Coach, athletic director under fire for Orange's on-field woes

Pat Testa bleeds orange. An avid follower of Syracuse football since the 1930s -- he used to sneak into old Archbold Stadium -- Testa has been a season-ticket holder at the Carrier Dome since 1985.

As such, the 79-year-old former high school football coach seemed like the ideal person to answer the following question: Where does Syracuse's current slide rank among the program's worst of, say, the past 70 years?

"It ranks as the low point," Testa said. "It really does. You know, [former coach] Paul [Pasqualoni] had some bad seasons, but my god, he won some ballgames. Even in the '40s, things weren't as bad as they are now."

That is debatable, seeing as Syracuse closed the 1940s with six consecutive losing seasons. But nobody could quibble with Testa's testimony on the general state of the program.

Just look at the numbers.

The Orange -- who, it should be noted, consistently play the toughest nonconference schedule in the Big East -- have lost nine of their past 10 games by an average of more than three touchdowns. They are off to their worst start (0-3) since 1986 and have been outscored 118-32 by three teams (Washington, Iowa, Illinois) that went a combined 13-24 last season.

Syracuse is 5-21 overall and 1-13 in the Big East under third-year coach Greg Robinson, who has a great chance to become the first coach to post three consecutive losing seasons at a school that launched its football program 118 years ago.

And that's not the half of it.

Here's more:

" Syracuse ranks 116th out of 119 Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) teams in total offense, 101st in total defense and 118th in sacks allowed (18).

" The past two years, Syracuse ranked 110th and 115th in total offense; 107th and 57th in total defense; 116th and 109th in sacks allowed.

" With only three more losses this season -- care to bet the under? -- this team will have matched the school record for most losses (24) over a three-year stretch, matching the squads of 1972-74 and 1891-93.

" A ticket scalper told The Syracuse Post-Standard that business outside the Carrier Dome was the worst since he started in 1984.

" In a 41-20 loss to Illinois on Saturday, the announced crowd (34,188) was the lowest at the Dome in 20 years.

"There's very little vibe left," says Syracuse senior Ryan Messick, sports director at the student station WAER, where the likes of Marv Albert, Mike Tirico and Bob Costas cut their teeth.

Len Berman, a Syracuse grad and prominent sports anchor at WNBC in New York, couldn't help but laugh when a reporter asked for his opinion of the current state of the football program.

When pressed, Berman said, "Well, my only comment is I'm thrilled to death they finally put up a statue for Ernie Davis."

Berman, who serves on the school's advisory board, was referring to a season-opening ceremony that honored the late, great Syracuse running back.

But what about the team's recent performance on the field?

"Well," Berman said, laughing again. "The less we say about that, the better."

Messick said campus expectations were high going into the season but were quickly dashed in a 42-12 loss to Washington, one in which Robinson ordered a punt on 3rd-and-13 from the Syracuse 23 in the first quarter, leading 3-0.

"Once the game got out of hand, I remember thinking there were maybe three or four thousand people in the Dome, which is fewer than for a lacrosse game," Messick said. "My freshman year, I remember people would talk about a game the whole week. That's not really the case now. The attitude now is almost like, how bad can it get?"

Maybe worse. The Orange visit Louisville (2-1) at noon Saturday, fully aware that the high-powered Cardinals are livid coming off an upset loss at Kentucky.

"They must be licking their chops right now," Robinson said.

Louisville is averaging 55 points and a nation-leading 617 yards per game. Syracuse hasn't started 0-4 since 1986. And after a visit to Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 29, the Orange must entertain No. 4 West Virginia and No. 13 Rutgers on back-to-back weekends.

"People are looking at the schedule and trying to figure out when they're going to win a game," says Matt Gelb, sports editor of The Daily Orange student newspaper.

The best chance, aside from Miami, figures to be a visit from Buffalo on Oct. 20.

Sophomore quarterback Andrew Robinson refuses to let the negativity engulf him. He says his coach has not wavered from a consistently upbeat approach.

"Campus is campus -- everybody has misinformed opinions from reading the newspapers and drawing their opinions from that," Andrew Robinson said. "The football team is staying positive and staying the course."

Meantime, folks are wondering whether Greg Robinson can possibly last beyond this season. The coach was handpicked by athletic director Daryl Gross, who arrived from USC in December of 2004 promising big things for a program that sagged late in previous coach Pasqualoni's tenure.

Gross fired Pasqualoni -- who was 107-59-1 in 14 years -- and brought in Greg Robinson. Twenty-six mostly miserable games later, Robinson isn't the only guy on the spot.

Much fan anger is aimed at Gross.

"The fans are going through pain; don't think for one second we're not going through pain, either," Gross says. "My last few years [at USC] were filled with some pretty good football, very good performances, so to see our program like this is disappointing. I will say that. I feel like we have to fix it."

Gross won't put a timetable on the program's progress. He still pledges support to Robinson, but not quite as brashly as he did early in the coach's tenure.

In the midst of a rough start in 2005, Gross said, "You may have a chance to get us now, but it's not going to be like that for long. I know it, and Greg knows it, and I think our people know it. You better get on board now, because we're going up."

Now, this: "Greg says he has a plan to fix it. I'm looking at it to see if he can fix it. He says he can fix it. I've got to sit and see what happens. Fortunately, three games does not a season make. Unfortunately, the three games have been very consistent in terms of how we've played."

Gross has weathered major storms before. He arrived at USC as an assistant athletic director in 1991 and witnessed the football program go through two coaches and several false starts before becoming a major national player again, more than a decade later.

As USC's associate athletic director in 2001, Gross led an effort to hire Pete Carroll. When the Trojans started 1-4 and finished 6-6, many questioned the move.

Gross stayed confident. He believed in Carroll.

"Pete used to have this saying, and I could never figure it out," Gross says. "He'd say, 'Daryl, we'll be good when we're good; it'll be really obvious.' He was right. It became real obvious."

Syracuse's current roster contains some young talent, but not nearly enough. Rutgers running back Ray Rice, a Heisman Trophy candidate, backed out of his commitment when Pasqualoni was fired.

Luckily for Gross, die-hards like Pat Testa will continue to pledge their allegiance. It's not as if they can stop from bleeding orange.

"I think if you're a fan, you're a fan," Testa said. "If they play their cards right, they'll turn it around, but it's going to take awhile. I'm just disappointed right now.

"It's just sad that people aren't getting their money's worth."

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.