|AP Photo/Kevin Rivoli|
|Coach Greg Robinson is 9-36 overall and 3-23 in the Big East. The Orange finished with just 147 yards on 59 plays against Connecticut and was 1-for-14 on third-down conversion attempts.|
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Mark Beckel sat in Carrier Dome section 333, way up in the corner of the end zone, alone among rows of empty bleachers.
A few feet above him hung banners celebrating Syracuse's 1959 national championship team, the great Ernie Davis and eight of the school's members of the college football Hall of Fame. Beckel saw some pretty great Syracuse players during his undergraduate days in the school, cheering guys like Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison before earning his degree in 1995. He even attended the team's 1993 Fiesta Bowl win over Colorado.
Beckel, who wore a No. 44 jersey Saturday, only makes it to about one home football game per season from his home in Washington, D.C. Memories and traditions are about all that bring him back these days. It sure isn't the promise of more Orange victories.
"This is painful," the 35-year-old said as he stuck through the closing minutes of a 39-14 loss to Connecticut. "I look down at the student section, which used to be such a great atmosphere, and now it's just sad because none of those kids get to see any good football."
Saturday marked the last home game for Syracuse (2-9, 1-6 Big East) this season and in all likelihood the final Carrier Dome appearance by coach Greg Robinson. The loss dropped his record to 9-36 at the school and just 3-23 in the Big East. Only athletic director Daryl Gross knows for sure when the axe will fall on Robinson, though, and he's not saying.
Gross slipped out of his suite with about two minutes left in the game and did not stick around for reporters to speak to him. Not that there's much chance he would have talked. Gross hasn't given an interview since the week of Sept. 23, when he called ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel unprompted and said "it isn't working out" with Robinson. Team spokeswoman Sue Edson said Saturday that Gross had no plans to comment on the coaching situation until after the season.
Robinson said the thought "didn't enter my mind" Saturday that this was his last home game. Fans were sure thinking about and hoping for it and wondering why Robinson remains in place while schools like Tennessee, Clemson and Washington are already searching for new coaches.
"This is brutal," said Max Pelifian of Messena, N.Y., who's been attending Syracuse games for 42 years. "I don't know what they're waiting for."
It's bad enough for fans to sit through loss after loss. It's even worse to see Connecticut -- a team that didn't even play Division I-A football until 2002 -- come in and whip Syracuse for its first-ever win in the Carrier Dome. And of course it hurts to see Orange alumnus and former longtime assistant Randy Edsall lead the Huskies to victory. Edsall is 48-34 since 2002, including 16-7 the past two years. Syracuse has not had a winning season since Connecticut moved to I-A.
Reports have suggested that Edsall heads Gross's wish list, and that preliminary contact has already been made between the two camps. Edsall chided a reporter who asked him about it immediately after the game by calling the question "inappropriate," then issued another non-denial denial in his news conference.
"I just know that my paychecks are signed by the University of Connecticut, the state of Connecticut, and all I care about is us winning 39-14 tonight," Edsall said. "I'm not worried about anything else other than my team and our program. I'm not worried about anybody else's program right now."
The latest Robinson loss looked like so many others. Inept offense, defensive breakdowns leading to big plays and a complete second-half meltdown. If you believe halftime adjustments are the mark of good coaching, here's some damning evidence: Syracuse trailed 9-3 at halftime against Northwestern and lost 30-10. It led Pittsburgh 17-10 at the break and lost 34-24. It was down 21-13 at intermission at South Florida and lost 45-13. It was tied at 14 after two quarters at Rutgers before losing 35-17. On Saturday, UConn scored the game's final 24 points.
After beating Louisville, Syracuse has scored a total of two offensive touchdowns in back-to-back losses to regional rivals Rutgers and UConn, two schools who have set up camp in what used to be the Orange's fertile recruiting base.
"It's gone dormant," Robinson said of an offense that generated only 147 total yards Saturday, but he could have been talking about the whole program.
"We're not functioning, obviously. We had a period of time there where it looked like everything was heading in the right direction, and the last two weeks ... it's a shame. It really is."
Give long-suffering Syracuse fans credit. If they didn't exactly pack the Dome (the announced crowd of 28,081 seemed a least a few thousand on the generous side), they showed up on a rainy evening and showed support on Senior Day. There were no boos or signs asking for Robinson's resignation or people wearing paper bags on their heads.
But after a UConn punt return for a touchdown made it 32-14 with 19 seconds left in third quarter, the stands began to empty. And after the next play from scrimmage, when Andrew Robinson threw a pick six, the concourses swelled with exiting fans.
Fewer than 2,500 remained until the bitter end. One was 53-year-old John Macauley, who decided to purchase season tickets when his son moved back to this city -- which unfortunately for him coincided with beginning of the Robinson era.
"Look at this," he said, scanning the empty stadium with four minutes left in the game. "This is a joke."
The players are trying to stick by their coach. Quarterback Cam Dantley said Robinson's postgame locker room speech began with him saying he was ready to go and fight next week at Notre Dame. Dantley said the team was still behind him.
"I know the fans are very frustrated," said senior running back Curtis Brinkley, who went over 1,000 yards for the season during the game. "Change is going to come. We've got some good players on this team. Everybody just has to come together.
"(Robinson's future) worries me and it bothers me, just knowing our relationship and what we have grown into. I want him to be my coach when I leave."
Robinson issued a passionate defense of his team when a reporter asked if this felt like a long season.
"I've enjoyed this season of football, coaching this team, as much as any team I've been a part of coaching," he said. "I don't know if I've ever been around a more special group of young people than this group.
"There have been years when I've been here that have been harder than this year. I know what I'm getting with their response. They truly are trying to do their very best, they really are. Unfortunately at times, it doesn't look very good."
It hasn't looked very good at Syracuse in a long time. Not up in Section 333, or anywhere else.