Open your eyes: Dino Babers' vision for Syracuse has come to life in just three seasons
Babers predicted the Orange's 2018 success on the day he was hired
Approximately 75 media members weren't quite sure what to do when Dino Babers, then the newly hired Syracuse football coach, instructed the entire room to close their eyes. Some adhered to the request, while other puzzled reporters protested.
But Babers wasn't kidding. He waited, unwilling to proceed with his comments until everyone in the room had closed their eyes.
"I'm looking, I'm not going to keep talking unless your eyes are closed. Trust your iPad is going to stay on, OK? Close your eyes for me."
He pointed to a defector.
"Close your eyes! Front row -- you're holding us up. Close your eyes."
With the entire room in compliance and on board with the exercise, Babers began to paint the picture of his vision for Syracuse football.
"Visualize this," Babers said. "You're in the Carrier Dome. The house is filled. The feeling is electric. The noise is deafening. You have a defense that's relentless. You have a special teams that has been well-coached. You have an offense that will not huddle. And you have a game that's faster than you've ever seen on turf.
"Open your eyes. That's going to be a reality. That's going to be Syracuse football."
It's an incredible moment. The first of many memorable moments with Babers discussing football, movies, television and life in general since he became the Syracuse head coach. We love the speech so much Barton Simmons and I turned into a motivational jingle for the college football podcast.
But the energy and infectious attitude that Babers exudes sometimes means his personal and professional path gets overlooked. This is not a new coach making a splash on college football with viral-worthy postgame speeches and press conference quotes. This is a coach who has been growing and evolving for decades in the industry, and in 2018 we've seen him bring to life the vision he discussed on that day he was introduced as Syracuse's new head coach three years ago.
Some of the best coaches in college football are the ones who weren't good enough to make it professionally. They were the pretty good players on their team, and a big part of being successful as college football coach is how to get great performances out of pretty good players. After playing at Hawaii, Babers started his coaching career immediately after college at the age of 21.
He's coached wide receivers, running backs, quarterbacks and special teams during a 27-year run as an assistant that included stops at Purdue, Arizona, Texas A&M, Pitt, UCLA and Baylor. If you try to frame Saturday's game as some kind of unique stage, Babers will be quick to remind you that he's coached against Notre Dame a handful of times in his career -- "it doesn't matter if it's east coast or west coast, they're always going to have fans show up" -- and even has experience coaching a football game in a baseball stadium, going up against Florida State and Bobby Bowden in the San Francisco Giants' stadium when he was an assistant at UCLA.
Babers gets framed like a rising star in the industry, but at 57 years old the man who was rivals with Marcus Allen as a high school player in California has been there and done that throughout this extensive path to Syracuse. Now with the Orange, he's intensely focused on putting the many lessons that he's learned into place to establish a culture unlike anything else in college football.
One of those lessons came from former Purdue offensive coordinator Bobby Turner during Babers' time as a wide receivers coach with the Boilermakers from 1991-93.
"When you're green and growing, you're young, you're fresh and you want to take in all these ideals because you don't know what you're going to blossom into," Babers explained to Syracuse.com shortly after he was hired in 2015. "And when you're red and rotten, which means you're ripe, you're ready to pick.
"Once you're ripe, the next stage is rotten. You get eaten or you go rotten, which means you have no more to give, no more to learn."
That approach is one of the big reasons Babers so often gets miscast as a hot new commodity in college football. It resonates with his connection to the players and to the team, and it comes through during those post-game speeches that have become must-see viral moments.
The thing is, Babers doesn't really love the whole viral moments portion of this. If he had it his way, there wouldn't be cameras for those intimate outbursts of emotion following a big win in the Carrier Dome. But the emotion, and the love that he has fostered within the program, is real. It all falls in line with the Ohana mentality he brought from Hawaiian culture and installed as a cornerstone of his Syracuse program.
Ohana translates to family, but it is meant to extend to the community. At Syracuse, they call it "La Familia Ohana," and it has become the most frequent reasons referenced by Babers when he's asked to explain this program's growth over the last three years.
"I do believe these guys are family members. I do believe they're La Familia, they're Ohana. And that whole term says a lot: Have faith without evidence; belief without evidence. That means there's no evidence. I can't show you anything. But I just need you to have faith with what we're doing and it's going to be okay. I can't thank those guys enough for standing behind me and blocking out the noise and just constantly looking forward and having that faith. And now we have an opportunity to do some things, and maybe if we end the season right maybe even some more things."
That introductory press conference stands as a strong indication to how we got here today. The optimism of that moment in December 2015 was met with initial resistance with back-to-back 4-8 finishes. But the Orange were building faith in each other, and confidence they can hang with anyone in the ACC thanks to thrilling home upsets of Virginia Tech in 2016 and Clemson in 2017.
After beating Louisville last Friday night in the Carrier Dome on Senior Night, Babers couldn't help but get emotional when he found out the attendance count was a new record for his tenure. As usual, he pulled out a movie reference -- Jerry Maguire in this case -- to lighten the mood, but could not help but be moved to see how his vision of a true home field advantage was becoming reality.
Having that kind of environment was particularly important, Babers said this week, for the senior class that has forever changed Syracuse football.
"They really wanted to be the first class that got us back on a winning note. They didn't want to be the 2017 class that had one great upset win. They didn't want to be the 2016 class that had one great upset win. They wanted to do more. Kind of like that commercial with the guy lifting weights: More, I need more. And he keeps getting bigger and bigger."
So much of the college football world is just now arriving to a place where they are beginning to understand and embrace Babers, and anyone who has been a fighter alongside him through his 34-year coaching career is wondering what took everyone so long.
So the next time he asks you to close your eyes, you should listen, because Babers has proven the ability to bring these visualizations to life.
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