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Don McPherson walked into Nassau Community College football head coach John Anselmo’s office, days after he found out that he would be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008.
Sitting in the small office, the former Syracuse quarterback spoke with Anselmo and Ed Mack, who was an assistant at Nassau. After informing them of his induction, McPherson asked the coaches what they thought of SU’s then-head coach, Greg Robinson, who was coming off a 2-10 season in 2007. Anselmo and Mack replied that they had never met Robinson. In his three years as SU’s head coach, Robinson never visited the local school that sent over 150 players to Division I programs under Anselmo.
“You gotta be kidding me,” McPherson said.
Anselmo, like other high school and junior college coaches around the northeast, had a close relationship with Robinson’s predecessor, Paul Pasqualoni, who was SU’s head from 1991-2004. Pasqualoni focused on recruiting players within five to six hours of Syracuse’s campus. Even if he wasn’t recruiting a player at Nassau, Pasqualoni or other members of his SU staff stopped by the school and dropped off a dozen doughnuts when they were in the area, McPherson said. Anselmo could always call Pasqualoni’s office at Syracuse and talk to the coach on the phone. But he never called Robinson — or even met him. He didn’t know who Robinson was, a sentiment echoed by several other area high school coaches who spoke with The Daily Orange.
After a 51-14 loss to Georgia Tech in the 2004 Champs Sports Bowl, Syracuse fired Pasqualoni, its head coach since 1991. Then-athletic director Daryl Gross replaced him with Robinson, who had been a defensive coordinator in the NFL and at Texas. Over four seasons as SU’s head coach, Robinson went 10-37, overseeing Syracuse’s first two double-digit loss seasons, and the loss of a recruiting base 23 years in the making.
“All these relationships were gone,” McPherson said. “Greg Robinson … didn’t know the northeast as a college coach.”
Robinson did not respond to The Daily Orange’s request for comment. In 2015, he said he had “no regrets” about his time at Syracuse.
“If you go back and check out the archives of the players that I left in that program. A whole bunch went into pro football that I recruited,” Robinson said. “I’m not going to say it was better than when I came, or whatever, but I’m just going to tell you that I left in very good shape for years to come. And if people really go back and really do their homework, they’d see that … I feel good about what I did there. I needed to win more games.”
Three different head coaches have followed Robinson, none finding consistent success. Since Pasqualoni was fired, SU has appeared in just four bowl games, winning 37.6% of its games over the last 17 seasons. Per 247Sports, the Orange have only brought in 11 4-star recruits — and no 5-stars — since 2005.
Syracuse, now led by sixth-year head coach Dino Babers, has been again trying to build his own recruiting pipeline. But as Babers and SU stumbled to a 1-10 season, Greg Schiano returned to Rutgers, one of Syracuse’s other major competitors in northeast recruiting, last year for his second stint as head coach. After assembling a top-20 Class of 2022 that features five 4-star players, four of which are from the northeast, per 247Sports, Schiano has further frustrated the Orange’s recruiting efforts. Syracuse’s 2022 class, meanwhile, is 58th nationally, and has zero players four stars or higher.
Schiano’s rise when he first started with the Scarlet Knights coincided with Robinson and Syracuse’s recruiting demise, as Schiano built strong, family-like relationships with high school coaches throughout the northeast — particularly in his home state of New Jersey. Schiano was able to turn SU’s old recruiting territory into Rutgers’ territory, several local players and coaches said.
“(Syracuse) really did well in our area getting recruits, things of that nature, then they had a change,” West Orange High School (NJ) head coach Darnell Grant said. “And then we didn’t have a lot of interaction with them after that. There was just this really big, stark difference.”
In 1981, Dick MacPherson inherited a Syracuse program that had played in just one bowl game over the past 15 years. MacPherson — a New England native — assembled a staff primarily composed of northeastern coaches to construct a recruiting base in the area, placing an emphasis on winning recruiting battles within a 5-6 hour radius of Syracuse’s campus, according to multiple former players and coaches.
George O’Leary, a brash, “old school” coach, joined Syracuse’s coaching staff as a defensive line coach following three years at Liverpool High School. As a Long Island native, he used his local ties to recruit future Syracuse stars Rob Moore, Rob Carpenter and McPherson from his hometown.
“He spoke our language,” McPherson said.
Randy Edsall, who later became a head coach at Maryland and Connecticut, studied under O’Leary, sharpening his own skills as a recruiter. He brought in seven future All-Americans to Syracuse. In 1987, O’Leary left for Georgia Tech, and MacPherson hired Pasqualoni to take over his recruiting area.
Coming off a five-year stint as head coach at Western Connecticut State, Pasqualoni was already familiar with the Long Island area, Anselmo said. Pasqualoni frequently visited Nassau Community College and tried to recruit Anselmo’s D-I players to his D-III school. His familiarity with the area made his move to Syracuse an “easy transition,” Anselmo said.
