The first thing to know about a Dino Babers victory speech is that it's not a speech. This is a sticking point for him. A speech implies prepared remarks, and these are entirely spontaneous. He's got these words that have been buried deep down inside him, and by the time he reaches the locker room after a win, they're ready to explode out into the world in a flurry of emotion. These words aren't his. They belong to the universe.
You can see it in the first video that went viral after Syracuse stunned No. 17 Virginia Tech back in 2016. Players are huddled around Babers in a cramped corner of the Syracuse locker room, and as he begins his oratory, the look of confusion on their faces is obvious. What is this? But it builds and builds as Babers riffs on the huge point spread the Las Vegas bookmakers had assigned, preaches about how they couldn't see into his players' hearts, bellows about how it wasn't the Hokies' fault for overlooking Syracuse because they simply didn't understand what a special place this was, what a special team he had.
"Whose house?" he commands in a call-and-response fashion.
"Our house," the team erupts.
Back and forth it goes, the once skeptical players on their feet cheering, others squeezed atop their lockers, banging and shouting.
"It's chills," defensive lineman Kendall Coleman said. "Goose bumps. All of it."
Planned? This can't be planned. This is pure, organic emotion condensed into one viral video that announced to the world that something was happening at Syracuse, even if the record didn't necessarily show it.
The next thing to know about a Babers speech is that he doesn't want it to be splashed across Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. He actually hates that this has become a thing. He doesn't want his team to be a novelty act, good for one viral video a year and not much else. Besides, receiver Jamal Custis said, these are moments for the team. "La Familia Ohana," Babers calls it. Hawaiian for family. It's not for public consumption. It's for the family.
But there were cameras there for the Virginia Tech win, and the celebration touched a nerve, and now it's expected, like Bruce Springsteen playing "Thunder Road." It doesn't get old because, no matter how many times you've heard it, it still gets the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up and your heart to flutter because it feels so new and real. Babers said he's had folks tell him they'll listen to his oratories before a big job interview to get psyched up. Whose job? My job!
The third thing to know about a Babers speech is that it's the end result of a coach who watches a lot of movies. In another life, Babers is a director, or an actor, or maybe even a film critic. The guy devours movies, and he loves an epic battle scene with an inspirational monologue from the movie's lead, something that starts subtle and builds until there's a near riot that explodes across the screen. That's the stuff he uses. He's Braveheart, just with an orange windbreaker instead of a kilt.
It's funny, Babers said. Movies are the rare thing that can pull at his emotions like that. His daughters tease him because the same movie will make him cry again and again, and they'll know just when the right scene is coming up and wait in giddy expectation for the waterworks to start.
He loves the dramatic final scene in "The Natural," when Robert Redford -- Babers momentarily forgets his name and refers to him as "that pretty boy" -- mashes a home run that shatters the stadium lights, and he rounds the bases, showered in sparks. Or there's a scene in "Secretariat," in which everyone has told the jockey to take it easy on the horse, but instead, he turns Secretariat loose, and as the camera frames each stride, the soundtrack evaporates and it's pure silence, just the image of this perfect animal doing exactly what it was put on earth to do. There's something so beautiful about that, Babers said, he can't help but cry.
"Greatness," he said. "Never holding anyone back from greatness. That gets me every time."
Dino Babers gave an EPIC speech after Syracuse's win 🔥 pic.twitter.com/P7XHNoUKUp— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) September 15, 2018
Plenty of people have told him Syracuse cannot be great. It's the little school going against the big boys like Virginia Tech and Clemson and Florida State, and no coach, certainly not Babers, can change that dynamic. So yeah, he gets a little emotional after he beats those teams. Gets him every time.
The fourth thing to know about a Babers speech is that he doesn't like to talk about them. He didn't really want to do this story, in fact. He doesn't like that the focus is on him and not the team, that people talk about those handful of big wins when Syracuse still has so much more to prove. He doesn't like that they live on beyond the moment. They're supposed to be ephemeral. This strange reality we live in now, where every moment has to be captured by a camera phone and shared and relived again and again, it cheapens the whole thing.
"You want it to be special," Babers said. "You want it to be so good that when your players leave and they're blessed enough to get married and have kids, that they bring their kids back and put them on the sofa and say, 'You're going to play for this guy.'"
Truth is, though, those viral speeches do get dads to tell their kids to go play for Syracuse. In a place where the facilities are a work in progress, and the winter weather is occasionally post-apocalyptic, and the team hasn't been ranked in the top 25 since 2001, what better recruiting tool could you have than thousands of kids sharing a video of the head coach on Twitter or watching on YouTube?
