Football Column

Scott Shafer left Syracuse and found peace. Then he came back and caused chaos.

Daily Orange File Photo

Former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer returned to SU over the weekend, leading the defense of Middle Tennessee that stifled his former team in a 30-23 upset.

UPDATED: Sept. 11, 2017 at 12 a.m.

When he was forced out as Syracuse’s head coach two years ago, Scott Shafer hopped off his players’ shoulders into unemployment. He found a job as Maryland’s defensive coordinator but left before he coached a single game.

Shafer and his wife, Missy, elected that a year away from the sidelines would be best for their family. SU’s head coach from 2013-15 spent “the greatest year of (his) life” in the stands watching his son, Wolfgang, finish his senior year at Ithaca.

This season, Shafer found a fit at Middle Tennessee State. He could coach the defense, the side of the ball he loves. Wolfgang is also a graduate assistant with the team.

Shafer has found the peace that evaded him when he coached in the Carrier Dome. As for the Syracuse team with 37 former Shafer recruits, any sense of peace was vacuumed out by the return of their old boss. What originally was an assumed victory by many outside the program became a 30-23 defeat that washed SU’s bowl hopes — should it not have a couple of top-25 upsets in the near future.

“Bittersweet in a lot of ways,” Shafer said postgame Saturday, “but far more sweet than bitter right now, being on this Blue Raider team.”

That means Syracuse received the bitter end, and rightfully so. Its defense, with three takeaways, gave the offense chances to reverse the result. But it failed to capitalize. Red zone trips ended without six points multiple times. The last two Syracuse possessions finished with turnovers.

Earlier in the week, junior quarterback Eric Dungey called Shafer a “genius.” He echoed that sentiment after the game because of the way Shafer disguised blitzes. Syracuse quarterbacks were sacked six times in the game.

Both coaches, Shafer and his successor at Syracuse, Dino Babers, admitted Shafer’s knowledge of SU’s personnel played a part in the upset. Shafer was at many now-SU players’ homes years ago recruiting them to play for Syracuse. Saturday, he was in the opposing coach’s booth trying to beat them. The situation happens in pro football because players’ careers go longer than four years and a handful of the 32 coaches get fired every year. But this was rare for the college game.

Dungey said this week that it was a normal game. Senior linebacker Zaire Franklin said he was looking at it as an “early test.” As much as the players might have wanted to push that narrative during the week of preparation, the X’s and O’s of Shafer’s scheme weren’t the greatest obstacle for Syracuse. The players didn’t handle the emotion of the situation well, Babers said. He took the blame.

“Honestly, thinking about Shafe was just something that people just let get to their head, I would believe,” Syracuse senior linebacker Parris Bennett said. “I thought about Shafe more than I would like to.”

So much for “out of sight, out of mind.” Shafer didn’t roam the sidelines but instead coached from a booth upstairs. Wolfgang joined him. To share that winning moment with his son, Shafer said, was nice.

The two of them envisioned the feeling. At a family event months ago, Wolfgang showed up with a pack of cigars. Shafer took two and stored them away with Sept. 9 on his mind. The cigar hung from his lip during locker room celebrations and his exit from the Carrier Dome.

With the in-your-face goodbye, and the painful result it rubs in, Shafer is still the peacekeeper of Syracuse football. And he’s kept most of it to himself.

The story has been updated for appropriate style.

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