Syracuse hopes to handle new expectations

April, 20, 2011
4/20/11
9:00
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- It's the final week of spring practice, and Doug Marrone's office is littered with, of all things, fabric samples.

[+] EnlargeDoug Marrone
Andrew Weber/US PresswireSyracuse coach Doug Marrone plans to build on last season's 8-5 record.
The Syracuse head coach's quarters are due for a refurbishing, with new furniture and carpet on the way. Marrone will devote more attention to it after spring drills end. If his track record serves as an indication, we should trust his instincts when it comes to remodeling.

Before the 2009 season, Marrone took over a proud Orange program that had fallen into a crater with no foreseeable way out. The team hadn't gone to a bowl game since 2004 and hadn't posted a winning season since 2001. But after a 4-8 first season showed signs of progress, Marrone's second Syracuse team went 8-5 last season, including a victory in the inaugural New Era Pinstripe Bowl against Kansas State.

Players who had been ashamed to wear Orange football gear around campus are now showing off their Pinstripe Bowl jackets that arrived this month.

"There's definitely a different vibe around campus now," defensive end Chandler Jones said. "You'll be in class, and a teacher will stop her own lecture to talk about the game. It's great to get that feeling of being a champion again."

That also meant that this spring, Marrone and his players had to begin dealing with something that's been missing around these parts for nearly a decade: preseason expectations.

The Orange had the advantage last season of sneaking up on some Big East opponents who had beaten them year after year. No more. There's a good chance they will be picked among the favorites to win the league in 2011. Do they have the same hunger that marked last season's team?

"Expectations change everything," running back Antwon Bailey said. "Not just on the outside but on the inside, too. You've got to work harder, spend more time in the film room. You've got to change your mindset."

Marrone went about changing the mindset around the program from the beginning. The former Orange offensive lineman couldn't stand what had happened to his alma mater's team and knew his first mission was to erase the negative attitude that hovered over everything. So rather than pushing aside the upperclassmen who had been stained by losing, he relied heavily on them to turn things around. Last season's team had strong senior leaders like top tacklers Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith, leading rusher Delone Carter, center Ryan Bartholomew and cornerbacks Da'Mon Merkerson and Mike Holmes.

"It was important for me to come in and win with the players who were here to gain some interest in the program and gain some momentum," he said. "That leads to a year now where we have a little bit of a transition year. We have some positions to fill."

But compared to Marrone's first two seasons, the roster looks healthy and full. Syracuse was able to hold a spring game featuring two full teams for the first time in years this month. Marrone struggled to find enough bodies just to practice at times his first two seasons because of injuries and attrition. Between the winter of 2009 and the spring of 2010, 28 players left the program -- many of them unable to handle Marrone's no-nonsense policies.

A culture shock? You bet. Marrone requires his players to wear jackets and ties after games. During his first season, team leaders requested that someone come in and teach everyone proper knot-tying techniques. Only four players knew how to tie a tie, and it took them so long to help their teammates that the Orange were barely making the postgame bus.

"It definitely seemed strict at first," receiver Marcus Sales said. "But if you want to win, you've got to buy into the program and deal with some things you don't want to deal with sometimes."

These days, it's hard to find a Syracuse player who doesn't fully embrace everything Marrone espouses. Winning will convince most doubters.

Getting a program back on track is difficult. Reaching the next level is often even harder.

Can the Orange get back to regularly winning nine and 10 games a season, as they did in the late 1980s and '90s? After all, their wins included Colgate, Maine and Akron last season, they benefited from a down year in the Big East and they received a favorable late call in the bowl game to slip by Kansas State. On the other hand, if they would have won just one of their final two league home games, they would have claimed at least a share of the Big East title.

"That's an opportunity that we lost, and we can't do that again," Marrone said.

To win more, Syracuse is trying to remember how it stopped losing. Marrone has talked to them about avoiding complacency and instituted more competitive challenges this preseason to keep the players hungry. The upperclassmen are wary of backsliding now that they've dug themselves out of the hole.

"It's definitely a different beast when you're not counted out week in and week out," quarterback Ryan Nassib said. "Are we confident or are we overconfident? The guys who have been there, who went through those 4-8 seasons, know winning isn't easy. It was definitely a grind to get to that season we had last year."

Marrone rejects terms like "rebuilt" or "retooled" for the Orange. He sees it as a program with a lot of tradition that simply needed some guidance. Yet there's no doubt his remodeling fixed up a real eyesore.

The next job is finding the right finishing touches.

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