Dino Babers has a history of turning around programs. Now, he’s trying to do the same with SU.
Dino Babers moved around the room, from conversation to conversation, handshake to handshake and autograph to autograph. He obliged as grown men and little kids asked for each during a promotional event at Driver’s Village in Cicero, New York, 22 days before SU’s season is scheduled to start. Then came the comments and questions — We’re counting on you, How’s the team?, We’re looking forward to the season.
The tacit understanding is that Syracuse has been through two straight seasons without a bowl game appearance, has a 36.6 winning percentage since Greg Robinson was hired in 2005 and no head coach stability since then.
What those making the comments and asking the questions don’t understand is Babers has mastered this. He’s made a career of flipping negatives to work for him: When his father died, when he was fired at Texas A&M and when he had a life-threatening car accident. They all steeled him, forced him to adapt and set him on a course to be Syracuse’s 30th head coach.
Those experiences created the smile on his exterior but also turned the gears in his brain. Babers laughs and mingles with fans like a politician with constituents. But soon he’ll leave and get back to work.
When Babers breaks from the gathering at Driver’s Village, his smile fades, if only a little, and he heads back to moving forward. Even while he’s shaking hands, you can see there’s something else on his mind. There are more steps he has to take toward Sept. 2, his SU coaching debut. There’s more film, more practices, more coaching. Babers has made a career of fighting back when life tries to bully him off his path. Now, he’ll try to help SU do the same.
The day of his father’s funeral, Babers strapped on two cowboy boots for the first time. His dad always told him he’d look good in them. Babers had planned on spending more time with his father by the time Luther Babers died in November 1994.
Earlier that year, Luther was diagnosed with cancer. Babers had resigned after three seasons at Purdue. The school offered him more money to stay on as a coach. While the sum of money was appealing, he was ready to give up his coaching career, at least temporarily, to be with his father.
Ted Tollner, then the head coach at San Diego State, heard Babers was headed back to San Diego, where Babers’ parents lived. Tollner offered Babers a coaching position, but the latter only accepted when he was guaranteed he could leave the team whenever he needed to be with his father.
“I couldn’t believe that he would say that,” Babers said.
Not long after Babers accepted the job, Luther decided to leave San Diego because he wanted to die in Houston.
Babers has often leaned on his mentors. His father taught him the importance of details by checking whether his bed was made well enough for a quarter to bounce twice. When he was deciding to enter coaching, he called John Shacklett, his coach at Morse (California) High School for advice. After his father died and Babers finished his only season at San Diego State, Babers took a job at Arizona under Dick Tomey, his former coach at Hawaii.
He had left Tomey and Hawaii to prove he wanted to be a coach in 1986.
“Everyone says if you really want to be a coach, you have to move away,” Babers said. “If you don’t move away from the coaches you play for, they’ll always treat you like a player.”
In his years away from Tomey, Babers vindicated the decision to depart from Hawaii. He gained a reputation for being meticulous. Babers used a Panasonic recorder during practice to take verbal notes. He was the only coach John Skladany, an assistant coach at Northern Arizona in 1990, ever saw use one.
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The job at Northern Arizona was a defensive job. Babers dropped to FCS to reverse engineer offensive schemes by learning their defensive counterparts. That, he figured, would help round out his resume for a future head-coaching position.
All that work had gone into getting the job at Purdue. And while moving away from Purdue for his father nearly drew Babers away from coaching, he was able to make the most of it. He followed up his position at San Diego State with one at Arizona, just his second major coaching position, where he would be able to grow under Tomey.
Graduate assistant jobs were in the past, and Babers was headed to a place Tomey had spent eight years building. Babers’ fear of being eternally pitted as a player under Tomey evaporated in Tempe, Arizona. When Tomey brought Babers in, he sat him down with local high school and community college coaches for recruiting purposes.
“If you need anything,” Jeff Scurran, a coach in the meeting, remembers Tomey saying, “ask Dino.”
Arizona gathered all its freshmen at the beginning of each season, and Babers led the meeting in 1996. He blazed through his speech about the jump first-year players would have to make to succeed.
“A lot of you guys won’t make it,” then-freshman defensive end Joe Tafoya remembers Babers saying. “So look around the room right now and decide if you’re going to be one of those guys.”
