Orange Watch: Coaching changes signal investment in Syracuse football

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Syracuse coach Dino Babers coaches from the sidelines. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

Item: Fast-tracking into his intriguing fifth season with spring practice just around the corner in March, Dino Babers this week officially put the wrap on his 2020 coaching staff which is highlighted by new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Although it is never going to compete on the same financial footing as the biggest of programs such as Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma, Syracuse has made its largest program commitment under John Wildhack’s direction to compete in the ACC, and with that investment and some 40 bowl games scheduled per year, the minimum return has to be postseason play.

After falling a game short of bowl eligibility last season, and acutely aware of just how far he can bend the realities of the financial limitations at a private university reliant on fundraising and ticket sales, while understanding the modern nuances of the type of athlete he needs in his program, Babers has put a completely fresh touch to who’s delegating control on each side of the ball, and we like the direction the program is headed.

From his introduction in 2015, Babers has preached his super-fast offensive pace. When it works it’s a thing of beauty, but injuries and lack of depth, along with game situations, haven’t always been cooperative.

» Related: 4 takeaways from Syracuse football’s 2020 National Signing Day

With new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, a longtime coach possessing a successful Texas track record along with being a Babers confidant at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green, and coming off a season in which he was head coach at FCS member McNeese State, the play-calling and quarterback tutoring is in new results-oriented hands.

McNeese State finished 7-5 last season, winning four of its last five games, and was more successful statistically running (4th), than passing (9th), in the 11-member Southland Conference. It will be interesting to see the first steps Gilbert implements with Tommy DeVito and his talented corps of receivers and running backs this spring.

Babers made clear he was going in a new direction defensively, plenty of movement pre-snap to disguise flexible coverage, with his in-season dismissal of Brian Ward as D-Coordinator last November.

The off-season began with Babers first inquiring if he could lure 70-year old Rocky Long to central New York from the west coast for his first post “retirement” job from the responsibilities of being a head coach (San Diego State), to transition to Long’s signature version of a 3-3-5 alignment (Long opted to be DC for his alma mater New Mexico).

When Long offered the next option to himself, Aztec DC Zach Arnett, all seemed swell, that is until Mike Leach left Washington State for Mississippi State and dangled the prestige (herculean challenge?) of the SEC West in front of Arnett, along with a potential $1M plus annual salary with performance incentives.

According to USA Today, 24 FBS coordinators topped the $1M per season salary mark in 2019 from available public university data, with just five in the ACC, three at Clemson, one at Florida State and one at Virginia Tech (the now retired Bud Foster). 12 of the jobs, 50%, were in the SEC.

Syracuse agreed to match Arnett’s $900,000 base salary, which in itself would have signaled a paradigm change in its own financial world, but lost out to SEC cache.

No matter. ‘Cuse gained quite a replacement in noted recruiting wizard Tony White, another Long disciple with deep San Diego State roots (nine seasons) to implement the 3-3-5. Of immediate relevance, in his last game as Arizona State’s defensive passing game coordinator in the 2019 Sun Bowl, White successfully game-planned against Atlantic Division rival Florida State and quarterback James Blackman in the Sun Devils 20-14 victory.

Now Gilbert, White, and fellow newcomer Chip West (cornerbacks) join the seven incumbent coaches to begin work with the 2020 Orange on one of Babers’ principles; consistency over exception when it comes to success and winning seasons.

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Brad Bierman
About Brad Bierman 666 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.