Syracuse and Kansas State are both trying to restore their football programs to the standards set by former glory, and they'll get a chance to go through each other on Thursday afternoon at Yankee Stadium in the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl. Both teams will go into the game with a 7-5 record, and both will be looking for their first bowl victories in several seasons.
"We have great fans. ... And they do travel well to this area," said Syracuse coach Doug Marrone of his team's home-state edge. "I think there's been a great history of Syracuse University and the Big East Tournament here at [Madison Square] Garden ... and the support that we've gotten. We're looking for that same kind of support now coming down for football. But it is exciting."
Bill Snyder, who built the Kansas State program into a national power two decades ago, is trying to do it again. The Wildcats had only played in one bowl game prior to his arrival in 1989, and Snyder has had enough success to last more than one career. Literally. Snyder, a two-time Big 12 Coach of the Year, retired in 2005 and returned for another shot in 2009.
Marrone, meanwhile, is trying to build something lasting at his alma mater. The school that produced all-time great running backs Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Larry Csonka has fallen on an extended fallow period that has seen it go eight seasons without a bowl victory. Now, in his second season as a head coach, Marrone can do something about that.
Syracuse has gone 11-13 under Marone, but even that represents a modest step forward. The school's last coach, Greg Robinson, wasn't able to win more than four games in any season and finished his tenure with a 10-27 record. Marrone, who played at Syracuse from 1983-85, has brought the Orange back to a competitive level on both sides of the ball.
And as Marrone tries to navigate out of the wilderness, he couldn't pick a better coach to emulate than Snyder. Kansas State had lost 27 straight games when Snyder took over, and after four years of consolidation, he led the program to eight straight seasons with at least nine wins. Now, looking across the field, Snyder sees a team well schooled in the essentials.
"I think they're an extremely well coached football team and a really good group of guys. I had an opportunity to meet several of them [Monday] night," said Snyder of Syracuse. "And from what we've seen on video tape, they're an aggressive football team. The numbers speak for themselves. They're a fine, talented defensive football team. They run around well, they're disciplined in what they do. They play very consistent football on offense, as very few can say. ... All in all, a very good football team."
In this case, they're a very good team that's playing with an inspirational cause. Syracuse punter Rob Long is embroiled in an arduous battle against brain cancer, and his teammates have done all they can to rally around him. Long learned on Dec. 2 that he had a brain tumor, and after having it removed on Dec. 20, he learned he had cancer.
Now, Long is facing a course of chemotherapy and radiation in an attempt to defeat the disease. The senior captain joined his teammates in New York for the run-up to the bowl game and was present Tuesday when Syracuse and Kansas State rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Long, in a reflective moment, thanked fans for their support.
"It's been awesome," said Long of the outpouring of support. "I can't thank everyone enough for the support I've had from all over the country. It's just been very special for me and my family. I really can't thank everyone enough and it's really helped me to get through the past couple weeks, to really stay positive about everything and just push forward."
"Unfortunately, Rob will not be with them," added Snyder. "Our prayers are with him. I had an opportunity to meet with him last night. He's an amazing young guy and I think represents the strength of Syracuse football."
Syracuse and Kansas State have met twice before in bowl games, with the Orange taking the victory in the 2001 Insight Bowl and the Wildcats the edge in the 1997 Fiesta Bowl, a game quarterbacked by future Heisman Trophy runner-up Michael Bishop. This year, the two schools can count on bringing teams that seem to be well matched for a compelling game.
Kansas State has played eight games this season that were decided by 10 points or less, and it's gone 2-4 down the stretch after starting out 5-1. Snyder's charges have played three ranked teams this season -- losing to Big 12 rivals Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Missouri -- but have arguably the most dynamic player on the field in running back Daniel Thomas.
Thomas led his conference with 16 touchdowns and finished second with 1,495 rushing yards, and he'll be matched against a defense that excelled in stopping the pass. Syracuse had the top-ranked pass defense in the Big East but will have to re-assert itself against the run in the frigid Pinstripe Bowl, an alien atmosphere to a team that plays home games in a dome.
"I think it's something that we're used to," said Long of the potential weather-related concerns. "Syracuse has its own weather issues. We practice outside a lot, so it's not anything that we're not used to. I think it should be fine."
Syracuse, which lost two games (Washington and Pittsburgh) by at least three touchdowns and won blowouts over four other opponents, will be looking to emphasize running back Delone Carter on offense. Kansas State allowed 229.1 rushing yards per game to rank last in the Big 12 in rushing defense, a hole that may be exploited in Yankee Stadium.
At any rate, Syracuse -- which took a signature win over No. 20 West Virginia in late October -- will hope to cash in on its homestate advantage en route to its first postseason victory since the 2001 Insight Bowl. The Orange have 24 New Yorkers on their roster and Marrone went to high school in the Bronx, so they'll be trying to absorb the moment.
"Sometimes, in the present time you don't appreciate it as much as you will down the road in five-to-10 years," said Marrone of making sure his players savor the Pinstripe Bowl experience. "We talked to our players about taking a lot of pictures. I know that's one thing we all look at as adults: We all wish we had more pictures and more information. I think you give players the ability and educate them from that standpoint, and then when they have opportunites they take advantage of it."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.