Syracuse football coach Dino Babers has spoken to his team about what he has relied on a lot over the past year.
“Aim for more with less.”
Among Babers’ many gifts is his ability to tell a story. To explain the phrase, Babers recalls his former college coach, the late Dick Tomey, and how he constantly used it on his teams.
“When I was 18, I was like, ‘What the H is he talking about? Less harder?” I want to date her, I want her to be my wife — “Try less for more.” I want to be a head coach … “Try less for more.” What does that mean?” Babers says.
Babers never forgot that phrase as he moved forward with his career, desperate to understand what Tomey was trying to say. In Babers’ mind, there was no point in “trying harder for less”. To get where he wanted to go, he felt he had to work harder than anyone else, and then a little extra. But as he made his career as an assistant, and the cycle of job interviews kept getting bigger and tighter, it finally caught up with him.
“When you get older, when you have the skills, when you have the abilities, when that happens, the best thing you can do is be relaxed,” Babers, now 61, said. “I think back to all the head coaching jobs I interviewed for where I wanted the job so bad and I didn’t get the job. The first time I interviewed where I said, ‘You know what? If I get a job, I get it. If I don’t, I can’t. Well, I got the job. It’s like I’m invincible when I have that attitude.”
He uses the story to make a larger point about his team this year. The team is off to its first 3-0 start since 2018 heading into tonight’s game against Virginia (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“Now I finally understand what it means to try less,” he says. “Hopefully my team will too.”
They talked about it after last season, a disappointing 5-7 campaign in which Syracuse lost three games by a goal. Throughout his coaching career, Babers has prided himself on winning close games. Whichever one of those three-point games goes differently, Syracuse is a bowl team last year and the narrative for the Orange heading into this season is completely different.
Babers showed his players a collection of offseason games that could have produced a different outcome. A message? “We can show you 10 plays where God didn’t have to go back and redo you,” Babers said. “You only had to do what you were taught to do.”
Try less more.
After last season, Babers brought in five new assistants — most notably offensive coordinator Robert Anae and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck from Virginia — to help improve a stagnant offense.
Babers had never worked with Anae, but former Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall was one of Babers’ colleagues who all said the same thing about Anae’s hiring: Go for it.
“By the time we got together and got to sit down and talk X’s and O’s and talk philosophy, I’m like, ‘This is a no-brainer,'” Babers said. “It’s about 80 to 85%, I’m talking to the exact same person [as me]and the remaining 10-15% is negotiable. It was an intense relationship.”
Try less more.
So far, the results are promising. Quarterback Garrett Shrader has 11 total touchdowns (no interceptions) and 910 yards of total offense this season. He has scored 68 points, which ranks sixth in the nation.
“Early on, in winter training, guys started catching up,” Shrader said. “There was a different sense of urgency and competitiveness. Then when we got to spring ball and saw what we could do with the new system, it was completely different. There was a lot more excitement. We scored a bunch of points.”
That’s what Babers wants. When he first arrived in Syracuse in 2016, he promised “Orange is the new fast,” and for a while, that was true. Syracuse pulled off several headline-grabbing upsets early in his tenure — including a 27-24 win over No. 2 Clemson in 2017. Syracuse went 4-8 that year, but had a breakthrough the following season.
Syracuse went 10-3 in 2018 and ranked in the top 20 nationally in offense and total offense. It seemed as if the program was on an upward trajectory.
After a 27-24 upset of No. 2 Clemson, Syracuse’s Dino Babers is telling his team to never forget that feeling if anyone doubts them.
But that season was Babers’ only bowl appearance at Syracuse to date.
Over the past three seasons, Syracuse has struggled to regain its footing. The 2020 COVID-19 season dealt Syracuse with challenges that other programs did not, starting with strict state protocols that required the Orange to adjust their entire travel schedule for road games because they had to leave and return within a 24-hour window.
Syracuse went 1-10 that year, but Babers didn’t consider it a complete failure. He says he learned patience. The players who chose to stay learned that they could trust and rely on each other.
Try less more.
“We stuck together through our ups and downs,” said linebacker Mikel Jones, who was on the team in 2020 and is now an All-ACC performer. “Some people transitioned and a lot of people stayed. I feel like the ones that stayed, we worked together and pursued something we believed in, and that was ourselves.”
This includes Babers. After the regular season ended last November, athletic director John Wildhack announced that Babers would return and “we will aggressively work on our weaknesses.” He factored in the year of COVID — Wildhack said it was nothing short of a miracle the team played its entire 11-game schedule — and the 2021 losses.
Wildhack also noted that none of the starters entered the transition portal.
“That told me there was a culture here, and the culture was working,” Wildhack said in a telephone interview. “My job was to work with Dino. Once we have that foundation, what changes do we make to make that foundation stronger?”
This included personnel changes, as well as a completely redesigned recruitment department.
“The overall infrastructure of our program is stronger than it was last year, stronger than it was two years ago,” Wildhack said. “So when I see progress like that, I think the coach has earned the right to be here.”
But that didn’t end questions about the program’s direction. In June, Wildhack once again told local reporters that Babers was not on the hot seat. “It was nice of him to do it, but did I ask for it? No,” Babers said.
After starting 3-0, Syracuse players have noticed a shift in the narrative around the team, especially among fans.
“Last year the fans gave us a hard time, this year they’re kissing our bottom. It’s the same people, nothing’s changed,” Shrader said. “We love Coach Babers. I thank him every day for giving him the opportunity to come here and for me to be the starting quarterback. I have to make it a point to prove to the people in this area that he made the right decision. in the building and in this conference.”
He certainly did last week with a dramatic come-from-behind win against Purdue, especially in a wild, crazy and highly emotional fourth quarter. After Purdue took a 15-10 lead, Shrader threw a 46-yard pass to Oronde Gadsden II on fourth-and-1 to go up 18-15.
After a pick-six that gave the Orange a 25-15 lead, Purdue scored two touchdowns to go back ahead 29-25. But several penalties on Purdue gave Syracuse great field position, and Shrader threw a 25-yard game-winning touchdown to Gadsden with 7 seconds left.
Garrett Shrader finds Oronde Gadsden II for a Syracuse touchdown with seven seconds left.
On the sideline, Babers tried to keep his emotions in check.
“I’m a volcano,” Babers said. “You can put houses and paths and roads and little vantage points outside of me. You can think life is great for four, five, six years and then suddenly I’ll wipe all those things out as soon as I get angry and all the lava starts flowing. It was definitely with everything going on. Super confident, super determined when you go down.”
You know… try less more.