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Syracuse must find way to retain ascending coach Babers

scottteaser-215x160The sequel may have been even better than the original for Dino Babers, whose passion for movies is barely exceeded by his passion for football. Think “The Godfather: Part II” on the heels of “The Godfather,” and you get the picture.

A year after Syracuse University upset Virginia Tech, there was Babers again, three weeks ago, in the bowels of the Carrier Dome, working his players into a frenzy with his “Whose house? Our house!” exchange after the Orange had knocked off defending national champion Clemson. Denzel Washington and Will Smith would have been hard-pressed to match Babers’ fiery locker room performances. These were Oscar-worthy.

Heck, fans were so fired-up after they saw the videos that they saved them on their phones and replayed the clips for motivation before heading to the gym or out for a jog.

Just eight games into his second season at Syracuse, Babers has his team in bowl contention and has begun to reenergize an apathetic fan base that had stopped caring about Orange football. At 4-4, Dino’s players haven’t totally turned the corner, but they are moving in the right direction. They have that signature win vs. the Tigers and have more than held their own against one of the toughest schedules in college football — each of their four losses has been by single digits. And they have a chance to earn their first bowl invitation in five years if they can split their final four games, starting with this week’s contest in Tallahassee against an injury-decimated Florida State team that may not go bowling for the first time in 36 years.

Students of SU football history can’t help but wonder if they are witnessing a revival similar to the ones pulled off by Ben Schwartzwalder in the 1950s, Dick MacPherson in the 1980s and, to a lesser extent, Doug Marrone roughly a decade ago. The Clemson upset clearly conjured memories of Coach Mac’s stunner against top-ranked Nebraska in 1984. A year after the Cornhuskers had eviscerated SU, 63-7, in Lincoln, Neb., the Orange men shocked them, 17-9, in the Dome. A year after Clemson steamrolled to a 54-0 victory in South Carolina, the Orange beat them, 27-24, prompting fans to storm the field, just as they had done 33 years earlier.

It’s clear that Babers’ players have bought into the up-tempo, pass-happy, spread offense that was his calling card in brief but successful head coaching stints at Bowling Green and Eastern Illinois. Not so obvious, but perhaps even more important, has been the dramatic improvement of the SU defense, which is yielding nearly 17 fewer points per game than last season. Under the charismatic Babers, there has been an uptick in recruiting, with several blue-chippers already committed for next year, and perhaps a few more on the way after the Clemson upset, which was nationally televised.

So, all seems good. SU appears to have found its man. But will it be able to keep him? That’s the multi-million dollar question.

The reclamation job Babers is doing will not go unnoticed. Although his name has not been linked with any of the marquee programs that are or soon will be looking for new coaches, it will be if SU continues trending upward. Suitors will take a closer look and say if he can do that kind of job at Syracuse, imagine what he could do in football-fertile Florida, where Jim McElwain, recently was let go? Or Texas? Or Rutgers?

Because Syracuse is a private university, it’s difficult to ascertain what Babers is making, but it’s safe to say that he’s near the bottom of the list among Atlantic Coast Conference coaches. The most recent published figures showed Babers’ predecessor, Scott Shafer, earning $1.5 million in his second of three seasons as SU head coach. So, that’s probably a pretty good benchmark. That figure would place Babers around 70th among the 128 major college coaching salaries published this year by USA Today. Alabama’s Nick Saban is No. 1 at $11 million per year, followed by Clemson’s Dabo Swinney ($8.5 million), Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh ($7 million) and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer ($6.4 million). McElwain was listed at 15th at $4.4 million with a buyout of $12.9 million.

It’s been reported that Syracuse protected itself with a huge buyout clause in Babers’ contract. So, it would appear the Orange is safe at least through next season. Clearly, Babers will be in line for a substantial raise if his team continues its ascendancy. SU Athletic Director John Wildhack wants to keep the 56-year-old Babers here for a long time, so it’s likely he will attempt to negotiate a contract extension following this season.

Babers has a great relationship with Wildhack, but told Syracuse.com that he hasn’t discussed a new deal with his boss. “I don’t even talk about stuff like that during the season,’’ he said. “I think that Mr. Wildhack has been unbelievable. I love him as a boss, and he’s a very honest guy, which is refreshing. But I don’t talk that kind of stuff during the season. Our whole goal is based on what happens Saturday and staying focused on being 1-0 this week.”

The son of a career-Naval officer, Babers spent much of his early life on the move. And he’s continued to be peripatetic in the nomadic world of football coaching that’s seen him hold 15 different positions, including that head coaching stint at Eastern Illinois, where he coached NFL quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Babers appears to have landed in a pretty good spot. Here’s hoping he decides to stay put and build a legacy at SU. He can be the architect of an Orange football renaissance, just as Schwarzwalder and MacPherson were in previous generations. He can make “our house” his home.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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