Ghosts of Recruiting Past: Aging, Embattled Warriors Pitt and Syracuse
Today's kids probably have no idea Pitt and Syracuse were once incredibly powerful programs, not much different than say, a Georgia of today. Unfortunately for various reasons, several decades of change in America and the college football landscape have revealed their age. Sure, there's the movie about the late great Ernie Davis. Jim Brown is an American athletic legend and cultural icon. Pitt produced legends like Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, Hugh Green and Mike Ditka. Oh, and that Larry Fitzgerald guy. None of that matters much right now.
This isn't to say the programs have completely fallen off the map. Syracuse is in a particular pickle of late, but not long ago they were filling up the Carrier Dome, home to guys like Donovan McNabb, Marvin Harrison, Dwight Freeney, Rob Konrad and Marvin Graves. Pitt's never far from a bowl season and has appeared in a BCS game, losing to Utah in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. But things aren't what they used to be.
Name brand matters a great deal in college football, and these two have enduring brands. So what happened?
For Pitt, the story's all in here. The program went from 1-10 under Carl A. DePasqua in 1972 to a 12-0 national championship season under Johnny Majors in 1976. Jackie Sherrill followed with a trio of 11-win seasons before he departed. Pitt hasn't won more than nine games since. And look, there's that Paul Hackett fellow, the same one who nearly submerged USC before Pete Carroll came along. What you see in that timeline is a string of adequate but not superlative coaches since Sherrill's departure in 1981.
Mix in a little post-industrial America colliding with an industrial town, America's general population flight from north and east to south and west, and you get a place that has a declining recruiting base and is a tough draw to outsiders. Factors like that matter little in the homogenized NFL where parity is strictly mandated and a franchise like the Steelers can keep on rolling right into the Super Bowl, but colleges compete in a more open market of human capital.
All of which points toward Pitt's depressing single appearance in the top 25 of Phil Steele's consensus recruiting classes the last nine years: 14th in 2006.
Call me crazy, but I also don't think it helps that once and future rival Penn State has worn its petty hat for a while now in refusing to resume a regular rivalry game with Pitt, something that might capture the nation's attention and benefit both programs. Mind you, when I say Penn State, I mean Joe Paterno. We wish him a long and healthy rest of his life, but don't pretend there aren't a lot of people exceedingly anxious to see the renewal of that series the moment the inevitable happens and he no longer has a say in the matter.
Recruiting is an inexact science, but one of the tricks I've learned in assessing a recruiting class without watching the individual players is to scan their offer list. Depressingly, many of Pitt's incoming recruits this year are holding offers not of Big East schools or better, but MAC level, non-BCS schools. Not everyone obviously, but enough. The stars this time around according to our own Chas Rich are inside linebacker Dan Mason and the awesomely named tight end Brock DeCicco, Rivals.com four star and three star players.
Further up north, Syracuse has finally put the disastrous Greg Robinson era to bed. Robinson went 1-10, 4-8, 2-10 and 3-9 taking over for Paul Pasqualoni, who as recently as 2001 fielded a 10-win team.
It appears Syracuse is suffering from some of the same outside factors as Pitt, plus a mix of that sometimes brutal upstate New York weather and an even weaker recruiting base. That isn't to say success can't happen again there, just look at Buffalo and the turnaround made by coach Turner Gill. So much of college football success revolves around either the power of the institution or the abilities of the head coaches to recruit and create some kind of narrative about the schools.
What, exactly, is Syracuse's story?
Nobody knows, and that's the problem. New coach Doug Marrone is an alum who obviously has continued to buy in, so we'll see if he can re-assemble the pieces to make Syracuse whole again.
In the meantime, damage has been done. Syracuse last appeared on Phil Steele's consensus top 25 recruiting rankings in 2000, with the No. 22 class. Same thing in 1999, No. 22.
Among the pledged commits in their recruiting class, it's a smattering of two and three-star players, many undersized and carrying marginal offers. That's been going on for years, as Robinson proved to have a disastrous recruiting touch. Somehow, not long ago, Syracuse was able to position itself as attractive enough for guys like Donovan McNabb. As much as I hate domed stadia, there is something unique about the Carrier Dome when it's at capacity and the Syracuse faithful are behind their team. We wouldn't know, because nobody speaks of it lately, a distant memory thanks to the diminished returns late in the Paul Pasqualoni era and the sinking ship that was the Greg Robinson regime.
This year's draft will be the second for Syracuse featuring fourth-year guys recruited by Greg Robinson. Last year's saw just two players chosen, fourth round defensive back Tanard Jackson and seventh round linebacker Kelvin Smith. This year the pickings are even more slim. ESPN.com's NFL draft page lists just two draftable players, an offensive guard and a fullback, both low priority positions. The cupboard is officially bare.
Be sure to check out the entire Ghosts of Recruiting series leading up to college football's national letter of intent day
Previously in Ghosts of Recruiting
Ghosts of Recruiting Past: Pac-10 Also-Rans Washington and UCLA
Ghosts of Recruiting Past: Big 12 Slumpers Colorado and Texas A&M
Ghosts of Recruiting Past: Former Masters Miami and Florida State