SYRACUSE, N.Y. — As head coach at Syracuse, Dick MacPherson didn’t make many mistakes. His biggest may have been leaving the Orange for the NFL.
“I think I made a huge mistake in going because, see, the thing you ought to make sure is, who the hell are you working for?” MacPherson said of his two-year stint as head coach of the New England Patriots in the early 1990s. “I don’t think it was a good marriage. I’ve never gotten a divorce before, you know.
“The thing about it is this, I never got fired until there,” said MacPherson, whose New England teams went 6-10 and 2-12. “I think I had five or six years left on my contract. Fine.”
MacPherson never coached again after leaving the Patriots.
In retrospect, it probably wasn’t that big of a mistake. On Tuesday night, MacPherson will join an elite group of college football coaches when he’s enshrined in the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame.
It’s a big deal in the MacPherson household.
“I’m the only guy in the state of Maine that’s in it,” said MacPherson, who rebuilt Syracuse into a contender. “The only other guy in the state of Maine that anyone knows about is Louis Sockalexis, who was the first Native American in the major leagues, and we thought that was enough. All of a sudden people know who we are.”
Former Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel picked MacPherson, an assistant with the Cleveland Browns, to replace Frank Maloney. Coach “Mac” said he was wary at the time.
“What I really want to know is, suppose I go 2-9, 3-8, 4-5 what the (heck) do you think of me then?’ ” MacPherson recalled telling former Syracuse chancellor Melvin Eggers. “He said, ‘Mac, we’re going to love you. We don’t know how long you’ll be coaching, but we’ll still love you.’
“They proved they loved me. They didn’t fire me. I knew I was loved.”
MacPherson was head coach at Syracuse from 1981-90 and posted a record of 66-46-4. But his era at Syracuse didn’t begin on a positive note with just one win in the first seven games.
After the team finished 5-6 in 1986, MacPherson guided the Orange on a memorable run that included the school’s first consecutive 10-win seasons and a challenge for the national championship.
In 1987, the high-powered Orange averaged 33 points a game, allowed just under 14, and won every regular-season game by an average of 19 points. The only close game came in the regular-season finale against West Virginia.
Trailing the Mountaineers 31-24 with just 15 seconds left, quarterback Don McPherson found tight end Pat Kelly in the back of the end zone for a touchdown and MacPherson went for the two-point conversion. The gamble paid off when Michael Owens took a pitch and ran it into the end zone for the win.
That team finished the season 11-0-1 and ranked fourth nationally in the final AP poll, the lone blemish a 16-16 tie against Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. In 1988, the Orange went undefeated at home and finished 10-2.
And Eggers sure was right. MacPherson, now a radio football analyst, is beloved here still.
“To say it’s been an honor would be a real understatement,” MacPherson said.
“I played football in Maine, and I played my college football in Massachusetts. I have been an assistant football coach in so many places in my life that I can’t even count them.
“When you thing about what the Hall of Fame is all about, there is nowhere to go from here,” said MacPherson, 1987 national coach of the year. “It is a dream. There are less than 1,000 players in the College Football Hall of Fame and less than 100 coaches. That’s the significance of the award. To say that I’m overwhelmed — believe me, I’m overwhelmed.”