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Home / On Sports / Opining on the man who saved Syracuse sports, a familiar face at Oak Hill & Josh Allen’s scary injury

Opining on the man who saved Syracuse sports, a familiar face at Oak Hill & Josh Allen’s scary injury

Jake Crouthamel died Monday at age 84, and to fully appreciate his impact on Syracuse University athletics, one must journey back to his arrival on campus in March 1978.

At that time, the sports landscape at SU was desolate by today’s standards. The obstacles Crouthamel faced were the equivalent of fourth-and-forever. A standout football player and coach at Dartmouth College who played professionally for the Boston Patriots, Crouthamel realized from the get-go that the future success of Orange athletics would depend on his ability to upgrade deteriorating facilities and resuscitate a football program that was on life support.

Archbold Stadium, the concrete bowl that had been home to Syracuse football for nearly seven decades, had become such an eyesore that coaches stopped showing it to recruits visiting campus. The stadium’s antiquated locker rooms, which occasionally were visited by football-sized rats, was also off-limits to prospective student athletes.

Crouthamel, along with then-football coach Frank Maloney, bluntly told SU’s administration the program could not survive without a new stadium, and, fortunately, then-Chancellor Melvin Eggers and local and state officials listened. The instant the Carrier Dome opened on the same site as “Old Archie” in 1980, Crouthamel realized the building’s potential as a catalyst for an athletic renaissance, and he acted on it.

By the time Crouthamel retired in 2005 after 27 years, his imprint could be seen throughout campus – from the Dome to the additions and renovations at Manley Field House and beyond. But he did more than build buildings. He built a winning tradition. He hired superb coaches like Dick MacPherson, Paul Pasqualoni and John Desko and stuck with them. He was a powerful advocate for the formation of the immensely successful Big East Conference.

Under Crouthamel’s leadership the Orange won 10 national championships (nine in men’s lacrosse and the 2003 NCAA men’s basketball title) and 22 conference crowns. The once moribund football program went to 14 bowl games, winning nine of them. He was a driving force in moving home basketball games from Manley to the Dome, and Syracuse wound up becoming the national attendance leader, with crowds of 30,000 commonplace.

“His fingerprints are on just about everything sports-wise here,’’ basketball coach Jim Boeheim told me at the time of Crouthamel’s retirement. “He has been about as loyal and significant a figure as any athlete or coach in school history. Jake has done a fantastic job of putting not only our athletic programs but the entire university on the map.”

A native of Perkasie, Pa., Crouthamel was never comfortable in the spotlight, and his disdain for it often was mistaken for aloofness by me and others. “It’s my belief the credit belongs to the student-athletes and the coaches who guide them,’’ he told me in 2005. “I didn’t score the winning goals. I didn’t draw up the winning plays.”

True that, but he did lay the groundwork for the athletic program to leap from regional to national prominence. Known for his signature tweed jacket and his ever-present cigarette, the chain-smoking Crouthamel was the man who raised Syracuse from the ashes. Here’s hoping SU does the right thing and places his name on its stadium Ring of Honor.

***

It was early June, and Bryan Karns and his wife, Ashlie, were decompressing and doing some soul searching about the next leg of their nomadic journey. Karns had just pulled off the unprecedented feat of overseeing the 2021 PGA KitchenAid Senior Championship and the 2022 PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., about an hour from where he and his wife had grown up. The couple was feeling both exhilarated and exhausted.

They had enjoyed bopping around the map for more than a decade, living a year or two in places as disparate as suburban Chicago, French Lick, Ind., Washington, D.C. and Rochester as Karns climbed the PGA corporate ladder. But they were beginning to think maybe it was time for them to return permanently to their roots.

“I felt maybe I had gone as far as I could go with the PGA,’’ he said. “And I wondered how I would ever be able to top what had just occurred, hosting major tournaments not far from where I grew up. You obviously make connections in my line of work, and I had numerous offers from people in other industries. I felt my people and organizational skills would be transferable. Our families were in Oklahoma, so we were thinking maybe we should forego taking on the assignment of the 2025 PGA in Charlotte, N.C.”

And then the phone rang. And faster than you could say, “Oak Hill Country Club,’’ Bryan and Ashlie were on the road again – back to Rochester, a place that felt like a second home to them three years earlier. Barry Deach, the director of the 2023 PGA Championship at Oak Hill, had resigned unexpectedly, and PGA officials scrambled to find a replacement, less than a year before the tournament. They immediately turned to Karns because of the solid relationship he had established with Oak Hill and the Rochester community while running the Senior PGA event there in 2019. And, to sweeten the pot, they offered Karns the directorship of the 2025 Ryder Cup, which is scheduled for the prestigious Long Island course, Beth Page Black.

“In a matter of minutes we went from not knowing what was coming down the road to feeling great about these new opportunities,’’ he said. “We had developed friendships from our time in Rochester, so we were really looking forward to renewing those. And the Ryder Cup was the whipped cream and cherry on top of the sundae.”

Major golf tournaments are massive undertakings – years in the making – and had this one been scheduled for someplace other than Rochester, Karns probably would have declined. “I was walking into a great and familiar situation,’’ he said. “I had worked with people there and knew how supportive they were and how organized and cooperative they were. And a part of me also felt an obligation to pull this off for them, given the rich tradition of golf and majors in Rochester.”

With just six months to go before the world’s best golfers and 200,000 spectators descend upon Oak Hill, everything is pretty much ahead of schedule, according to Karns. Restorations to the historic East Course have been completed, and the foundations for the corporate, merchandising and media tents are being laid. An army of several thousand volunteers has been assembled. Almost all the tickets and hospitality tents have been sold for tournament week, which runs from May 15-21.

“We have our team in place,’’ he said. “Now, it’s just a matter of blocking and tackling, executing the strategy, the X’s and O’s. That’s what we are focused on now. The beauty of this club and community is that they have been through this many times before. They’re a well-oiled machine.’’

***

As I write this, members of Bills Mafia are holding their collective breath in hopes the injury Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen suffered to his throwing elbow in Sunday’s loss to the New York Jets isn’t serious. Other than perhaps Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs, I can’t think of an NFL player more indispensable than Allen.

With 2,403 passing yards and 392 rushing yards, he is responsible for 84 percent of the Bills offense. He also has had an arm (19 TD passes) and a leg (four rushing scores) in 23 of the team’s 26 touchdowns. Allen sat out four games during his rookie season with a similar ulnar collateral elbow injury. Should he be sidelined again, Buffalo will have to rely on backup Case Keenum, a 10-year veteran with a 29-35 record as a starter. Hopefully, Keenum can be the kind of insurance policy Frank Reich was when Jim Kelly was hurt during the Bills Super Bowl years.

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

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