Sympathy for the Blue Devil

I’ve never been a big fan of Greg Paulus. In fact, during his tenure as a Duke point guard, I didn’t like him at all. Perhaps it had more to do with the fact that I’m a Georgia Tech fan and have witnessed one too many beatdowns on the basketball court — and it’s just not the same when the Ramblin’ Wreck returns the favor every year on the gridiron.

So when news broke last spring that Paulus was seriously considering resuming his once-promising football career, I was vehemently against it because I thought I had seen the last of him while he was warming the Blue Devils’ bench his senior year at Cameron Indoor. I was even holding out hope that I’d seen the last of the “scrappy” guards in Durham — Chris Collins, Steve Wojciechowski, J.J. Redick (my least-favorite player ever), Paulus, etc.

When Paulus worked out for the Green Bay Packers before the NFL draft, I thought it was a joke. When he visited the University of Michigan the following week, I thought it was more of a joke that a) he could retain eligibility after working out for a pro team and b) that coach Rich Rodriguez would begin a potential make-or-break year with a guy on his roster who hadn’t played football in four years.

After being wooed by Duke’s football coach, David Cutcliffe, to play wideout, Paulus eventually returned to his roots to play quarterback for his hometown Syracuse Orange and new head coach Doug Marrone.

Many people assumed the move by Syracuse was just a publicity stunt, and it very well could have been — and could still be. Nonetheless, Paulus won the starting job and was under center the first week of the 2009 college campaign.

Everything seemed like peaches and cream at the start of September, as Paulus showed moxie and, yes, actual ability to lead a team on the collegiate level. After a heartbreaking season-opening overtime loss at home to Minnesota, Paulus led the Orange to a wild win two weeks later over Northwestern. After a win over Maine, the suddenly rejuvenated Orange sat at 2-2 heading into the conference schedule. Thoughts of a minor bowl game were even on the minds of some fans and alumni — a potential postseason for the first time since 2004 and only second since 2001.

Then reality set in — the Big East schedule. Losses to South Florida, West Virginia and last Saturday to Cincinnati quickly showed the Orange just how far away they are from being players in the conference race. Say what you want, but the Big East isn’t the Big Least anymore. South Florida may always pull its annual disappearing act after a quick start, but Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and West Virginia are quality programs, while Rutgers and Connecticut are almost always dangerous. Bottom line: At 3-5 overall and 0-3 in the conference, Syracuse has a difficult hill to climb the rest of this season and into next.

Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of this season, however, occurred in the Cincinnati loss on Saturday at the Carrier Dome. In midst of another subpar performance and after tossing his 11th interception of the season, the quarterback heard a loud round of boos.

Now, I totally understand that fans have the right to boo. Tickets to sporting events are expensive and we all want our teams to win. But fans and alumni alike must realize that the Orange were going nowhere this year, with or without Paulus. The team’s best player, Mike Williams, couldn’t stay out of trouble and walked away from the team earlier this week. Paulus is clearly, in his first and only season, the closest thing to a leader they have. It was a bit disheartening and sad, even for a Duke hater such as myself, to see the reaction of the crowd on Saturday.

Glancing at Paulus’ season breakdown below, you can see that his performance directly influences the team’s end result.

Losses Passing
Minnesota 19/31, 167 yards 1-1
at Penn State 14/20, 105 yards 1-2
South Florida 25/46, 269 yards 2-5
West Virginia 5/9, 30 yards 0-1
Cincinnati 12/17, 85 yards 1-1

Wins
Northwestern 24/35, 346 yards 2-1
Maine 21/28, 270 yards 2-0
Akron 12/17, 105 yards 1-0

While the wins may have come against subpar competition, I’m fairly certain that neither backups Cameron Dantley nor Ryan Nassib could have fared much better in the losses. Nassib played decently in the West Virginia contest after Paulus was benched, but could he have made a difference in the South Florida game?

OK, fine. So Paulus looked really bad against the Bulls. But booing the Dukie in his hometown, at the school he chose to pursue his fleeting football dream? Say it ain’t so.

I guess we’ll find out a lot about this Syracuse team when it travels to Pittsburgh on Saturday. Can the season be salvaged? One big win is all it takes to get alumni and fans excited again.

While coach Marrone’s teary-eyed defense of Paulus at his Monday press conference was a little much even for a diehard Paulus fan, I do feel for the guy.

Maybe all it takes is an athlete going through some adversity while trying to hang on to a dream for me to realize the true beauty and difficulty of sport, and to appreciate his desire to fulfill a dream.

That, and maybe losing that hated Duke basketball jersey.

Dave Miller is the Web Manager of the National Football Post and an unfortunate hopeless romantic. After receiving his Masters in Writing from DePaul University in Chicago, he realized that he would never be John Updike so he returned to a sports career. He enjoys coffee at any time of the day, CW teen dramas and has an appreciation for girls in boots. You can follow him on Twitter at Miller_Dave, where he constantly chronicles every moment of his mundane life.

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