The speeches have done exactly what Babers was brought to Central New York to do: Make Syracuse matter. He's done it with his offense, which runs at a tempo approaching ludicrous speed. And he has done it with his personality, which the videos capture so perfectly.
For the first couple years at Syracuse, there wasn't much to talk about when it came to football. The Orange finished 4-8 in both 2016 and 2017. Progress came in fits and starts, and putting butts in the seats at the Carrier Dome was an uphill battle. But that's why Babers was so perfect for the job.
He has a way of so seamlessly changing the subject to something better -- movies or music or cars or the weather or what's going to happen this season on "Game of Thrones" -- that, next thing you know, you've talked for an hour, feel great about the future of the football program, and probably heard less than a dozen words about actual football.
"From the moment I met him, I liked him," said John Wildhack, Syracuse's athletics director who came aboard a few months after Babers was hired. "I describe Dino as a really smart person who happens to be a football coach. But whatever profession he was in, he'd be extremely successful. When we're together, we take care of the substantive issues and inevitably the conversation will then take a turn to something with family or something non-work related. I respect him immensely and I enjoy his company."
That's the point here. Babers is just a guy you want to be around. And it works with the AD and with the media and with donors and players and recruits and the moms and dads of those recruits. Even Jim Boeheim has lined up behind Babers, helping out with the occasional recruiting visit and perching himself inside the Dome for home games. Because, after all, who doesn't want to talk about that scene in "Secretariat" when the soundtrack gets quiet and everything else in the world does too?
The fifth thing to know about a Babers speech is that he desperately wants to give one again Saturday, but it's OK if he doesn't.
Just last year, Clemson was ranked second in the country when it went to Syracuse for a Friday night game, expected to win by 24 points, according to the experts. Instead, the Orange played their best game of the year, whipping Clemson on the line of scrimmage and tossing deep balls with shocking ease. Afterward, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney actually went into the Syracuse locker room to congratulate Babers' players on one of the best executed games he'd seen in a while.
That's the backdrop on Saturday, as Syracuse -- 4-0 for the first time since 1991 -- heads to Death Valley for the rematch (12 p.m. ET, ABC). And if you think last year's win gives Babers a leg up this time around, he's quick to dismiss that notion.
"You want to say you did it before, you can do it again," he said. "And then you turn on the tape and, it's not that you forgot, but you forget how good they really are. They're so good that you're breaking them down, you're looking at the tape for tendencies, and then you realize 10 or 15 minutes has gone by, and you'd didn't look for tendencies. You're just looking at them going, 'Wow, look how pretty that guy is.'"
Clemson is always going to look better getting off the bus, and Vegas has the Tigers as an even bigger favorite now than they were a year ago.
Babers' message all week has been about perspective. This is a game. Syracuse can win this game. Or maybe it won't. Either way, there are seven more to go this season, hopefully more. After last year's shocking win against the Tigers, the Orange reveled in the praise that followed and subsequently lost the rest of their games. That can't happen again, not if this program is making real progress. So yeah, Babers wants to win. But this is bigger than one game.
"We've got an opportunity to beat an opponent that we're probably like 'Dumb And Dumber,'" Babers said. "We've got a chance. So you're saying I've got a chance. We've got a chance. We get to kick the ball off. We don't know what's going to happen, but we have an opportunity to be undefeated one more week. Or it doesn't work out that way, and it'll test this football team to see if we can get back into winning ways and not get caught in a rut like we've had years before."
The last thing to know about a Babers speech is that we've not seen the best yet. There will be more speeches. Lots of them. Because Babers desperately wants this team to be a winner, and this is the only way he knows how to do it. He's going to coach his guys up. He's going to play fast. He's going to quote "Blazing Saddles." He's going to give victory speeches that will inspire grown men to climb on top of lockers and shout a primal scream to the football gods. And eventually all of that will work. It has to.
"Just hearing him talk about his vision of what we could do," Coleman said of the meeting that sold him on Syracuse. "That was the thing that had me, right then and there, bought in. I was like, 'I want to be a part of that. I want to make people see us as a challenge.'"
Saturday's game would be one giant step toward fulfilling that goal. It would be a demarcation point, when Syracuse went from a team with a few special moments to a special team. And then the world would take notice, not because of a speech after the game but for everything that happened before it.
Is Syracuse ready for that?
"Not yet," Babers said. "We're 4-0. We've got eight more to play. If you ask me that question today, at this moment in time, the answer is not yet. But I hope to be able to answer yes soon."