Two years prior, MacPherson hired former Rutgers and Holy Cross assistant George DeLeone as his offensive line coach. While MacPherson never won more than seven games in his first six seasons, DeLeone brought experience recruiting in New Jersey and the unique “freeze” option offense that MacPherson craved, the former assistant said.
By 1987, Syracuse had an undefeated regular season and an appearance in the Sugar Bowl. Four years later, MacPherson departed SU to become the head coach of the New England Patriots and Pasqualoni took over as Syracuse’s head coach, going 10-2 in each of his first two seasons.
Pasqualoni maintained MacPherson’s recruiting and coaching philosophies, DeLeone and former Syracuse running back and assistant coach David Walker said, and winning over high school coaches was crucial.
Syracuse’s staff traveled around the northeast, hosting clinics and teaching area coaches how to run SU’s option offense while helping them develop professionally. Coaches also attended clinics while visiting Syracuse during spring practices. On occasion, the clinics attracted 100-200 people just by word of mouth. DeLeone recalled many nights after recruiting was over, he’d go to a coach’s house and talk about football with them until 1 or 2 a.m.
“It was the work of, I believe, DeLeone and Pasqualoni doing clinics … in high schools in the northeast that really helped the pipeline of players coming to Syracuse,” McPherson said.
Longtime New Jersey high school coach Joe George recalled Pasqualoni and DeLeone regularly visiting Franklin High School (NJ) to run clinics. While Franklin didn’t have many D-I players at the time, the two Orange coaches would come to the high school and meet with George and his assistants. Pasqualoni or DeLeone conducted coaches’ clinics on a blackboard that lasted over two hours, George said. Afterwards, the coaches would go out to dinner.
“They were very active. Very, very active,” George said. “Paul and George (DeLeone) were recruiters extraordinaire.”As Syracuse continued to win and play in major bowl games throughout the 90s, its recruiting philosophy remained the same, DeLeone said. He said the coaching staff realized they were not a “selector school” that could go into other regions and successfully recruit. Under Pasqualoni, SU continued to focus its efforts locally — particularly in the recruiting hotbed of New Jersey — while occasionally expanding into Texas or Florida for positional needs.
Camden High School (NJ) head coach Dwayne Savage said the Orange recruited the South Jersey region heavily during the late 80s and throughout the 90s. Camden native Donovin Darius was recruited by Syracuse assistant Bob Casullo, and became a two-time All-Big East player and first-round NFL Draft pick.
“They were real big in South Jersey,” Savage said. “It was almost like it was the local school, where you’re probably getting a little more kids going there over Rutgers.”Pasqualoni and DeLeone, along with assistant Steve Addazio, used their connections from their home state of Connecticut to expand their recruiting base. Future NFL players from the state including Dwight Freeney, Terry Wooden and Todd Philcox all got their starts at Syracuse.
“If you were in the northeast, you wanted to go to Syracuse,” McPherson said. “We were the hometown team for lots of hometowns in the northeast.”
The northeast pipeline gave Pasqualoni and SU the on-field success it needed to occasionally expand its efforts into other areas, DeLeone said. DeLeone was the lead recruiter on Donovan McNabb, a Chicago native who was one of the top quarterbacks in the country in 1994. McNabb went on to win three Big East championships and helped usher in a stretch where SU played in six bowl games over seven years.
By that point, MacPherson and Pasqualoni’s recruiting base had brought in talent that consistently put SU in the top-25. The Carrier Dome averaged at least 43,000 fans every season from 1987 to 2000, a number that has not been matched since with the exception of the 2012 season. Over that stretch, the Orange won 10 or more games five times and played in 13 bowl games.
“It was a golden time,” DeLeone said.
In the early 2000s, Syracuse’s longtime athletic director, Jake Crouthamel, was entering the final years of his 26-year tenure. Crouthamel was “very tight with the budget,” McPherson said. When MacPherson was SU’s head coach, he wore a Cleveland Browns windbreaker to practice every day, putting a piece of orange tape over the Browns logo. Crouthamel didn’t care, McPherson said, because it was one more jacket he didn’t have to buy. And while Big East schools — and recruiting competitors — Connecticut and Louisville were working on new football-only facilities to impress recruits, Syracuse was sharing space with several other teams in Manley Field House.
From 2002-2004, Syracuse went 16-20. Pasqualoni still brought in highly-recruited players like Cecil Howard and Johnnie Morant, but on-field success slipped and fans called for the coach’s firing. Then, in her first year as SU’s Chancellor, Nancy Cantor announced that Pasqualoni would return for the 2005 season. But Gross, who had recently been hired from USC to replace Crouthamel, fired Pasqualoni after a 37-point loss to Georgia Tech — directly countering Cantor’s announcement.
