Q&A with Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer

Monday February 17th, 2014

Scott Shafer led Syracuse to a 7-6 mark and a Texas Bowl win in his first season as coach of the Orange.
Alan Schwartz/Icon SMI

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- In head coach Scott Shafer's debut season at Syracuse, the Orange went 7-6 and beat Minnesota in the Texas Bowl. As he prepares for his second year on the sideline, Shafer sat down with SI.com to discuss his coaching path, which stretches from Rhode Island to Stanford to Michigan. His career began because he wanted to avoid "lunch duty." His big break came at a Perkins restaurant in Berea, Ohio. Along the way, he engaged in push-up contests with Jim Harbaugh, fell in love with his wife in Morocco and spiked his visor to the ground a few hundred times.

Shafer discussed his football upbringing, his latest Twitter incident and much more.

SI: I talked to former Syracuse and current Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone. He told me that he'd gauge the caliber of a practice by the amount of times you threw your visor when you were the defensive coordinator. Is the visor toss a trademark move?

Scott Shafer: I think I started doing that when I was a secondary coach at Northern Illinois with [Joe] Novak. I've always had kind of a bad temper. I was the kid who, when playing checkers with my sister growing up, would throw the board. This year, less visor throwing. What I've found is that I take things less personally when I'm not coaching the position or coaching the defense. But when I was at Western Michigan, we had a skit night. They did a highlight reel of me throwing my hat from summer camp. Then they presented me with a special hat. It's not something I'm proud of, but it's a quick way to release the tension and move on to the next play. I never threw it at Doug, though.

SI: Your dad was a coach. Tell me a little bit about growing up in a football family.

SS: At a very young age, I knew I wanted to grow up and be a coach like my dad. Like all kids growing up in Ohio, the plan was to have a great high school career, sign with Ohio State, have a career in the NFL and then become a coach. At a pretty young age, I realized that wasn't going to happen. I remember so many fleeting glimpses of greatness with [my dad's] relationships with both the players and coaches, my mom and the coaches' wives. That extended family was just so special growing up. I said, "This looks pretty good."

SI: You played for Cleve Bryant at Ohio until injuries derailed your career. What happened from there?

SS: I had to take a hard look at where I was. We were struggling at Ohio. I really knew I wanted to be a coach at that point in time. [I transferred to] Baldwin Wallace -- it was Lee Tressel (Jim's dad) and his assistant, Bob Packard. It was a great teaching college, and I decided to transfer there. It was the best thing I did. It was where I met Missy. I always knew I wanted to be a coach. I didn't know at what level. When I finished up at Baldwin Wallace, I had another knee surgery after my junior eligibility season and started to put feelers out for a graduate assistant job. I didn't know anyone. I was a Division III guy. As it turned out, my dad coached about six months with Joe Novak in Warren, Ohio. They won a state championship in 1972. I still have the notebook. My dad told me, "Look. Why don't you try and get your master's degree? This college thing would be good." I met with Joe at a Perkins. He gave me about 20 minutes of his time. I was on crutches. He was at Indiana as the defensive coordinator.

SI: A Perkins? That's great. Bring me to the Perkins.

SS: I sent out all these letters, and everyone was rejecting me. I didn't know anyone. You know? Coach Novak responded to me. [He said] I don't know if I can do anything for you. If you want to get together, I'm going to be recruiting in that part of Ohio. We can meet up. We met at the Perkins in Berea. I spilled my guts to him. He said, "Look, I run the camp at Indiana. I'll get you a job working the camp. I don't know if I can pay you. But I'll give you 15 minutes with Bill Mallory." I worked the camp. Got my 15 minutes. He said, "Look, I don't have anything for you. I appreciate you working camp, if anything changes, I'll let you know." A couple weeks later, they had a GA position open up in the wintertime. They said, "If you're interested, it's yours." [Missy and I] were engaged and we going to get married the following summer. We moved it up so we could get married and [I could] take the job at Indiana.

SI: So Missy knew what she was getting into?

SS: She did. My mom tried to talk her out of marrying me and marrying into the profession. [Missy] grew up in the same home her whole life. My dad would turn around a program and then go to another program. So we bounced a little bit. [Missy] grew up in the same home. She was excited to get out and explore the world.

