Breaking down the ‘Axis of Evil' Part II

The Syracuse University Football Program may be at its lowest point ever in its storied history. Who deserves the blame? This is the second of a three part story. Part 2 – AD Daryl Gross

Daryl Gross: Villain or Just Misunderstood?

Since he was named to the Athletic Director position at Syracuse University, Dr. Daryl Grosshas been one of the most scrutinized figures in all of collegiate sports. This article looks to tell both sides of the story, as we continue to search for the culprit(s) of Syracuse's athletic woes (mainly football) in recent years.

Dr. Gross began his duties as AD in January 2005, shortly after being appointed to the position. Before this, Gross had served as an assistant athletic director at the University of Southern California. He served in the USC athletic administration for a total of 14 years. During his stay, the Trojans compiled sixteen national titles and consistently finished in the top 10 of the Directors' Cup. Of course, USC hasn't really struggled mightily to be a top-tier athletics school. Located in warm and sunny Los Angeles, the Trojans usually have more recruits than they know what to do with. Their flagship program, the football team, is among college football's all-time leaders with over 750 wins and seven Heisman winners. With 37 Pac-10 conference championships, the Trojans have been a consistent powerhouse. However, with Gross at the school, the Trojans went thirteen years in between outright Pac-10 titles (1989 to 2003). Gross, however, isn't one to shy from the camera or spotlight, no matter what the circumstances. As Orange County Register reporter Scott M. Reid wrote, "Gross' tenure at USC was marked by a relentless and shameless self-promotion that was perhaps unmatched in Division I, which is saying something." And as for the spotlight at the Heisman Trophy presentation: "Then there was the time when Gross pushed his way into a crowd of former Heisman Trophy recipients at the awards ceremony so he would be sure to be in the television shot when the Heisman winner was presented with the prize", wrote Reid.

Despite this, Gross had his perks, some actual reasons why he'd make a good AD someday. He was young and charming, not afraid of that spotlight. He wasn't afraid to trust in himself and go out on a limb (see his hiring of Pete Carroll.) And above all, he possessed a thirst for championships that was, and still is, unparalleled. As an African American, Gross also made an appealing hire for Syracuse, a school known for such greats like Ernie Davis and Jim Brown. But Chancellor Nancy Cantor let it be known that she had a few other reasons for making the hire in her introduction speech of Gross.

"He has shown a depth of experience and leadership at USC and—in obtaining both his master's and doctorate—a great appreciation and understanding of academics. This speaks well of his ability to lead a top-notch athletics program and work closely with academic partners in the institution."

Now, here's what I take issue with in that statement. First off, let's start with his ‘experience and leadership.' Yes, he slowly ascended to become the AD's right-hand man at USC by the end of his tenure. But the majority of his leadership stemmed from his one decision to be different and hire Pete Carroll. And with a great system in place, excellent assistant coaches and great facilities to recruit to, Carroll's chances of success were nearly equivalent to the chances of Syracuse having a white Christmas.

Secondly, shouldn't the focus of an introduction for an ATHLETIC director be about his athletic background and experience in that field. While it was commendable for Cantor to go after someone of high acumen both on and off the playing field, I'm not sure how much Gross's ‘great appreciation and understanding of academics' affects how good of a job he would do as AD. Nor am I sure that athletics and academics are as closely entwined as all universities would lead you to believe. While I'm sure Chancellor Cantor merely wanted to emphasize Gross's academic qualifications, in doing so, she portrayed him as a mere caretaker that would be mollycoddled along until the training wheels were ready to be taken off. Owing to his lack of actual experience in the AD position, it's clear that Gross was going to be on a short leash in the early going. He got to make head coaching decisions and when they backfired (namely Mr. Robinson); things spiraled out of control from there.

So, what's happened since Gross's hiring? I'm likely beating a dead cow here, but I'm sure you remember the NIT Quarterfinals Dynasty that we've witnessed over the past two years. (On that note, the student section should immediately kill the dynasty sign until the team proves themselves, but that's a topic for another time.) Gross didn't have a direct impact on the men's basketball program, but he sure did leave his fingerprints all over the football program. I'll spare you the gory details of the past four years. All you need to know is that the team has just eight wins during Robinson's tenure (only seven over FBS teams.) The hiring of G-Rob was an epic failure and Gross's inability to throw his ego and pride out the window and make a coaching change in any one of the 583 opportunities that have already presented themselves will tar and feather Gross as one of the primary culprits in SU's demise. While Gross may choose to trumpet the women's basketball team (and yes, he deserves props for the hire of Quentin Hillsman and subsequent contract extension) and other teams including the lacrosse and field hockey teams, the fact remains that the two biggest draws in terms of money for SU athletics (football and men's basketball) have fallen flat on their faces in his tenure here. And when Gross did finally begin his ring collection at SU with the men's lacrosse title last year, he was right in the middle of it all and has used it as a soldier would a shield. Except Gross is deflecting criticism and not swords.

And while Gross's decision to eliminate the swimming and diving team to add a women's ice hockey team might make sense based on the climate, it sure left a few people steamed. Dr. Phil Whitten, Executive Director of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America, called for Gross's resignation, citing "a shocking disregard for checking the facts and a breathtaking lack of competence." Quite a strong statement from a public figure, I'd say! Of course, it's all about the wins and losses. Gross made an excellent hire of Paul Flanagan and if the women's hockey team becomes a national powerhouse, then all will be forgiven. But that's just pure speculation and this case is based on facts.

Fact is, Gross had all of his previous experience on the West Coast and much of it came at USC (not as the head honcho in the athletic department either), a school with a much better propensity for fielding competitive teams not only all-around, but in the big-revenue sports. Gross certainly dealt well with adversity in his younger days (again, see the Daily Orange link for more), he was ill-prepared to assume the athletic director position at Syracuse and as a result, the Orange will suffer a tough decade (namely in football). This isn't all on Gross however; it's a combination of his bad moves and the fact that he was not the best man fitted to take this job.

Some other notes of interest:

Gross's controversial decisions regarding:
- the retiring of #44,
- the Ernie Davis statue debacle,
- the hiring of West Coast candidates, who like himself have little experience and
- the mess that SU's football uniforms have become is sure to be hot spots in the Gross debate as well.

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