Managing Editor’s Note: This summer, Brad Bierman will begin his 40th season covering Syracuse sports. He has covered SU first as a student, and then a longtime radio broadcaster living in and outside of Syracuse. For the past 22 years, he has covered the Orange as a columnist for The Juice both in print and online, serving as Editor in Chief since our switch to online-only in 2010. This month’s columns will focus on his experiences following Orange athletics.
Item: The 2014-15 Syracuse sports season calendar kicks-off as it did for this columnist way back in September of 1975, with a home football game against Villanova.
One thought we can guarantee you; that a Syracuse-Villanova football game played in deteriorating Archbold Stadium some 40 years ago would be broadcast live on TV anywhere would have been considered preposterous in the days of a scant few weekly ABC regional and national game of the week telecasts, with only the biggest of programs (Penn State, Nebraska) having even a tape-delayed broadcast available to its legions of fans.
The Aug. 29 opener to Scott Shafer’s second season against a now-lower tiered Villanova football program will be available globally (and let’s face it, expected to be) on ESPN online/digital platforms as part of the ACC’s all-inclusive rights deal with the network, and is simply one of the many profound changes we’ve seen over the college sports landscape in the last four decades – the games have turned into needed programming inventory on some platform somewhere, benefitting any viewer who wants to tune in.
When Syracuse opened the 1975 season, Frank Maloney’s second (of seven seasons) after replacing the legendary Ben Schwartzwalder, there was some optimism based on new recruits starting to contribute (three freshman started in ‘75 and 19 dressed for the opener) following a 2-9 mark the year before, and an era in which only 11 bowl games were played. Other than conference champions, a team needed to win at least eight-nine games to even be considered for a bowl invitation.
Syracuse was a 14 point favorite in that season opener against fellow Eastern Independent Villanova. The Wildcats, blown out at Maryland 41-0 the week before, led at one point 17-0 drawing boos and cat calls (sound familiar?) among the Archbold patrons who witnessed seven Orangemen fumbles and a blocked punt on the afternoon.
Behind reserve QB Jim Donoghue who replaced the starter Bob Mitch, SU rallied to take a 24-17 lead, only to have the defense called for pass interference with 17 seconds left giving VU the ball on the SU two yard line with the potential to score and add a game-winning two-point conversion, stunning the crowd.
But one play later, Villanova fumbled for its sixth time and the Orange recovered to hold on to win.
Syracuse, would in fact, start the year 3-0 also defeating Iowa at home and at Tulane, something only two SU football teams have done since. The 1987 unbeaten team under Dick MacPherson knocked off Maryland, Rutgers and Miami-Ohio on route to an 11-0-1 finish, while the 1991 squad, Paul Pasqaloni’s first season, beat the SEC’s Vanderbilt and Florida along with Maryland in its first three games, and it’s something that this year’s ‘Cuse squad is likely to be favored to do against FCS member ‘Nova, Central Michigan on the road, and those pesky Terrapins again, this time in the Dome – before facing Notre Dame Sept. 27 at MetLife Stadium.
While the 1975 team did finish 6-5, an impressive last-second victory over 19th ranked and eventual Peach Bowl-winning West Virginia, was negated by a dismal upset loss a week later against a Rutgers team that was still playing a non-major college schedule, and it would take Maloney four more seasons before he would return the program to post-season play in 1979’s Independence Bowl, a season in which the number of bowls jumped up to 15.
Now, of course, there are 39 bowl games for 76 teams in the first year of the “Power Five”- driven College Football Playoff era, and as Coach Shaf looks to guide SU to a third straight bowl appearance for the first time since 1997-99 and a self-proclaimed minimum goal of eight victories in a second ACC season, in this 40th year of covering Orange football we’d add a return to the top 25 for the first time since 2001 as another next step in returning the program to national prominence.