Football

Former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer to return to Carrier Dome as MTSU’s defensive coordinator

Daily Orange File Photo

In his three years at Syracuse, Scott Shafer finished 14-23 with a bowl appearance. Injuries ravaged the offense in 2014, “backing him into a corner,” former SU offensive lineman Sean Hickey said.

UPDATED: Sept. 8, 2017 at 12:01 a.m.

On Saturday, Zaire Franklin and Scott Shafer will both enter the Carrier Dome, as each of them have done many times before. But this time it’s different.

Shafer recruited Franklin to come to Syracuse and, in Franklin’s freshman season, Shafer sat him down and told him he had the leadership potential to become a captain in his sophomore season, the first since 1945. SU had only had three sophomore captains in program history before him. Shafer saw Franklin’s potential, but he never saw it fully develop.

There are 37 players left on Syracuse’s roster whom Shafer coached, and junior quarterback Eric Dungey said this week that he “was like a father-figure to me.”

This Saturday, Shafer will return to the Carrier Dome for the first time since being fired at the end of the 2015 season. Rather than pacing the Syracuse (1-0) sidelines, Shafer will coach as the defensive coordinator for Middle Tennessee State (0-1).

“(Shafer’s) going to want to draw some blood,” former SU defensive tackle Steven Clark said. “… He’s definitely like, ‘I’m going to go back and beat the heck out of these guys.’”

Middle Tennessee State did not make Shafer available for comment for this story.

Shafer’s return to defensive coordinator emblemizes what got him hired at Syracuse in the first place. In 2013, then-head coach Doug Marrone left to coach the Buffalo Bills and SU’s recent defensive turnaround made Shafer an attractive candidate.

SU had hired Shafer in 2009 when the defense hovered around a No. 100 national ranking in total yards and points allowed per game. In Shafer’s second season, the Orange finished top 10 in total yards allowed (3,904) and 17th in points per game allowed (19.3).

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Daily Orange File Photo

Syracuse hired Shafer as head coach for its first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Orange won seven games and its second consecutive bowl game. But it was Shafer’s last bowl appearance. In 2014, former SU tackle Sean Hickey said SU expected its offense to breakout.

Instead, injuries plagued the team and four quarterbacks appeared in at least two games. Shafer also demoted George McDonald, his offensive coordinator, to work with only wide receivers. Syracuse won three games.

“The following year, he was backed into a corner because of 2014,” Hickey said, “and 2015 had to go really well, even though (Syracuse) was in a rebuilding year.”

In 2015, the defense returned to rankings around No. 100 for points and yards. The offense struggled to score. Through 10 games, the Orange had only three wins.

On the plane ride to North Carolina State for Syracuse’s final road game, Shafer sat next to senior Terrel Hunt. The quarterback’s season had been cut short with a torn Achilles, but Hunt always accompanied Shafer to and from games.

During the trip, Hunt remembered Shafer turning to him and saying that if Syracuse lost, he would likely be fired. Hunt nodded. He remembered saying to Shafer, “Yeah, I kind of figured that.”

Syracuse lost to NC State, 42-29.

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Emma Comtois | Digital Editor

SU officially fired Shafer before the season ended but allowed him to coach the Orange’s final game, at home against Boston College. With under three minutes left in the fourth quarter, Boston College hit a game-tying field goal. The Orange then drove 51 yards and as time expired, Cole Murphy drilled a 35-yard field goal.

In that moment, after the buzzer, Shafer no longer coached those players. But players said it didn’t feel that way, because for many of them he had always been more than a coach. Shafer gave Hunt his phone number, as well as his wife’s and son’s in case Hunt needed anything. He counseled Sean Hickey after the then-SU tackle came to him while struggling to decide whether to leave school early for the NFL Draft. He told Luke Arciniega, a transfer defensive end, about balancing fatherhood and football when Arciniega found out he would soon become a dad.

These were the people he had invited to his home to use his pool and barbecue. The ones who had fooled around in the water, ate food and played pickup basketball. The ones who went wild when he brought an ice cream truck to the field after a hot practice.

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Courtesy of Luke Arciniega

“I remember talking to him and he said he never wanted to take a NFL coaching job,” Hickey said. “… He cares about the actual development of the kids.

“They come in as kids and leave as men. He cares about that process.”

After Murphy’s kick, Rob Trudo and Nick Robinson grabbed Shafer and hoisted him up on their shoulders and paraded him around the field before the rest of the team encircled the three. Teary-eyed, Shafer hugged his players one-by-one.

“For us to walk him off and show our appreciation…” Arciniega said, “… (We) just wanted to send him out the right way, let him (leave) on the shoulders of his players who he supported.”

On Saturday, when Shafer walks into the Dome, he’ll see Dungey, who’s blossomed into a star. He’ll see Franklin, the linebacker he made a captain. He’ll see senior Ervin Philips, who’s developed into a dominant slot receiver. He’ll see Dino Babers, his successor.

Then he’ll walk away, toward the visitor’s sideline.

The post has been updated for style.

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