Orange Watch: Former Syracuse coach Dick MacPherson deserves more respect

Coach Mac1
MacPherson should've been on the ESPN Top 150 list out earlier this month. Photo Credit: John Zych, The Juice Online.

Item: We have a BIG quibble with an omission on the list of the Top 150 coaches being celebrated by one large media entity during the sport’s sesquicentennial anniversary.

As a fan of the history of college football, we enjoyed as many of the episodes that we could catch time to watch of ESPN’s season-long series of specialty-themed programs celebrating the 150th anniversary of the sport.

In conjunction with those broadcast programs, ESPN had top lists covering various aspects of the sport’s rich tradition and history, including a detailed and well written piece titled: “The 150 greatest coaches in college football’s 150-year history.”

Understanding the subjective nature of any list, and before beginning to read the story a day after it was published online Dec. 10, we were wondering if we would see the name Dick MacPherson among the Top 150 coaches?

After all, Coach Mac is in the College Football Hall of Fame (2009), contended for a 1987 national championship at Syracuse among his highlights in resurrecting a dormant Eastern power, and had earlier success as head coach at Massachusetts (1971-77) including bowl game and Div. II quarterfinal round playoff appearances.

As we scrolled in the ESPN story order from No. 1. Bear Bryant, down through all the biggest coaching legends in the game, we came upon No. 41 on the list – Ben Schwartzwalder, cited for being hired by Syracuse in 1949 to “revive its struggling program.”

Sound familiar to the mandate given to Coach Mac in Dec. 1980?

Of course, Coach Ben is a worthy Top 50 all-time coaching selection for his strategy and style that produced the Syracuse streak of bowl game seasons in the 1950s culminating in the 1959 national championship, and coaching so many of the sport’s greatest players over his quarter of a century run guiding the Orangemen.

When we reached No. 79 on the list former West Virginia coach Don Nehlen, we started to wonder if Coach Mac’s name would appear later in the story.

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(Side Note I: Clarence “Biggie” Munn, who coached at Syracuse for the 1946 season (4-5 record), was No. 47 on the list for his career at Michigan State the following seven seasons including the 1952 national championship.)

Dick MacPherson and Don Nehlen, and their wives Sandra and Merry Ann (who died in Jan. 2019), were close friends. It was Nehlen’s Mountaineers that came oh-so-close to ruining the Orange’s 1987 undefeated regular season, on the day the school accepted a Sugar Bowl invitation, and theoretically SU was still in line for a national championship if not for a tie against Auburn. A year later, Nehlen’s WVU team also went 11-0 but missed out on the 1988 national title with a loss to Notre Dame.

Look at a comparison of their career head coaching records:

Dick MacPherson

  • Massachusetts (1971-77) – 45-27-1
  • Syracuse (1981-90) – 66-46-4
  • Totals: 17-seasons 111-73-5

Don Nehlen

  • Bowling Green (1968-1976) – 53-35-4
  • West Virginia (1980-2000) – 149-93-4
  • Totals: 30-seasons 202-122-8

Obviously, Nehlen coached collegiately for 13 more seasons than MacPherson, and it’s hard to predict exactly how the early-mid 1990s would have added to his career mark if Mac had not left in 1991 for the NFL’s New England Patriots. But certainly, the early success that Paul Pasqualoni achieved was due in large part to recruiting classes under MacPherson’s direction and would have undoubtedly increased Mac’s win total.

(Side Note II: Howard Jones, who coached at Syracuse for the 1908 season (6-3-1 record), was No. 80 on the list for his career primarily at USC from 1925-40, including starting the USC-Notre Dame intersectional series with Knute Rockne)

Moving on from Nehlen at No. 79 on the list, we simply wanted to see if it logically made sense that Coach Mac was one of the next best 71 coaches in the 150 years of the sport. It’s so hard to compare coaches from different eras and different NCAA Divisions, not to mention the NAIA ranks, to say exactly who Dick MacPherson should have bumped from the list.

When we neared reading the end of the list at No. 146, however, our belief that Mac belonged was cemented.

With accomplished success from 1956-1969, longtime Purdue coach Jack Mollenkopf was a great program leader in the Big Ten with a 1967 Rose Bowl victory on his ledger. The first sentence in the ESPN story says of Mollenkopf: “Winning 84 games in 14 seasons will earn you plenty of respect.”

Dick MacPherson won 111 games in 17 seasons and he deserves the same respect.

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Brad Bierman
About Brad Bierman 633 Articles
Now in his sixth 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.