Item: We are still stunned a day after his death Tuesday in Syracuse at the age of 86. Simply, Coach Mac was a one-of-a-kind persona who positively touched the lives of everyone he came in contact with, and as a bonus resurrected the great tradition of Syracuse football.
We still vividly remember the initial general reaction, “Dick MacPherson, linebackers coach for the Cleveland Browns? Never heard of him.”
Virtually no one among the media or curious onlookers who made their way into the original Dome first level special events room for a hastily-called press conference between games of the 1980 Carrier Classic doubleheader (Syracuse beat Kent State then lost to Maryland the next night) had heard of the football coaching lifer, who had previously served as head coach at Massachusetts in addition to other NFL assistant coaching stops including under Sam Rutigliano with the Browns.
But then-athletic director Jake Crouthamel, himself a 13 year assistant and head coach at Dartmouth, was more than familiar with “Mac” from their shared New England coaching backgrounds and head-to-head meetings on the field, and only Crouthamel knew this under-the-radar hire was just what the program needed to spur recruiting, teaching and community involvement in the brand new Dome era.
Oh, it took a little time to turn the fortunes around even with the shocking 1984 defeat of No. 1 Nebraska. Five years for a bowl game invite to the long-defunct Cherry Bowl in Pontiac, Mich., three more years for a bowl victory in a dominating performance against LSU in the 1989 Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa, essentially sandwiched around the second greatest season in school history, 1987’s undefeated Sugar Bowl squad disappointingly tied by Auburn on New Year’s Day in New Orleans, a season that will spotlighted on Sept. 9 celebrating its 30th anniversary.
Now that celebration will take on a more somber tone with the loss of the program’s leader, and you figure the Orange players will wear some sort of season-long memorial on their uniforms in tribute to Coach Mac.
Our memories revolve around the friendship we built between 1984-1990 when we co-hosted (with current Cincinnati Bengals play-by-play broadcaster Dan Hoard) the weekly one hour call-in program on WSYR Radio.
Each Thursday night during the season Coach Mac would drive himself to our Clinton Square location, almost always dressed professionally in jacket and tie even though no one was going to see him except the newsroom staff, and sometimes still in his sweats after bolting from practice to get inside the studio with minutes to spare before the 7:00 p.m. air time.
As each caller was announced by name and location on-air that it was his/her turn to ask the coach a question or exchange pleasantries, Coach Mac would scribble the name on his notepad to make sure that those few minutes of interaction would be personalized as he addressed the caller by their first name.
With so many “Mac” memories already shared in the breaking minute-by-minute world we live in today, we’ll share two purely personal moments that illustrate just what made the man so special.
In the summer of 1988 on a beautiful day taking a Saturday day trip to Alexandria Bay with the Mrs., we had finished playing tourist at Boldt Castle and were back downtown when all of the sudden out of nowhere we heard a familiar voice. It was Coach Mac with beloved wife Sandra and other couple about to enter a local establishment. Spontaneously, Coach Mac instructed the trio to go ahead and began to lead us on a memorable 20 minute personalized tour of the area pointing out various landmarks here and there before rejoining his party.
The other recollection is from 1991 his first of two seasons guiding the NFL’s New England Patriots. We were covering the Patriots December game against the New York Jets at Giants Stadium for the soon-to-launch “Big Orange” publication, eager to catch up with Coach Mac at the tail end of what would be a productive 6-10 season (the Pats were 1-15 the year before).
As the game ended we were just inside the tunnel to the locker rooms when both teams passed by following the Patriots 6-3 victory. As Coach Mac crossed paths with his former tight end from the 1986-87 teams, the late Pat Kelly of the Jets, he yelled out, “We still love you, Pat.”
Then inside the confines of the locker room Coach Mac was conducting his postgame press conference on a raised platform surrounded by media. After several minutes of animatingly answering questions as only Coach Mac could after a victory, he glanced over and saw us patiently waiting to exchange pleasantries.
“Well, hello, Brad Bierman,” he blurted out as heads swiveled around to find us embarrassed. After a few more minutes he stepped down and came over to greet us with an NFL football in hand.
“Here you go,” he said smiling, flipping the football to us as a quarterback might make a pitch to a running back.
It’s a ball we still cherish looking at to this day, and the memories surrounding being on the receiving end of a Coach Mac lateral will be ever-lasting.
Our heart-felt thoughts are with the MacPherson family.
(Bonus Coach Mac trivia question: Who was the only player to play for Coach Mac with both the Orangemen and Patriots?)
Answer: Wide receiver Rob Carpenter, who led SU in receiving in 1990 with 52 catches, then caught three passes as a rookie with the ’91 Patriots.