Fran Brown wants to make Syracuse football into a contender

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — When Fran Brown saw the Syracuse job come open last November, he watched a clip of athletic director John Wildhack ticking off what he would be looking for in his next head coach.

Ties to the northeast? Brown could check that box off 10 times over. Head-coaching and coordinator experience on the Power 5 level? Brown had neither of those, but in his view, those qualifications did not matter. He wanted the job. So he picked up the phone.

He called Wildhack himself.

“What John said he was looking for early on, experience and all these things, I’m like, ‘He doesn’t really know what he’s looking for. He’s looking for me,'” Brown said during a recent interview in his office. “I was a perfect fit.”

“Literally, five minutes before I was going to call Fran, my phone rings,” Wildhack told ESPN in a phone interview. “I don’t recognize the number, so I don’t pick it up. It goes to voicemail. I play the voicemail back. It’s Fran.

“Sometimes you think, ‘Is this a little divine intervention here or what?'”

An initial 15-minute conversation led to text exchanges, a two-hour Zoom and then an interview in front of the search committee. They agreed unanimously — Brown was the perfect fit. Brown grew up in Camden, New Jersey, a northeast guy through and through. He worked for well-respected coaches, including Matt Rhule, Greg Schiano and Kirby Smart, and he was one of the top recruiters in the country.

Though Brown had no head-coaching experience, Wildhack said that could be overlooked since so many other factors made sense.

Five months in, it seems like Wildhack was right.

Without playing a game, Brown has brought attention to a Syracuse program that has not won a conference title in 20 years. He has done it thanks to eye-opening offseason moves, starting with Ohio State transfer quarterback Kyle McCord — the highest profile transfer to ever sign at Syracuse.

More transfers followed, including defensive lineman Fadil Diggs from Texas A&M. Syracuse wound up with 18 players from the transfer portal — 12 from the Power 5, seven from the SEC, unprecedented at a school that has won 10 games once since 2002.

Top-tier recruits have also signed with Syracuse, too. This past December, defensive end KingJoseph Edwards became the first ESPN300 prospect to sign with the Orange. In all, Brown signed four four-star prospects, more than the five previous seasons combined. Syracuse finished with the No. 42 signing class, its highest ranking since ESPN started ranking the top 75 in 2014.

This has energized and engaged people in and around the program. Wildhack said donors have stepped up to improve their NIL efforts, though he said they preferred to remain anonymous. A record 16,500 people showed up for the spring game. Wildhack said Syracuse is well ahead of its usual pace with season ticket sales and renewals.

“It’s been phenomenal,” Wildhack said. “I’ve not seen anything like it in my time here, just how he has energized the community, our fan base, our football alums.”

To remind himself of that, Brown has a framed $10 bill in his office, in a temporary location while construction on a new football operations center continues. A yellow Post-It note came with the money: “Coach Brown — Watched your interview on the Syracuse Orange. Just wanted you to know from one coach to another I am all in!! Here is my $10.00! Go Orange”

THE PROGRAM BROWN inherits had some recent success under former coach Dino Babers, going to back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 2012-13. Brown also inherits a strong core of returning players, including running back LeQuint Allen, tight end Oronde Gadsden II, linebacker Marlowe Wax and defensive backs Justin Barron and Alijah Clark.

But each season, Babers’ Orange were unable to close strong after getting off to fast starts. Last season, Syracuse opened 4-0, then lost five straight. In 2022, Syracuse opened 6-0 before another five-game losing streak.

Brown, of course, knows to truly make Syracuse relevant again, he has to do more than start fast. Though history says it’s unlikely that a team from the northeast will win national championships, Brown believes it is possible. Since 2006, teams from the south have won every national championship except two (Ohio State in 2014 and Michigan in 2023). Penn State was the last team from the northeast to win a national title, and that was in 1986.

Growing up in Camden, Brown paid close attention to schools like Syracuse, Penn State and Pittsburgh — which all took their respective turns on the national stage. Why can’t that happen again, he asks?

He dismisses any notion that Syracuse is at a disadvantage in the transfer portal and NIL era because it does not have the same resources as the top-tier football programs in its own conference, let alone the one he just came from in Athens, Georgia.

“How can you say we don’t have what they have?” Brown asks. “You’ve got to talk to the players to see what they want, and if I’m developing you the right way, are you going to leave here for $20,000? Is that all you’re looking at your future to be about?”

“Georgia coaches football well. Everyone tries to take away from that. You could go, ‘They’re only winning because of this.’ That’s what chumps say. We all have the same opportunity. Just figure out how to get it done.”

He can easily point to the work he has done in the transfer portal as proof that he can bring in elite players to play for him at Syracuse. It started on Day 1. Brown was introduced as Syracuse coach Dec. 4. That same day, McCord announced he was in the portal after three seasons at Ohio State.

