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Orange off to their worst start in 23 years


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The doctor's in the house, and he promises to resuscitate Syracuse football.

"You may have a chance to get us now, but it's not going to be like that for long," says Syracuse's athletic director, Dr. Daryl J. Gross, who is less than a year on the job. "I know it, and [coach Greg Robinson] knows it, and I think our people know it. We want everyone to know this is a new day at Syracuse. We have championship expectations. You better get on board now, because we're going up."

In flames? Not quite, but things are pretty bad at the moment. If the Orange (1-6, 0-4 Big East) don't beat visiting Cincinnati Saturday, there's a very real chance they could become the first team in the program's 116-year history to lose 10 games. In the meantime, they have lost five in a row and are off to their worst start in 23 years.

If that doesn't reflect the gravity of the situation, this might: The latest Scripps-Howard power rankings have SU ranked 118th among 117 Division I-A teams, 12 spots behind William & Mary and right behind Division I-AA Ivy Leaguer Penn.

"I didn't see this, especially for my senior year," tight end Alex Shor said. "You just have to fight through it."

After the Cincinnati game, the Orange play Nov. 12 at home against South Florida and finish with road games at Notre Dame and Louisville. A split in their final four games would give them a 3-8 mark. That would be their worst since 1982, when they went 2-9 under **** MacPherson. SU had never been 0-4 in the Big East until losing at Pitt Saturday.

If somebody would have told star safety Anthony Smith his team would be 1-6?

"I would've just nodded my head like they were crazy," Smith said. "But it happened."

Something, definitely, has happened to a proud program that long-ago produced the likes of Jim Brown, Floyd Little and Larry Csonka, and more recently propelled Dwight Freeney, Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison toward NFL stardom. Some veteran SU observers say the program failed to capitalize -- from a recruiting standpoint --- on the McNabb era. They wonder how different things might have been if Michael Vick hadn't made a sharp cutback toward Virginia Tech when it looked as if he was headed to Syracuse to replace McNabb (he was even promised McNabb's No. 5).

This hasn't been a sudden nosedive but a slow, painful decline. Since McNabb left for the NFL after the 1998 season, the Orange are 40-39 overall, 21-24 in the Big East. Attendance, though up by more than 2,000 per game this season at the Carrier Dome, remains more than 7,000 below the usual crowds of around 47,000 that came to watch McNabb & Co. in '98.

"SU is … succeeding in making a whole lot of folks pine away for the good ol' days of Frank Maloney," wrote Syracuse Post-Standard columnist Bud Poliquin, referring to the man who coached SU to a 32-46 record from 1974-80.

Maloney's .410 winning percentage would look pretty good right now. But if you think any of this has Gross losing sleep, you're mistaken. He was bursting with energy and confidence before the Pitt game Saturday at Heinz Field. He spoke vivaciously about how he has marketed the football program all the way to Manhattan, about why he went back to the old-school look, complete with the block "S" on the helmets, and about the dreadful 31-9 home loss to Rutgers a week earlier -- a game in which Syracuse fumbled nine times.

"Of course, I don't want to lose to Rutgers," Gross said. "We don't want to lose to UConn, all that stuff, but if we have to sacrifice losing to those guys right now to build this thing the right way, that's part of the deal."

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Gross, 44, played wide receiver at Cal-Davis from 1979-81, later coached there and was a grad assistant at USC, where he earned a Ph.D. in educational psychology. He later became a scout for the New York Jets during Pete Carroll's stint as head coach in the early '90s.

A decade later, Gross was credited with bringing Carroll to USC. Gross' highly successful run as USC's associate athletic director (later senior associate AD) led to his hiring at Syracuse last December. He replaced the retiring Jake Crouthamel and immediately fired coach Paul Pasqualoni, who'd recently been given a vote of confidence.

Pasqualoni had more career Big East victories than anyone, but was just 16-20 over the previous three years. The move appeased the SU fan base, and Gross set out to find a coach who could build a stellar defense the way Carroll did at USC. Robinson, despite some rocky years with the Kansas City Chiefs, had a reputation as a defensive guru. He'd won two Super Bowls as the Denver Broncos' defensive coordinator and had orchestrated a killer Texas defense in 2004.

At 53, Robinson was eager for his first head coaching assignment. He remains eager, though he frankly admits he never saw 1-6 coming.

"We're a work in progress," he says.

After the 34-17 loss to Pitt, Robinson was asked if he could see a silver lining.

"Right now, I'm frustrated and disappointed, and that's really what's got me," he said. "So, you know, help me. Is there something you liked, that you felt was a silver lining?"

Other than the play of the dynamic Smith and a few others? Not really. The defense has been decent for most of the year, though it ranks last in the Big East against the run, allowing 169 yards per game.

Still, Gross seems pleased.

"Greg Robinson has brought everything I've wanted as far as defense," Gross said. "For me, the three guys that do the kind of defense we wanted were Pete Carroll , Greg Robinson and [Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator] Monte Kiffin. I got one of the three guys. Just like at SC, we started by building the defense. We want to make sure that we're the premier place to come to play defense."

Offensively, SU is ranked 113th in the country and dead last in third-down conversion rate (17.7 percent). Robinson brought in former Broncos tight ends coach Brian Pariani to install a West Coast offense that has been pleasant to watch only when compared to the grimmest scenes in "The Exorcist." A rash of injuries at receiver hasn't helped, and senior tackle Kurt Falke also went down.

Gross remains sold on the West Coast offense. He believes it's a matter of recruiting the talent to fit it.

"We brought a system here with the right expertise," Gross said. "It's just that we're waiting for it to click. At SC, that first year [under Carroll], we went 6-6, we weren't averaging a lot of yards of offense -- and we had the great [offensive coordinator] Norm Chow. It took us a while to get going. None of us likes to lose, but we know what the long-range plan is."

There is some optimism surrounding SU's recruiting class, which includes a possible star in 6-foot-3, 211-pound Baltimore-area quarterback Andrew Robinson. Gross figures the NFL-experienced coaching staff, combined with the school's facilities (including a new weight room) and tradition will be a good sell. He recently criticized the talent base Robinson inherited, but on Saturday said, "We have a good enough base of talent, but we can enhance it. With our philosophy alone and with Greg's schemes, his NFL experience, we'll attract a lot of great football players."

Gross' aim is to make SU football a statewide passion. He even created a New York City-based marketing campaign called, "Orange is in the Apple." He brokered a New York City radio deal for SU football games and bought several billboard ads.

"Connecticut tries to take claim to New York City," Gross said. "Rutgers, they feel they're close to New York City, but I don't think you'd ever hear the governor say, 'Hey, Connecticut's ours, Rutgers is ours.' No, we have to represent for the state of New York. Syracuse does. To me, that's a great opportunity for us to make it so that people in Manhattan know we're their college home team. When we get good, we want them to claim us."

That's the long-range goal. Robinson is more focused on the present. A few days before SU blew an early 10-point lead at Pitt, somebody asked him about his vision for the program.

"To win a second game," he said.

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

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