Marrone leaves at critical time for Syracuse

In the middle of Syracuse's biggest win in 2012, athletic director Daryl Gross stepped out of his box inside the Carrier Dome and beamed.

The Orange were crushing then-No. 9 Louisville. All those questions about whether Syracuse coach Doug Marrone belonged on the hot seat disappeared as quickly as the Cards' unblemished record.

Gross looked vindicated, his faith and trust in Marrone rewarded with a breakthrough performance that eventually led Syracuse to a share of its first Big East title since 2004.

"See why we always believed in Doug?" he said. "He is the right man for the job."

Marrone was better than the right man for the job. He was the perfect man for the job, the biggest reason why his departure to the Buffalo Bills is a huge blow to a program just regaining its footing. A three-year starter at Syracuse in the early 1980s, Marrone has special affection for this job, and for this university, living out his dream as Orange head coach.

He reiterated that during his introductory news conference Monday in Buffalo, saying, "I had said that Syracuse was my dream job, and I meant that when I said it. Having the opportunity to restore the great tradition of Syracuse football made my dream a reality. Today, I’m experiencing another dream come true."

So Marrone leaves to live out another dream, some four years after taking on the reclamation job that was Syracuse in 2008. When that season ended, Syracuse was one of the worst programs in the entire country. Greg Robinson won 10 games in four years -- including three total wins in Big East play.

No program had fallen further in such a short period of time, and many wondered whether Syracuse would ever be nationally relevant again. Marrone would need time to turn around the program, because just about everything had to be revamped -- beginning with the culture.

Some players meshed with the new style, while others did not. That ended up costing the Orange players -- some were kicked off the team. Others left. But Marrone knew he needed a disciplined team to get this program headed in the right direction.

After winning four games in Year 1, Syracuse went 8-5 and back to a bowl game in 2010 -- its first bowl appearance in six years. This past season, the Orange also went 8-5 with a win in the Pinstripe Bowl and finished 5-2 in Big East play -- their best league mark since 2001.

They ended the year as the hottest team in the Big East, winning six of their final seven games. That impressive turnaround suggested Syracuse was on an upswing headed into its first year in the ACC.

Marrone was building something here, even though the results have been inconsistent. His overall record may not look great to outside observers (25-25), but it is downright Herculean when you consider the task that was in front of him when he took this job. Those results, combined with his NFL background, made it pretty clear he would be the next Big East coach on general managers' speed dial.

The Big East has bled good coaches for years now. Marrone is only the latest in a long line to leave for a better job and bigger opportunity. But his departure comes at a more critical time than just about all the others. Guys like Greg Schiano, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones left their respective programs in good shape.

Syracuse is at a more fragile place than Rutgers or Cincinnati. Though the Orange made strides this year, the rebuilding job is far from over. Syracuse has not been ranked or won 10 games since 2001. The last BCS appearance? The 1998 season. The last time the Orange had back-to-back winning seasons? Try 2000-01.

That is why Gross faces such an important decision. He made a great hire in Marrone. He needs another great hire to keep this program from slipping backward again.