“I probably didn’t agree with it. Not probably, let me rephrase that: Didn’t agree with it,” Walker said.
Despite news reports at the time saying the decision to fire Pasqualoni was made by Gross, Gross told The Daily Orange via email that he had no intention of firing Pasqualoni when he took the job.
“The decision to fire him was not my decision. That decision came from above and the powers that were,” Gross wrote. “The local community was very negative in general about Paul. I wanted him to continue with me.”
Gross replaced Syracuse’s second-winningest coach of all-time with Robinson, a two-time Super Bowl winning assistant coach whose only ties to the northeast were a five-year stint with the New York Jets. Robinson brought a West Coast offense and assistants like Major Applewhite and Tim Cross from his time at Texas.
In his first year, Robinson led the Orange to a 1-10 record, going 0-7 in Big East play. Syracuse was the third-worst team in the country in offensive yardage. Gross wrote the quarterbacks Robinson inherited — Perry Patterson and Joe Fields — “didn’t fit the pro system” that Robinson wanted. Gross added that Robinson’s lack of success as a head coach was due in part to the fact that “the cupboard wasn’t stocked” when he took over for Pasqualoni.
While Robinson’s team struggled on the field, he didn’t make an effort to maintain Syracuse’s relationships with area high schools, several coaches said. Like Anselmo, George never met Robinson, noting that the Orange’s presence in New Jersey and New York City “was not as visible” in comparison to their presence under previous head coaches.
“Up until that time, (Syracuse) recruited Long Island … and the city, heavily,” Anselmo said.
As Robinson neglected to recruit the northeast like Syracuse had in the past, Schiano was slowly building a competitive team at Rutgers. After Pasqualoni was fired, Schiano pounced on New York running back Ray Rice, who had verbally committed to Syracuse in 2003 after establishing a strong connection with the Orange coaching staff. But Rice’s commitment was to Pasqualoni, not to Syracuse. Rice said he saw the same qualities in Schiano that he did in Pasqualoni, and ultimately flipped his commitment to Rutgers.
“Personally, I didn’t feel (Robinson) was very much interested in my son,” Rice’s mother, Janet, told The D.O. in 2007. “I knew my son had so much athletic ability. But it seemed (Robinson) could care less (sic) if he would come or not.”
While building his program, Schiano wanted to turn New Jersey and New York City into Rutgers territory, Anselmo said. Rutgers’ offensive line coach Kyle Flood, a Queens native, successfully recruited top players without having to compete against Syracuse, McPherson said. Years later, Flood told McPherson that SU “abandoned a lot of (recruits) living rooms” that Rutgers entered.
“Talking to coach Flood, he kinda said it with a smile on his face, ‘You guys left a lot of candy on the table for us,’” McPherson said.
Rutgers was in the middle of a five-year stretch where it played in a bowl game every season, while the Orange went 2-10 in 2007, placing Robinson on the hot seat. At the start of the 2008 season, high school coaches were telling their players not to go to Syracuse because of speculation of a turbulent coaching situation.
That October, former SU and NFL fullback Rob Konrad wrote a letter to Gross, attempting to explain Syracuse’s struggles and where the school should look for their next head coach — before Robinson had even been fired. Konrad said that a Syracuse head coach should have preexisting knowledge on how to recruit the northeast.
“It’s my contention the failings of the program are due more directly to a general lack of understanding of the environment in which to operate a successful program at Syracuse University,” Konrad wrote. “The program should strive to get back to the principles that lead to twenty years of prominence in Northeastern football.”
Gross fired Robinson in November 2008. To replace him, he hired Doug Marrone, a Syracuse alum who played under MacPherson in the 80s. Marrone was also a Bronx native who had reportedly maintained connections with local high school coaches in case he got the job.
Marrone emulated many of the things MacPherson and Pasqualoni had done years earlier, specifically when it came to recruiting. He brought back the emphasis on recruiting in a 5-6 hour radius, hiring Anselmo as his defensive backs coach and Casullo as special teams coordinator to help with recruiting local players, McPherson said.
“We were gonna reclaim our territory back,” Anselmo said. “That’s the way we looked at it.”
New York City high school coaches “gravitated” toward Marrone because he was a NYC native, Anselmo said. Anselmo added that “90%” of his players at Nassau Community College came from Northern Jersey, New York City or Long Island, and thus he already had strong relationships with the coaches in those areas. He said there wasn’t a city coach he didn’t know. When Anselmo went into high schools around New York City, he told the coaches that if they had a Division-I caliber player, Syracuse wanted a visit.
Former Syracuse quarterback Terrel Hunt recalled Anselmo and Marrone unexpectedly attending his mother’s funeral in 2010 while Hunt was still deciding between Syracuse, Rutgers and Connecticut. The fact that SU was a reasonable distance from his home in Rosedale, New York and the relationships he developed with two the New York City-native coaches helped with his decision, Hunt said.
