Last week, Dino Babers was named the head coach at Syracuse after leading Bowling Green to a 18–9 record in two seasons. He takes over a program that went 14–23 the past three years under Scott Shafer. Earlier this week Babers spoke with SI.com's Pete Thamel about chess, his offense and how he plans to turn around the Orange.
SI.com: I've heard that you have a love of chess. Tell me where that came from.
Dino Babers: I don't get to play it much. I was a big checkers fan. This is an interesting story. I grew up in an area with community centers where you go and guys open them up to have games and play. You play all day and they close and go back home and stay out of trouble. I used to go and play checkers. I can't remember the man's name. He was an older man. I used to come every day and play all day. I got sick and tired of playing checkers. He wanted me to learn how to play chess. I didn't want to learn how to play chess. No one in my family knew how to play. He said, 'If you don't play chess with me, I'm not going to play checkers.' I'd go play checkers, and he wouldn't play. He said, 'I tell you what. 'We'll play one game of checkers first. And then we'll play one game of chess.' I had no idea that chess was unlimited time. I played my one checker game. He was teaching me how to move the chess pieces. We'd play a game that would take all day. I kept figuring it out and eventually turned into a chess player.
SI.com: In a sense with calling plays, you still are a chess player, right?
Babers: You might say that. I think that's really big, anticipating truth movements so to speak. Tying to get guys to fall into traps. Leaving back door open and all of sudden there's no back door ... I think some things apply when calling plays.
SI.com: You are going to bring a wide-open Baylor-style offense to Syracuse, which essentially plays seven home games every year indoors in the Carrier Dome. Is it strange that they'd never really gone that way before considering the ideal conditions and fast track?
Babers: I think there's a lot of truth to that. I think you're right on. I would be untruthful to tell you the ability to play seven home games—this year I only had five at Bowling Green—in the Dome wasn't a factor. That's like money in the bank, when you know exactly what conditions are going to be for a football game. The thing is, the other team is in good weather, too.
SI.com:I saw your press conference where you said you've only been to New York to play at Buffalo. What's your recruiting plan going to be, especially in New Jersey?
Babers: Anytime you talk about recruiting, you need to start with the state of New York and the Northeast. New Jersey is a major player in what we're doing. Obviously so are Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago. All of those places are major players, along with Maryland, Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia. Before you get on a plane and fly to Florida, you have to take care of those places. There needs to be representatives from the areas, but you also need continuity and fantastic recruiters who know what you are looking for and your system.
SI.com:Athletic director Mark Coyle has barely spoken publicly since he arrived at Syracuse. Give us a window into what he's been like to deal with in the hiring process.
Babers: The feeling I got when I was talking to him on the phone was that he was crystal clear, you could feel the truth and honesty pouring through the phone. He's a man who has seen it done. He has Boise State roots, and you look at where that program started and where it is now. You look at what handicaps that university had. Then you look at him as the athletic director at Syracuse. Why not Syracuse? Why can't they do the exact same thing? I'm excited to be part of his team.
SI.com:There are coaches who tailor their talent to the system and coaches who tailor their system to the talent. I'm sure you don't have a great feel for what you have yet. But I'm wondering if you can you speak about what you hope to do philosophically right away inheriting this team.
Babers: I find great pleasure in going somewhere and see some clutter and a little bit of a mess and finding away to organize it in a way to use it to be successful. That really excites me. Do you have too many running backs and not enough receivers? It's about going there and making those kids understand they need to be a little bit unselfish and not look for credit to help turn a team not doing so well to a successful team. Everyone buys in and has faith.
SI.com: You are the only African-American coach hired in this cycle and the first African-American football head coach in Syracuse history. Have you put any thought to the significance of that and the lack of opportunity for minority coaches in the sport?
Babers: I really don't have thoughts when it comes to some of that stuff. Woke up this am, I looked in the mirror and I was black. I was the first black (football) coach at Bowling Green. I was the first black (football) coach at a private (collegiate) institution in the state of Illinois. Everywhere I've been, that tag has come with me. It's not anything I lay my hat on. I'm about finding a way to help young men if they are willing grow up to become better fathers, sons and husbands.
SI.com:You've had 16 college coaching jobs before Syracuse. What you have learned along the way?
Babers: I tell you what, my dad spent 21 years in the Navy. I was born in Honolulu, and lived in Virginia and went to high school in San Diego and lived everywhere in between. I've spent a lot of time traveling the country and meeting different people. That's really helped me being a college football coach and recruiting in different homes across the country. There's a vast number of schools that gave me a great foundation to build upon. Those are fantastic advantages that I have. I have met people in the South, North, East and West. That's a huge advantage for me when I go out recruiting.