Bluntness, bordering on military-style intensity, was part of the Babers experience. Prior to games, Babers gave out six-page preparation tests as a position coach with Arizona. Each test had one question asking which running backs he would trust with his family if something happened to him. To play in the game, you had to score at least a 90 on the test.
He’d make players take a lap for crossing certain boundaries during drills and come out early in the morning for conditioning in return for doing poorly in classes.
“Babers is the type of coach you don’t want to disappoint,” Brad Brennan, a then-Arizona receiver said.
Against Washington, Tafoya did just that, losing contain on the edge of a play and allowing UW to score. Babers, then the running backs coach, pulled Tafoya aside.
“Hey, Joe, look at the scoreboard,” Tafoya remembers Babers saying. “You see that they’re up by seven? That’s your fault. You lost contain and they scored a touchdown, so you better make up for it.”
That made Tafoya want to “flip him off,” but he also knew Babers was right.
Babers drilled players on schemes by bringing them up to the chalkboard. He’d make them draw out plays and question them on routes that weren’t even theirs.
“Are you sure?” he’d ask them.
“Are you sure?” he’d repeat.
Scoping out stutters, blank stares and any shred of uncertainty, Babers only ceded that a player was correct when the player was confident enough in his answer.
He pulled back the reigns on rare occasions. As a freshman walk-on, Brennan lived in a non-athlete dorm and ate with the rest of the student population. His dorm was on the opposite end of campus.
While the scholarship players walked a few steps to a meal from practice, Babers would occasionally scoop Brennan up in his 1986 Cutlass Supreme and give him a ride. There, Babers became what he was off the field: a father and a mentor who would invite his players over to his house.
Melding his personalities helped Babers build a group of players loyal to him by the time he was hired as offensive coordinator in 1998. Babers had recruited most skill-position contributors or switched their positions. Three years of recruiting and boot camp had prepared the players to play just as Babers wanted. 1998 is considered Arizona’s best year ever after they finished No. 4 in the country and won the Holiday Bowl.
Courtesy of Baylor Athletics
In the process, Babers became a desirable coaching candidate. He reportedly received head coaching looks. When most of the staff at Arizona left after the 2000 season, Babers was hired as Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator.
Speaking with the offense for the first time, Babers picked up a football during his speech and said football represents the players and the players’ lives. He rattled off family members’ names.
Within a year and a half of the speech, Babers was demoted midseason. Head coach R.C. Slocum had been on the hot seat when he hired Babers, and the offense didn’t live up to what Slocum needed. When the A&M head coach pulled Babers into his office and told him about the demotion, Babers was understandably blindsided — it’s rare to demote coaches just 16 games into their tenure.
Babers’ demeanor didn’t change despite the demotion, former A&M wide receiver Jamaar Taylor said. The coach he was before the relegation was the same coach that showed up to coach the quarterbacks after. The situation pushed Babers to refocus. He could only cling to the role he had and treat it like it was the best job possible.
Babers was able to put himself squarely in the moment, rather than keeping an eye on the future. But it also sent him on a five-season detour to Pittsburgh and UCLA, eliminating some of the value of the work Babers put in at Arizona.
“You get scarred by that and you start, ‘Woe me,’ and nobody wants to hear about the pain,” Babers said. “… Let that pain go, you got to bury that. If not, you’ll carry that around the rest of your life and never get anywhere.”
Former Baylor videographer Scott Riley always considered himself to be steady on the camera. Against Oklahoma in 2011 with 17 seconds left, Robert Griffin III lofted a pass into the back right corner of the end zone and Terrance Williams came down with the catch. Nearly everyone rooting for Baylor, including Riley, threw their arms in the air.
Except for Babers.
Riley cracked up watching the tape because it was typical of Babers to not react during games. At the end of the game, everybody broke to the middle of the field, Babers said. What Riley didn’t know was that Babers ran to the student section and climbed the railing to get a full view of the pandemonium as Baylor beat Oklahoma for the first time.
“It’s … knowing it’s a moment you never want to forget and putting your camera in a position where you can watch the moment,” Babers said.
When you’re living on borrowed time, those moments are precious.
