From watching football games at old Archbold Stadium to being on campus when the Carrier Dome opened, John Wildhack's affection forhas only grown over the years.
Thirty-six years after he graduated, Wildhack returned to his alma mater on Tuesday as its new athletic director and needed only four words to describe his state of mind.
"It feels so right," Wildhack said at an introductory news conference.
Sporting an orange-and-blue-striped tie, Wildhack was introduced to a nearly full auditorium in the university's football wing by Chancellor Kent Syverud, who chaired a search committee that included new football coach Dino Babers. A Buffalo native, Wildhack ends a 36-year tenure at ESPN, where he had risen to executive vice president for programming and production. He joined the cable sports network after graduating from Syracuse in 1980.
Wildhack assumes a position vacated in early May by Mark Coyle, who came to Syracuse from Boise State but left after less than a year. Coyle bolted for the same position at the University of Minnesota.
Syracuse likely won't have to worry about stability now. Wildhack's sister and brother also are Syracuse graduates, and his sister-in-law is a doctoral candidate at Syracuse. All were present Tuesday, along with Wildhack's wife, Amy, and their two young sons, Tommy and James. The couple's oldest son, M.J., was back home working and unable to attend.
Wildhack said his first priority would be to get to know his staff, both professionally and personally. And he had kind words for Babers, who was hired in December to replace Scott Shafer.
"I like the fact he's got a defined system that's had success," Wildhack said. "I like Dino's style. He wants to be as fast as any team in the country. We've got a great venue for that. We're the only domed stadium in a Power 5 conference. There's a lot to like."
Shafer was fired by Coyle last November after going 14-23 overall and 7-18 in the Atlantic Coast Conference in three seasons that saw attendance decline for home games in the Carrier Dome.
"It's important for us to market all the positives that we have," Wildhack said. "We want to build a program that is going to have sustained success, so it's got to be built the right way."
Despite football's troubles, Wildhack takes over athletics at a good time. The 2015-16 academic year was the most successful in the history of Syracuse athletics. The year included national titles in field hockey and cross country, a national runner-up finish in women's basketball, and trips to the Final Four in men's basketball, men's lacrosse, and men's soccer.
"There's a lot in place here. That is exciting," Wildhack said. "There's been terrific success overall. How do we, as a staff, build that?"
Plans for a significant renovation of the Carrier Dome also are underway, and Wildhack is optimistic of the impact that will have.
"It's an iconic venue in all of America. There's great equity in that," he said. "We'll go through the renovation. It'll be transformational."
In March 2015, the NCAA levied sanctions on the athletic department after an eight-year investigation, citing in particular academic violations committed by football (under former coaches Paul Pasqualoni and Greg Robinson) and men's basketball (under Jim Boeheim).
The university has since reorganized reporting lines for some areas within athletics to improve oversight, and Wildhack said that would remain paramount on his watch.
"Our department will be defined by integrity," he said. "We want our program to be a point of pride for the entire university."
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