McCord started his final season at Ohio State, going 229-of-348 for 3,170 yards with 24 touchdowns and six interceptions, winning third-team All-Big Ten honors. But Ohio State lost to Michigan to close out the regular season, dashing its College Football Playoff hopes. Afterward, McCord said he had “tough conversations” with the Ohio State coaching staff.

“The vision that they had was different than the vision that I had,” McCord said. “In a perfect world, we win, go undefeated, win the national championship and I’m probably not in this position, probably not here, but everything happens for a reason. So when they told me that they thought they wanted to go in another direction, that’s the harsh reality of it.”

McCord grew up in New Jersey, and his relationship with Brown goes back years, to when McCord was in sixth grade. His dad, Derek, worked in the same hospital as Brown’s wife, Teara. Derek was known to brag on McCord from time to time. Teara told Fran he should go and watch Kyle play. He attended youth football games and they struck up a relationship.

Still, McCord says now, “You never think it’s going to turn into this.”

Brown flew to Columbus, Ohio, shortly after McCord entered the portal and met with him in his apartment. McCord remembers Brown selling his vision for Syracuse, and his belief they could win right away. Another big selling point: Brown hired Jeff Nixon as his offensive coordinator, another coach McCord knows from New Jersey. McCord and Nixon’s son, Will, played youth football together starting at age 5 in South Jersey, when Nixon was an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles. (Last week, Will Nixon transferred from Washington to Syracuse.) Nixon had previously worked with Brown and when he was hired, Nixon immediately texted and said, “Coach, I’m available.”

“That was music to my ears,” McCord said. “The vision that he had of going out and competing and being able to win a lot of games early on, and having input in the offense and just things like that was really what sold me.”

There is one more connection Nixon has that McCord finds helpful — Nixon and Ohio State coach Ryan Day served on the same offensive staff at two different stops during their respective careers. McCord says the Syracuse offense is similar to what he ran at Ohio State, even including some plays with the same names.

McCord committed Dec. 17, which Brown says lent instant credibility to the program. Two days later, Diggs — originally from East Camden, New Jersey — announced he was transferring in from Texas A&M. Already, Brown was assembling a big transfer haul — Georgia receivers Jackson Meeks and Zeed Haynes had already decided they were coming with him from Athens. Then in early January, cornerback Duce Chestnut announced he would transfer back to Syracuse after spending last season at LSU.

McCord points out that he played youth football with several of his now-teammates, including Chestnut. He also played against Diggs in high school. McCord said building back northeast football at the college level, as players from the region, is something they want to do.

And Brown is determined to build a winning program with players predominantly from the region. On the 2024 roster, 40 players are from the northeast, including seven of the 11 transfers who enrolled in January. Four of those players attended Camden High, where Brown played quarterback and set the then-single-season school record with 47 touchdown passes.

“It’s kind of been like a childhood dream for a lot of us to play together,” McCord said. “You look around the building. It’s guys from New Jersey and Pennsylvania and New York. … I think we can really change the program around pretty quickly. You see what Coach Fran has been doing in these first few months here, and I think if we can just stay on that trajectory, things are going to go upward.”

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR ELIJAH Robinson and Brown played Little League Football together in Camden. They also shared the same godfather, who made sure they stayed on the right track. Robinson knew, even as Brown starred on their high school team, that one day his friend would be headed for big things. Brown had a natural charisma about him, but also a dogged determination to make it.

“There was never a doubt in my mind he would be here at some point because of who he is,” Robinson said. “I know who Francis Brown is, as a young man who overcame so much adversity. I know the Francis Brown that went to JUCO, who would drink a gallon of water because he didn’t have enough money for food and went to sleep early so he wouldn’t think about being hungry. People like that, who do things the right way, they climb.”

Brown has a gift from a parent sitting on his desk that encapsulates what he tries to keep in mind every day — a knight in armor, on one knee, with arms outstretched. A clear message: I am giving my son over to you for the time being.

Coaches often speak in broad platitudes about wanting to make a lasting impact on their players. One of the reasons Brown says he never wanted to be a coordinator is because that would mean having influence over only part of the team; he wanted to be able to reach every single player.

So he bided his time, preparing his entire coaching career for this moment. On his iPad, he has folders from every stop along the way, with notes, schedules, schemes, reminders and plans for how he would run his own program.

That is only part of the job. What he believes in most of all is what makes all those around him believers, too.

“The original definition of coach is a horse-drawn buggy that takes important people from where they are to where they want to be,” Brown says. “You’re an important person, I’m the horse-drawn buggy. So I’ve got to take you from where you are right now to get you to where you want to be.”

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