Babers had used the lessons he learned from A&M, worked through jobs at Pittsburgh and UCLA and accepted a job coaching wide receivers at Baylor in 2008. Not long into his time at Baylor, a life-threatening car accident should have killed him, he said. Babers declined to directly comment on what happened in the crash.
“I felt like I died,” Babers said. “And now I had a second chance. So now it was like, OK, if you would have died in that accident, like you were supposed to, what would you have wished to change even though you didn’t have time to change it? And I started going through those things because I didn’t die and now I have an opportunity to change it.”
Former Baylor wide receiver Andrew Sumpter said Babers started reading the Bible cover to cover. Players and coaches said Babers would break out a wide range of music and sing as he walked through the hallways.
When a former Arizona player was asked about Babers singing in the hallways, he replied: “Are we talking about the same guy?”
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Babers was finally relaxed. Before, he had plotted to become a head coach, methodically working his way up. The crash reinforced that Babers had resigned himself to living in the moment. And that made him even more ready to be a head coach.
Players still understood their standing with Babers because, like at Arizona, he was blunt about their skillsets. Each player knew what their role would be during the season, and he made sure each of them knew how to maximize their potential.
But he also opened up more. His wide receivers would come into his office to talk football and leave with a life lesson. As he moved from an apartment to a house, Babers called the Baylor wide receivers to help him move. When the receivers arrived, none of his apartment was packed in boxes. Whether it was intentional, it was just another way to for his players to bond.
At Arizona, Babers hadn’t been as quick to praise his players. That flipped at Baylor. While he maintained his attention to detail and could be a tough grader, he also gave players approval when they performed up to his standards.
Some of his players took down “Baberisms” or phrases he’d say often.
Practices are hard, game days are easy. I shouldn’t be coaching you on game day because the hay is in the barn. I’m going to prepare you.
Sumpter said Babers would tell players he was the best coach on the staff.
“We were like, ‘Eh, I don’t know,’ because it was our first year in the system with him,” Sumpter said.
But as the team improved and the wide receivers’ production increased, the players started to believe it. By the end of his tenure at Baylor, Sumpter said he would have trusted Babers to call plays as well or better than offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery.
“We started seeing, the last year,” Sumpter said, “he’s not going to be here long.”
And he wasn’t. He took over Eastern Illinois in 2012 and brought the program from a 2-9 record in 2011 to a 19-7 record over the two seasons he was there. In the two following seasons as the head coach at Bowling Green, he racked up an 18-10 record.
On Dec. 9, 2015, he was introduced as Syracuse’s head coach, the only one of the program’s last three with any semblance of a head coaching track record. That day, he talked about filling the Carrier Dome with an electric feeling and a deafening noise, a relentless defense and the fastest game people had ever seen.
“That’s gonna be a reality,” Babers said.
As Dino Babers stood in front of his team on Aug. 12, the first day of two-a-day practices, he showed the most emotion since coming to Syracuse. He let them know his success at his last two stops. He brought Eastern Illinois back in just two seasons. He continued the success Bowling Green had. He told them to remove their “cruise meter.” He asked for belief in his staff.
“I need you guys to go today. I need you to G-O, G-O, G-O,” Babers said. “Drop the damn E. No freaking ego. Drop it and G-O.”
Babers has never had to drop the “E” because life has always done that for him. Even if he’s finally a head coach at a Power 5 program, now he has to push even harder.
In the nine months Babers has been at Syracuse, former athletic director Mark Coyle left after less than one year, a player who had been suspended indefinitely was charged with rape and two current players were allegedly stabbed by a former teammate.
On the field, Syracuse was 7-17 during the last two years with former head coach Scott Shafer. Syracuse is down. But Babers has been here before, even if fixing the Orange is his biggest challenge yet.
Give it time, it’ll work.
Let’s have faith — belief without evidence.
Give me 365 days with this team.
Time is all Babers has ever asked for, and he knows how to take advantage of it.
That’s why he makes his initial move to the exit at Driver’s Village. That’s why he doesn’t look back as he swiftly walks out the door. That’s why he’s heading a program that needs to go in the only direction he’s ever known.
It won’t be easy.
For Babers, that’s nothing new.
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Banner photo illustration by Jessica Sheldon | Photo Editor