An odd feeling filled me as my dear wife Karen and I settled into our seats in the Carrier Dome for the final time in this 2015 college football season Saturday.
It looked familiar enough, a sparse crowd that the Sunday paper listed as what I figure as a bought-but-did-not-attend 30,317 in place for the Syracuse Orange’s game against the Eagles of Boston College, a tussle of two 3-8 teams swimming at the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
A few minutes before the 12:30 p.m. kickoff, and the team did its things, bursting out of the tunnel and through the manufactured smoke and noise onto the field. At least the seniors get to wear orange jerseys for their last game, I thought.
I strained to find Scott Shafer on the sideline as his Syracuse squad went through the last preparations under his watch. Athletic director Mark Coyle fired the third-year coach six days before game 12, and then told him although the results had not been good enough, there’d be this one last Saturday in the Shafer file.
How sad for the man.
I know he worked hard, chasing high school players all over the country to convince him that our snowy little city and its prestigious private university with a football team that last won a national football championship 60 years ago was the right place for them.
I know he tried his best, assembling good men underneath his top spot on the hierarchy to call and text and travel out there and teach and guide and proxy-parent right here.
I know he felt part of the community, part of us.
I know he really, really wanted to win.
I know it wasn’t working out. After a bowl game success and much optimism his first year, the Orange went 3-9 last season, and then three wins so far this season, and crowds comparable to this in a seven-game home schedule …
The shoe fell.
But his players still loved them. And they looked ready to play hard again, as they did every game he and his hand-picked assistants led them out of a locker room.
There was some love in the stands, too.
On the field, the teams struggled mightily. Orange quarterback Zach Mahoney threw some good passes that clicked, including touchdown shorties of 2 and 1 yards to Erv Phillips and Steve Ishmael. He also threw some too hard that bounced off their hands, and some in their hands they should have caught, I figured. Amazing, considering he’s a walk-on who was behind many other quarterbacks, including the injured Terrel Hunt and Eric Dungey, and als reserve Austin Wilson, who all got into games before him this strange season.
On defense, the Orange couldn’t stop Boston College quarterback Jeff Smith when he got to the outside. Smith ran for 117 yards on 13 carries, topping even running back Tyler Rouse, who had quite a homecoming game for the folks from nearby Baldwinsville with 111 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.
After 59 minutes and 57 seconds, the teams were tied 17-17.
But Mahoney and true freshman running back Jordan Fredericks had maneuvered Shafer’s young men down the field and dead center in front of the goal posts perfectly, one last drive to allow kicker Cole Murphy to do his thing.
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Boston College coach Steve Addazio called his remaining two timeouts in attempt to rattle Murphy. It didn’t work. His kick from 35-yards was straight and true.
The Orange players joyfully rushed from the sideline to join their teammates on the field.
Scott Shafer’s last Syracuse team finished the season 4-8. The players hoisted him upon their shoulders.
Mark Coyle will announce who will lead Syracuse’s next regime, presumably soon. The community awaits the news, those who have faithfully come to the games and those who may return next season.
It was a strange day in the Carrier Dome, a wide range of emotions down there and up here.
Have you ever witnessed a swan song, and if so, how did it feel to you? Have you ever participated in a one-last, and if so, how did it feel? What do you think is more important on a college coach’s resume: team record, crowd attendance, or athletes’ grades/behavior reports, and why?