Syracuse LB coach Conley in dream job
Dan Conley can only smile at his good fortune.
''This is my dream job. It's become home for me,'' said Conley, in his third year as linebackers coach at Syracuse. ''When coach (defensive coordinator Scott) Shafer got hired last year, we were talking and I said, 'Coach, I just want you to know, if I was the linebackers coach for the next 30 years, I'd be the happiest man in the world.' If I don't have to, I won't leave.''
Conley is one of only two holdovers on the staff of head coach Doug Marrone (strength and conditioning coach Will Hicks is the other). Marrone was hired last year to rebuild a program that had hit rock-bottom, that had become a laughingstock for all those talking heads in television studios to ridicule.
And nobody bleeds Orange more than Conley, a linebacker at Syracuse two decades ago who was destined for great things as a pro until his body betrayed him and sent him to the depths of despair.
When Conley was hired two years ago by former coach Greg Robinson, Marrone, then the offensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints, was one of the first to call to congratulate Conley.
''I thought, what a great hire,'' said Marrone, who played at Syracuse in the early 1980s.
The message Conley delivers to the players is as important as his coaching, which has yielded some nice results this season. Syracuse's top two linebackers - Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue - are on watch lists for national awards. Both have blossomed under Conley after being recruited as running backs.
''He's a determined guy,'' said Smith, a senior who leads the Orange (1-1) with 19 tackles. ''Every time he says something or every time he approaches that field we know that it's real, straight from the heart, because he played here.''
''From the smallest detail to breaking it down to me, teaching me, he's been everything,'' Hogue added. ''Me not playing linebacker since high school and then moving to this level, those are big things. He's the reason I have been able to be productive. When he played here, he was a Syracuse legend.''
Conley was a two-time All-Big East first-team selection and candidate for the Butkus Award as a junior and senior. But his right knee came apart for the first time in the second game of the 1991 season, just as the 6-2, 250-pound sophomore was fast becoming a blue-chip player, a cinch first-round pick in the NFL draft.
Conley said the injury was so painful his screams could be heard on the game tape.
Still, he persevered.
He missed the 1993 season to have his right knee reconstructed surgically for a second time and returned the next season after the NCAA granted a waiver due to his knee injuries. He was named a captain, played in nine games, and finished second on the team in tackles to win ESPN's comeback player of the year award.
Conley also was selected as captain of the 1995 Hula Bowl's North squad, then tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the game.
Undaunted and hoping for one last chance at fulfilling a lifelong dream, after yet another rehab he tried out for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League in 1996. The comeback try lasted just a few days. He finally put his cleats away for good when the pain from 13 knee surgeries, including three reconstructions, was too much to bear.
Conley never donned an NFL helmet, something the Pittsburgh-area native had dreamed of since he was 6 years old. That's part of the strong message he delivers to the Syracuse players.
''I always equate it to being a rock star,'' Conley said. ''You're the lead singer of some big famous band, and everybody's watching you. That's how I felt - that everybody was always watching me play. And then one day it was over, and I just wasn't ready for that.
''There's a big void in your heart, and you've got to fill it with something. Hopefully, you fill it with the right things, and I didn't.''
Conley hadn't yet reached that signature low point. He turned to coaching, first at Syracuse as a graduate assistant in 1997. He left after two years for a job at Southern Connecticut, that didn't work out, and he resigned.
''Three weeks after that is when I hit rock-bottom,'' said Conley, who still holds the Syracuse record for most tackles by a freshman (126 in 1990). ''I was basically out of money, didn't have a job. I was living in a living room in some guy's apartment, sleeping on the floor.''
A week later, Conley rekindled a friendship with his future wife, Jennifer, and began to piece his life back together. He was hired as defensive coordinator at Canisius in 2000, got married, and relegated his athletic ghosts to the closet for good.
''When athletes have to deal with athletic retirement, they're not ready for it,'' said Conley, who has three young sons. ''I had that ACL tear out in Hawaii three months before the NFL draft. It was the loss of my life. I didn't have a game plan for life after football.
''Back in 1994, I got a letter from Brian Bosworth when I walked into coach P's (former Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni) office and I thought I had to quit because I was hurt,'' Conley said of Bosworth, a star linebacker in college at Oklahoma. ''It said, 'Congratulations on what you've done in the past. However, do not rely on those to get you through the future.'''
Bosworth, the only two-time winner of the Butkus Award, played in only 24 games in the NFL in the late 1980s before a shoulder injury ended his career.
''I always talk to the players about that,'' Conley said. ''Just because you had a good season last year doesn't mean the same thing (will happen) this year. The one thing that I never did was prepare myself for life after football.
''I often thought about going out and speaking to guys in college prior to being hired here because I've got a great message of a guy that hit all the high notes in college football, at least in my eyes,'' Conley said. ''I was able to play really well against the really good teams, and one day it all just stopped, and it took me almost five years to get to the next phase of my life.
''That's the message I preach to the young guys - that this is going to be over and you're going to have a hole in your heart.''