How SU Athletics has embraced the university’s quest to be the No. 1 school for veterans

Dino Babers only brought his team to Fort Drum for one day this preseason but said he hopes to expand the trip in the future.Mike Haynie smiled as he walked across the Fort Drum Youth Services gym, surrounded by Syracuse football players teaching military youth the basics of the game.

“Isn’t this great?” he asked rhetorically.

A few hours later on that August day, Haynie, SU’s vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and innovation and executive director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, announced the reestablishment of a series between Syracuse and Army, a relationship that ended in 1996 after a century of competition. But SU taking to Fort Drum for football goes deeper than just a football clinic or four games.

SU Athletics has evolved into the chief marketing tool for the university’s initiative to become the No. 1 place for veterans among higher education institutions. People know SU Athletics more than the history of veterans on campus — a pull that’s been embraced by administrators to reach the goal of becoming the standard.

Saturday’s SU football game against North Carolina State is Military Appreciation Day, but the connections between veterans affairs and athletics are seen throughout the year. The football team carries the 10th Mountain Division flag onto the field before some games, the “44” logo on T-shirts mimics the division’s logo and a service member is honored during each game as a tribute, among other examples.

“What’s powerful about the athletic department in the context of executing on other things that are important to Syracuse University, is they’re our brand ambassadors to constituencies that don’t know us for other things,” Haynie said.

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The university’s commitment to veterans affairs dates back to World War II when Chancellor William Tolley helped write the G.I. Bill, which doubled college enrollments nationwide. SU had an open enrollment policy for veterans, leading to increased enrollment on the Hill.

Chancellor Kent Syverud brought the connection back to the top of the university’s agenda when he outlined the plan to make SU the best place for veterans during his inauguration speech in April 2014, one of four key platforms laid out in the speech. The first step was promoting Haynie to vice chancellor of veterans and military affairs, a move made a month later.

Since then, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families and the newly-created Office of Veterans and Military Affairs have gained more prominence within the university. A first-of-its-kind National Veterans Resource Complex is also being built with an estimated completion time of spring 2019.

“It’s only appropriate that given it’s the university’s goal to be the No. 1 school for veterans, that athletics plays a role in that,” said SU Director of Athletics John Wildhack, “and is a partner with Mike and his team in trying to establish that.”

Wildhack is on Syverud’s executive leadership team and meets with about eight other members every week to go over the administration’s goals and problems. Just by being at the Monday afternoon meetings, Wildhack is able to understand the broader state of the university, such as enrollment and legal affairs, after taking the reins of the athletic department in July.

“I think it’s important that athletics is a full partner of the entire university,” Wildhack said. “I think one way to do that is for me and my staff to have an understanding of the priorities of the university and how do we play a role in helping the university achieve those priorities.”

Wildhack has embraced the university’s initiative more fully than his predecessors because of his larger understanding, Haynie said.

While Wildhack is new to the administration, one of the main constants of SU Athletics’ relationship with veterans and military affairs has been the football team’s annual training camp trip to Fort Drum, located about an hour and 15 minutes north of Syracuse.

It started five years ago under Doug Marrone, expanded when Scott Shafer was at the helm and regressed to one day this year under Dino Babers because he needed time to install his new system he brought in his first year.

“The more time we spend around our military personnel, the more we understand how much we really need to appreciate them,” Babers said in August, “and anything that we can do to help them in the future in any way, if it’s within my power, we’ll definitely try and do it.”

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Wildhack said he and Babers will talk about future expansion with the Fort Drum portion of training camp.

Football players and personnel interact with Fort Drum soldiers and the children of military families during the visits. It’s a way for SU to get out into the community and publicly show its support for the military.

The Fort Drum connection remains the most visible display of the university’s commitment through athletics, with it transpiring into the regular season as well.

“Building a culture is all about symbols and artifacts. Because it is so visible and public, our athletic programs are some of our most prominent symbols,” Haynie said.

Worlds will collide in 2023 when SU football plays future military members in a four-game series against Army. Since 1899, the teams have played 21 times overall with Syracuse holding an 11-10 series lead.

Officials see the series as a way to spread the veteran-focused initiative and market itself as a leader in veterans affairs.

“In the case of West Point, just the proximity – it will be something that’s attractive for alumni in the New York area, our alumni in central New York and this area,” Wildhack said.

Haynie pushed hard for the series along with some other key officials, he said, adding that it’s a “logical rivalry.”

As the university continues to press toward No. 1 — it was recently ranked No. 3 overall by The Military Times — athletics will still be used as a marketing tool to publicly show that support.

“Syracuse has always been a place that’s placed a premium emphasis on being an institution that partners with the military and provides opportunity for our veterans,” Wildhack said. “The fact that we have that in our history and that’s been emphasized by Chancellor Syverud and his team, so I think it’s part of the fabric here.”

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