Pearl Washington era in the stunning NCAA loss to David Robinson and Navy the year before.

After dispatching Georgia Southern and Western Kentucky to finally win consecutive tournament games in the Jim Boeheim era, at the conclusion of the win over WKU, Rony Seikaly rushed down the sideline water bucket in hand chasing down the coach explaining afterwards, “to get the monkey off his back (ending the NCAA one and done streak) we washed it off,” to a giggling media room audience.

The thrill of beating Dean Smith and mighty North Carolina, a team with seven future NBA players, in the East Regional final the following week at the Meadowlands, quickly morphed into the realization that it was three short days to prepare for a trip to New Orleans and the Final Four.

We know how close the title almost tasted that night against Indiana, only to be denied so painfully.  Poetic justice was eventually served 16 years later in the same building when the 2003 champions got “those four seconds back.”

» More Orange Watch with Brad Bierman: ACC basketball tournament format makes no sense

September 1987-January 1988-Coming off the excitement of a trip to the NCAA championship game the previous spring, and off a football season that had been unexpectedly 5-6 the year before, the consensus going into Dick MacPherson’s seventh season was that with Don McPherson running the option, and nose tackle Ted Gregory anchoring the defensive line, the team would be better, and contend for a bowl game as an Eastern independent.

No one foresaw a 5-0 start with three of the games on the road, as Penn State came into the Dome in mid October for a nationally televised CBS game.  An off week beforehand only increased the Super Bowl-like amount of hype counting down to the game that Orange Nation believed would end the 16 year losing streak to the disliked Nittany Lions.

The first-play-of-the-game, 80-yard freeze option beauty from McPherson to current wide receivers coach Rob Moore made the score 7-0 with 14:50 on the first quarter clock (a record that would be hard to ever break – scoring a TD in 10 seconds), and the noise inside the building is still the loudest we have ever heard.

A close second would be the noise under the Teflon top six weeks later following the two point conversion that beat West Virginia to preserve an 11-0 regular season hours after accepting a Sugar Bowl berth.

The exhilarating win kept slim hopes alive that if #1 Oklahoma and #2 Miami tied in the Orange Bowl (ties were still the rule in ’87 much to the chagrin of any ‘Cuse fan) and #4 SU beat Auburn in New Orleans, an undefeated, untied Syracuse could steal the national championship.

Well, Pat Dye played for the tie, and the best MacPherson’s Eastern champions could accomplish was a #3 final ranking from Sports Illustrated.

Just to see the name “Syracuse” in the rarified air of the sport’s heavyweights in a final ranking is a sight we wonder if we’ll ever see again.

» See the top 15 SU basketball players of all time

May 1988- A year before in a locker room at Rutgers Stadium following an 18-15 semi-final loss to Cornell in the NCAA Tournament, a freshman midfielder from (amazingly beautiful) Victoria, British Columbia named Gary Gait, clearly upset and frustrated that his first college season had come to an abrupt end, said to the media, “We’re not going to lose another game while I’m here (at Syracuse).”

You can excuse Gary if he missed his mark by one lousy, one-goal loss to Johns Hopkins in the first game of his junior season, but other than that blemish, the Orangemen went 42-0 the rest of the way under the master guidance of Roy Simmons Jr. and the athletic brilliance of the current women’s lacrosse coach and his twin brother Paul, winning three straight national titles.

The first of which occurred in the cozy confines of the Dome, which happened to have been named the host site for the 1988  finals two seasons prior, the NCAA intrigued if fans would come to upstate New York for indoor games.

After demolishing Navy 23-5 in the opening round, pesky Penn played SU tough in the semi-finals.  Gary Gait’s first-of-its-kind slam dunk “Air Gait” goal from behind the cage in the second half is still watched daily on YouTube today, but it took Paul Gait’s goal with three seconds left in regulation to stave off a huge upset 11-10.

The subsequent methodical 13-8 winning margin in the finale over surprising Cornell was not only revenge for the previous year’s defeat, but capped off an incredible 14 month run for SU athletics.

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Brad Bierman

About Brad Bierman

Now in his fifth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.
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