SI: How did you meet Missy?

SS: She had six months left in her senior year. We'd kind of had eyes on each other across the way. We both signed up to study abroad. We got picked to go on this trip through Northern Africa (Morocco) and Europe. We really got to know each other well. We had just kind of started dating. We spent six or seven weeks in Europe and really got to know each other, without anyone else around, without the comforts of the states. We just fell in love and ended up getting married a year after that, and the rest is history.

SI: What advice did your dad give you about coaching?

SS: I remember my dad talking to me about getting a master's and being qualified to coach [on the] small college [level]. You'll be higher on the pay scale than high school. He said, "When you're 50 years old, you're not going to enjoy lunch duty." That stuck with me. It's good advice.

SI: You've coached more than a dozen kids from North Miami Beach High, where Jeff Bertani has long been the coach. That list includes wide receiver Steve Ishmael, arguably Syracuse's top recruit this year, and current safety Ritchy Desir. How did that pipeline start?

SS: It actually started when I was at Northern Illinois. Me and coach [George] McDonald recruited a kid named Chris Salvant. He was the first from North Miami Beach to come and play for us. Jeff Bertani is one of the last of the Mohicans. All he cares about is sending his kids to a school where they're going to be taken care of as people, as human beings. Jeff is a coach's son, too. We hit it off. Talked about our dads a lot. We share core values about how football can change a kid's life.

SI: Of all the coaches you've worked with, the most intriguing has to be Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. I've heard that you used to have push-up contests. Who won?

SS: We'll call it a draw. I think my technique was better than his.

SI: When did you have your contests?

SS: Right before practice. When the kids were stretching and warming up. Jim would go out there and start doing some push-ups. He was offense, and I was defense. We used to talk a little junk. We were trying to foster that environment because the Stanford kids were the opposite of a lot of other kids at that time. They were downtrodden and hadn't won many games. They were almost too, "Yes sir, no sir." We were like, Hey, we've got to get these kids to loosen up.

Everything was a competition. Everything. I remember Jim played running back in [an] Oklahoma drill and didn't have any pads on. The kid thudded him and everyone went nuts. Everything turned into such a great competition. I can't tell you how many times we went off script in practice because it turned into a war. They were fighting to win a competition, every single warm-up and practice. He was doing push-ups up there.

One of my players, I don't remember who, said, "Coach are you going to let him do that?"

I said, "What?"

He said, "He's trying to show you up doing push-ups."

I ran right up next to him and said, "I'm in."

We started with, like, 25 push-ups and added one every day. By the end of the season, we're up to the worst 150 push-ups you ever saw. It kind of got the kids going and got 'em fired up. At our banquet, we had a highlight video and they showed us, and Bob Bowlsby said, "I think those are the worst push-ups I've ever seen."

Syracuse won four of its final six games in 2013, including a 34-31 win over Boston College on Nov. 30.
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

SI: How was your career shaped as a grad student at Indiana?

SS: When I first got to Indiana, coach Mallory asked me, "What do you want to study?" He brought up trying to become an athletic director and get a degree from the administration side. Being a high school coach's son, my dad had a heart attack at 38 on the football field. I was the ball boy. We thought we lost him. He had crossed the picket lines for a strike. Most of the teachers union was upset with him. They felt like he should have stayed on the other side. His point was, "I'm doing this for the kids. I'm crossing the lines so these seniors get their senior years." There was a ton of stress on him. A ton of stress. Phone calls in the middle of the night. People in Ohio get a little crazy with that stuff. So he was very combative with a lot of the administrators. I did not ever want to become one of those.

Nothing against my administrators here, they're great. But at the time, I didn't want a degree in athletic administration.

SI: At Indiana, you lived in both the inner city and on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. Tell me about that.

SS: The thing I was most intrigued with was the diversity in sports. I played really four sports. In basketball, especially, you're meeting kids from all over the place, urban, inner-city kids that I became very good friends with. Yet there was this divide. It bothered me because it was just football, it was just basketball, it was just track. So, when I got to college, [I pledged that] if I'm going to be a Division I football coach, I'm going to have to do a great job of understanding and coaching the demographics that I'm going to coach and teach and live with for all these years.

