SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Scott Shafer remembers standing on the pregame field at Notre Dame Stadium in 1991, his first game as a graduate assistant coach at Indiana, hearing his knees knock because Irish head coach Lou Holtz stood nearby. For a small-town (Painesville, Ohio) guy who played small-college football (Baldwin-Wallace), this was a dream come true.
"I remember just being in the fight mentally," the new Syracuse head coach said of the Hoosiers' 49-27 loss.
"Even though I didn't have a big pull in the outcome, I remember just looking around, thinking, 'It's the same game.' Whether we're playing in front of 1,500 people at George Finnie Stadium [at Baldwin-Wallace], or sitting there in the mecca of college football at Notre Dame. Same game."
That perspective has been the lighthouse of Shafer's career. Shafer invests his ego into coaching his players, reminding himself of the absurdity of his job.
"At the end of the day," Shafer said, "we got 11 guys fighting with their 11 guys to take a dead pig with air in it a hundred yards one way or the other. And a lot of people think we're really smart because of it, or really dumb because of it."
Shafer got his start in the coaching business with a lunch-pail guy by the name of Bill Mallory at Indiana. He spent 10 seasons as a defensive coordinator in the Mid-American Conference. When he turned 40 six years ago, and new Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh hired him to run his defense, Shafer had spent one season as a full-time FBS assistant coach.
Harbaugh found him by having another assistant run the numbers on mid-major defenses. In 2006, Shafer's Western Michigan defense led the FBS in sacks (46) and interceptions (24). Shafer knew none of the other coaches. Shafer loved coaching for Harbaugh. He loved the quiet intensity of the young offensive coordinator, David Shaw.
"I guess I was, to some degree, foolishly optimistic -- and lucky -- to have fallen into the right jobs for a long time," Shafer said.
A year later, Rich Rodriguez contacted him. Rich Rodriguez of Michigan. Maize and Blue. Winged Helmets. Big House.
"As a little kid growing up, it was Michigan, Ohio State and then everything else," Shafer said.
When you've worked in an industry for 20 years, you learn the things that no one tells you. You learn the importance of working with coaches who teach the same way you teach. You learn a lesson that Shafer tells recruits at Syracuse who may be wowed by competitors with nicer facilities.
After the Michigan situation, the whole goal was to find the best person to work for.
”-- Syracuse coach Scott Shafer
"The people behind the buildings are far more important than the buildings," Shafer said.
And when Rodriguez contacted Shafer, he forgot every single one of those lessons.
"Regardless of how mature you become," Shafer said, "and how you look at things with wisdom over the years, when the call came, I heard Michigan across the line. Nothing else. No one else. And that was probably the biggest mistake I made."
The maniacally competitive Harbaugh said to Shafer, "We can and will be better than Michigan.'
But Harbaugh had a soft spot for Michigan, too. He had played there for Bo Schembechler.
"I do remember telling Jim I was going to Michigan for the same reasons he went to Michigan," Shafer said.
"If that's what you want to do, I support you," Harbaugh replied.
It was the perfect storm of bad career decisions. Rodriguez thought his defensive staff would come with him from West Virginia to Michigan. But at the last minute, coordinator Jeff Casteel remained in Morgantown. Rodriguez needed a coordinator who would be comfortable coaching a staff of strangers. In a business of relationships, filling that job under those conditions is like filling an inside straight. Shafer wasn't the right card.
"A lot of that was my fault," Rodriguez said last week on the phone from Arizona, where he is starting his second season as head coach. "He's a very good football coach. Scott took the blame for things that weren't his fault. The other [defensive coaches] didn't know his system. He was a teaching a whole new system to players and coaches. It wasn't really fair to him."
Rodriguez learned that when you hire a coordinator, you should bring in at least one other coach who knows his system. Shafer learned how long one season can last. The Wolverines went 3-9. They gave up nearly 29 points per game. And shortly after the season ended, Shafer needed a job.
Shafer went back to the coaches' convention in search of a job and his confidence. Doug Marrone, taking over at Syracuse, needed a staff. Marrone, who grew up in the Bronx, is a lunch-pail guy, just like Shafer's best mentors.
"After the Michigan situation, the whole goal was to find the best person to work for," Shafer said. "And it had very little to do with the university, to be quite honest with you. It was about trying to align myself with somebody of high character who had similar philosophical viewpoints of what this profession was about."
Marrone took over a program that had won 10 games in four years. He set a standard that a lot of players failed to meet. In those rules, Shafer rediscovered his love of coaching. He rediscovered the coach that he always had been.
"The biggest thing was the early-morning [5:45 a.m.] runs," Shafer said, "when we get the kids up and do things right. I could just feel early on that we were doing things right, in the right way. We were bluntly honest with the kids. The ones that stayed got this program turned around."
In 2009, the first season under Marrone, Syracuse went 4-8. Last fall, the Orange won six of its final seven games to finish 8-5. Marrone became the head coach of the Buffalo Bills. Four years after his disaster at Michigan, Shafer became an FBS head coach.
When Scott Shafer grew up, he never dreamed of Syracuse. It's a city without airs, where loyalty and hard work are prized. Syracuse is a lunch-pail place, and now its university has a lunch-pail coach.