SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- This was supposed to be the day for Syracuse -- validation day. After a surprising 6-2 start, the Orange -- a national laughingstock only two seasons ago -- needed to beat Louisville on Saturday to become bowl eligible and to secure their first winning season since 2001.
They learned a hard lesson at the Carrier Dome. It takes more than a day or a month or a season to reverse nearly a decade of disappointment. Sometimes it's a two-steps-forward, one-step-backward process, and Syracuse went back.
It went back hard, a 28-20 loss before a crowd of 40,735 that showed up looking forward to a return to college football's land of the winning.
Nearly an hour after it was over, coach Doug Marrone dressed alone in his office, slipping into a charcoal gray suit -- a color that seemed to capture the mood of an entire city, if not the head coach's space.
"No one said this was going to be easy," said Marrone, taking the half-full approach because half-full is needed when you inherit a team that went 10-37 in the four seasons before your arrival. "You're talking about turning a program around. You just can't snap your fingers and start kicking butt."
Until Saturday, it seemed as if Marrone had done just that, snapped his fingers. Syracuse finished 4-8 last season, Marrone's first at his alma mater, but he built a foundation, and it started to resemble something special in 2010 with road victories over South Florida, West Virginia and Cincinnati. Previously, the Orange had gone a combined 0-15 against those opponents.
Naturally, there was an emotional buildup to Louisville, with Syracuse on the verge of his first bowl since 2004. Marrone pushed all the right buttons, delivering a fiery speech at Friday night's team meeting. In a packed conference room, he told his players, "We're the team that no one picked. Not one SOB picked us to go to a bowl."
Syracuse still can qualify, of course, needing only one win against a remaining schedule of Rutgers, UConn and Boston College. Louisville will haunt the Orange if they don't land a bowl, though. The Cardinals (5-4 overall, 2-2 Big East) hadn't won a conference road game in 11 tries, and they played without their starting quarterback, Adam Froman, and leading rusher Bilal Powell.
The Orange led at halftime, 17-14, but they struggled with Louisville's pressure defense and simply made too many mistakes on both sides of the ball, the biggest of which was Alec Lemon's third-quarter drop of a sure touchdown pass.
That's would've given them a 24-20 lead. The Orange settled for a field goal, but the blown opportunity seemed to deflate the offense, which managed only one first down over the final 21 minutes. Louisville, another up-and-coming team under first-year coach Charlie Strong, simply outplayed Syracuse.
Maybe Syracuse wasn't ready for the moment.
"My sense is, we need to take our mind off the bowl game and just go out and play the next game and focus on winning that," said defensive tackle Andrew Lewis, one of the many seniors who endured the darkest period in the program's history.
Not long ago, Syracuse was a good football place. There were 15 straight winning seasons from 1987 to 2001, but things got stale under coach Paul Pasqualoni. The school went outside the box and hired Greg Robinson, a longtime NFL assistant and a Pete Carroll protégé. It went from stale to sour -- and fast.
That led Syracuse to one of its own, Marrone, who played offensive tackle for the Orange in the mid-'80s. He fell so hard for the school that, even now with flecks of gray in his hair, he gets choked up when talking about the old times and what the university has meant to him.
It's corny, but you have to understand the journey. Marrone, 46, grew up in the Bronx, hard by the Throgs Neck Bridge. As a kid, he played football in a lot near the toll plaza. Run out of bounds, and you were flirting with oncoming traffic. He could've played for any of the big schools, but Syracuse was a love-at-first-sight thing.
This is his forever job. At his first news conference, Marrone declared, "This is the happiest day of my life." He got down to work and realized his alma mater's program was in worse shape than he had imagined. His first season was tough. He lost games and lost players, two dozen of whom transferred. Some of them wanted no part of Marrone's program, built on discipline and accountability.
It's not a country club, but Marrone does it his way. He has a plan, appropriately spelled out in a voluminous binder, titled, "The Plan." Guess what? It's working. The players who stayed are believers, and those who joined are beacons for the future. He has had two good recruiting classes, and a strong class is on the way in 2011, but no one could've imagined it would happen this quickly.
Syracuse has returned to respectability, but, as Bill Parcells always used to say, "Show me the pelts." It doesn't have a pelt yet; that will come with another victory.
The ultimate goal was defined before the season, when every coach and every player signed a contract. Not a legal document, of course, but a commitment to each other. Those contracts are kept in the team meeting room, and they include two clear objectives:
A winning season.
A bowl game.
Those goals are tantalizingly within reach.
"We're 6-3, and we have to win one more," said Marrone, straightening his orange and blue necktie -- school colors. "It sounds easy, but it's not."