“When you meet somebody from your neighborhood it’s kind of like you hit it off right away,” Hunt said.
Anselmo also recruited 4-star defensive back Wayne Morgan out of Erasmus High School in Brooklyn. When Anselmo walked into Erasmus in the spring of Morgan’s sophomore year, his head coach, Danny Landberg, told Anselmo that Morgan was going to Rutgers or Michigan. But two years later, Morgan committed to SU, saying the Orange were “New York City’s team.”
“From day one, we were going to make sure Rutgers didn’t beat us out on a kid in the city. It was just personal. For me and (Marrone),” Anselmo said.
Marrone also hired Moore, a former Pro Bowler with the New York Jets, to coach wide receivers and recruit in New Jersey. Grant recalled area players and coaches connecting with Moore since many of them watched him play with the Jets. Former Syracuse defensive tackle Marcus Coleman, a Camden, New Jersey native, said South Jersey was considered Big Ten country at that time, but Marrone understood the importance of having a presence in the state and recruited it hard.
Under Marrone, Syracuse went 25-25 over four seasons, winning two Pinstripe Bowls. Marrone provided a “huge resuscitation to the program,” McPherson said. He was slowly rebuilding relationships with northeast high school coaches and turning around a program still reeling from Robinson’s tenure.
But Marrone’s abrupt departure to become the Buffalo Bills head coach in 2012 surprised Syracuse players and forced the remaining coaching staff to keep together SU’s incoming recruiting class. Future Miami and NFL running back Gus Edwards “was dead set on coming to Syracuse” until Marrone left, Anselmo said. Quarterback Zach Allen flipped to TCU and linebacker Malik Brown decommitted, too.
“I thought (Marrone) was about to try to start a dynasty where he graduated from,” former Syracuse running back Prince-Tyson Gulley later told The D.O in 2015. “I thought that was the original goal.”
Marrone’s last year at Syracuse was the school’s last season in the Big East. Schiano left Rutgers in 2011 to become the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ head coach, putting Flood in charge of the program. Flood struggled against Big Ten competition as midwest schools like Michigan and Ohio State began recruiting New Jersey and New York more easily with Rutgers in their conference. Players like Jabrill Peppers and Curtis Samuel left their home states for Big Ten competition, opening up the region for schools from all over the country.
“The City’s wide-open now,” Anselmo said.
Scott Shafer, Marrone’s defensive coordinator, took over as head coach. Before his first season in his new role, Shafer said he wanted to fill his roster with players from within a 300-mile — or 5-hour — radius of campus, but added that it was “unrealistic.”
Shafer was fired after three seasons and a 14-23 record. Babers was hired as his replacement, bringing his up-tempo spread offense from Bowling Green to the Carrier Dome. Babers initially said his recruiting focus would be in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the midwest. Syracuse even ran a satellite camp in Brooklyn in the summer of 2016. In 2017, Syracuse upset No. 2 Clemson and in 2018, Babers led the Orange to a 10-3 season — SU’s best record since Pasqualoni’s 2001 team.
But over the past two seasons, the Orange have gone 6-17. Babers told The Athletic last summer that Syracuse needs to improve recruiting in Massachusetts, Vermont and the Washington, D.C. area. He said when he first came to Syracuse, he wanted to recruit Northern Virginia heavily, but was talked out of it, only to return a few years later.
McPherson and others said Babers hasn’t been able to find consistent success in part because high school teams in the northeast don’t typically use schemes similar to Babers’. This is due largely to the weather that prevents players from playing football year round, McPherson said.
“Dino came in going ‘Orange is the new fast.’ Problem is, the northeast is not that fast,” McPherson said.
Babers had defensive line coach Vince Reynolds recruiting New Jersey, multiple coaches said. But with frequent turnover in SU’s coaching staff, it’s harder to develop relationships for recruiting, Dan Sabella, Don Bosco Prep’s (NJ) head coach, said.
“When there’s continuity and when there’s longevity amongst a staff, obviously a lot of times relationships are stronger because there’s more of a trust factor,” Sabella said. “When guys are coming in and out, it’s hard to develop that trust in the relationship.”
Historically, Syracuse has placed a large emphasis on recruiting New Jersey and downstate New York due to the lack of talent immediately surrounding the school, Gross and DeLeone said. Multiple coaches said Syracuse and Rutgers have found the most success when their rosters have been filled primarily with northeastern players.
But now, coming off one of the worst seasons in program history, Babers and the rest of the SU coaching staff have to face Schiano in week two — one of the region’s top recruiters — while looking for local talent that can lead to consistent success.
“Syracuse doesn’t own the northeast,” McPherson said. “And we should.”
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