I ended up meeting a guy named James Mahan, and he was in charge of a big part of the education system at Indiana at the time where they were doing student teaching and placing people in different environments. I told this guy what I wanted to do. He said, "Fair enough, we'll figure out a curriculum. But you have to study two cultures. You can study the inner city and you have to study another one." He said he'd like me to study Native American [culture] because that was his passion. So we signed up for it. Long story short, basically I studied those two cultures and lived in both of them. They put me in the south side of Akron with Thomas Lewis, who played for us. The next spring, [I] was on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona.

Both sets of cultures, [Missy and I] met so many great people. People were trying to fight their way out of poverty and all the constraints that [come] with trying to get out and break the cycle. That was the whole thing. I talk to players about it all the time that come from those backgrounds; your goal is to break the cycle. Can you be the first one to get your education from a prestigious university? Can you be the first one in your family to break that cycle? That's the philosophical view I had at a very young age. I've carried it until today.

SI: Tell me about your son, Wolf. He's at Ithaca as a freshman playing football. What was the recruiting process like for you from the other side?

SS: It was interesting. Recruiting is competitive at all levels, whether it's major college scholarships or Division III. When it came down to it, [I] probably [gave him] the same advice I give our recruits as we go through it. It's more about the people than it is the place. As long as you have the education in place. You're going to spend so much time. Wolf thinks he may want to coach.

SI: I'm stunned.

SS: I know, right? He fell in love with the approach at Ithaca. It really came down to Cortland and Ithaca, which is hilarious because they are huge rivals out this way. He went to Ithaca for all the right reasons. He was talking about the education and the people and the kids, so I think he made the right choice. I think it was great for him. And my daughter, Elsa, she's 15 going on 25, and she's going to be in that boat in a couple years. Making those choices, it's always good to have the first one show the way in the process.

SI: Let's move to your team at Syracuse now. Offensively, you guys have picked up the tempo and had some success. You have a very skilled class of receivers coming in and quarterback Terrel Hunt coming back. Do you feel like you can keep going full throttle? (Offensive coordinator George McDonald told SI he wants Syracuse to become the next Oregon or Texas A&M in terms of tempo.)

SS: I think we have to figure out our own identity. I think that happened throughout the course of the season. For me, I always believe in having a system and a system type of quarterback. We've had a tradition here of having a quarterback who can both throw and run. I like that because it was the most difficult thing to defend when I was a defensive coordinator. Am I pleased with Terrel? Yes. I'm also excited about some of the other quarterbacks in the program because they can do some of the other things that Terrel does. Now we have a system. I was never into changing it up with a thrower and a runner. I want a guy who can do both.

Terrel was a huge unknown. We found out he was better when [games were] live than in practice, when it was almost too much of a controlled environment. I joke with him about that. "We didn't start you earlier in the season because we weren't hitting you. You're better when you're getting hit." There was a lesson learned there. I also played a year at Northern Illinois when we started our fifth-string quarterback for seven games. Fifth string. So I wasn't going to hit these kids. He and Drew [Allen] weren't going to get hit during the summer.

SI: Sean Hickey is an offensive lineman who has the potential to be a first-round NFL draft pick. What kind of year he can have?

SS: First off, his core is so strong. He's a great person with great core values. It's about the team and his teammates. His decisions aren't about himself, they're team based and thought out. He's a very good student. Excellent student. That's what makes him great. He's tough as nails, a Pennsylvania kid. I think he's about to have a great senior campaign and be one of the leaders in our program. They don't get any better than him. We're excited for him. He's got good ability. He's anxious to continue to get to the point where he can be extremely physical all the time.

SI: Finally, I have to ask you about your Twitter dust up with the city of Atlanta. Do you regret using the "softnosed" hashtag during a recent snowstorm?

SS: I don't think it's regret. Obviously, we didn't want to create any type of harm toward anyone who had a difficult situation down there with the weather. The reality of it, to me, is that my linebacker coach slept on the highway when there were two inches of snow on the ground. I was just being playful with it. I felt bad that people took it the wrong way. That's part of social media. Lesson learned. I'm going to use that with my team. Coach made a bad mistake right here. We have to be smart about what we put out there. Whether you think it's fun and games or not. We have to be smarter than that.

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