Last March, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the U.S., Syracuse University students, faculty and staff were home, wondering if they’d be able to return to campus. Fear was growing, businesses were closing and sports had stopped.
As the director of the Newhouse Sports Media Center , I received countless emails from students, full of anxiety and concern not just about the conclusion of the school year, but also about the loss of connection with classmates and on-campus experiences.
I was faced with a specific question: Was there a way to connect us all through sports, without sports being played?
So I decided to try to implement the Newhouse Sports Media Center speaker series online. The idea was clear: Reach out to alumni who would otherwise have been overbooked and unavailable to travel to Syracuse, but were now free to connect. The hope was to offer a fresh perspective on what we were going through, and how we might be better off for it.
As I was reviewing our alumni in sports, I came across a familiar name: Scott Pioli G’05. But I was confused by his class year; Pioli was a graduate assistant for the Syracuse University football team in the 1980s, and by 2005 he had achieved major success as an NFL executive, including three Super Bowls and multiple NFL Executive of the Year awards.
I thought the class year was a mistake, but when I checked with the Syracuse University alumni office, I was told it was correct—and that Pioli was always eager to help students.
I reached out to Pioli and set up a call to discuss the possibility of him participating in a virtual event with our students and alumni. As our initial conversation began, I asked, “You were a graduate assistant for the Syracuse football team from 1988 until 1989, correct?”
“Yes, I was blessed enough to work and learn from the great Coach Mac,” he responded.
“But you finished your graduate degree in 2005?” I asked hesitantly, still thinking that this was possibly a mistake in our records.
He laughed. “Yeah, it took me awhile, but I always finish what I start.”
Scott Pioli earned the position of graduate assistant for Syracuse football coach Dick MacPherson in the summer of 1988. The position included an opportunity to earn a master’s degree from the University.
“I had my bachelor’s degree in communications, and I knew the reputation that the Newhouse School had in being the best. How could I pass that up?”
Pioli was interested in Newhouse’s master’s degree program in television, radio and film.
“I had to take a semester of classes before they would let me in, but I didn’t hesitate,” Pioli said. “How could I pass up an opportunity to not only learn from Coach Mac, [but also] take a shot at a master’s degree from the Newhouse School?”
During the 1988 season, the Syracuse football team went 10-2, ending the season at the Hall of Fame Bowl, where they beat the Louisiana State University Tigers 23-10. Between practices and games, Pioli took graduate-level classes and was eventually admitted to Newhouse. He began his studies at Newhouse in the spring semester of 1989, and took a full load of classes that summer as well.
The 1989 Syracuse football team went 8-4 and beat the Georgia Bulldogs 19-18 in the Peach Bowl. By the end of the season, Pioli was offered a position as offensive line coach at Murray State University in Kentucky.
It was his last semester as a Newhouse master’s student—he only had three courses to go—but the opportunity wouldn’t wait. He was only able to take one course remotely, so he had to leave Syracuse for Kentucky two courses shy of a master’s degree.
In Kentucky, Pioli attempted to finish the degree at a local college or university, but was told the credits wouldn’t transfer. “I wasn’t sure how I was going to finish but I knew that I had to do it. And I couldn’t quit,” he said.
After two years at Murray State, Pioli got the call from the NFL. In 1992, he was hired by Bill Belichick as the pro personnel assistant for the Cleveland Browns. Again, he attempted to complete his degree at a local college or university, and again he was unable to do so.
In 1996, the Browns moved to Baltimore and Pioli went with the team. Now the pro personnel coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens, Pioli was part of the group that drafted Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Jonathan Ogden. In his free time, he was back to writing letters and sending faxes to Newhouse, petitioning to complete his final two courses at a college or university in the Baltimore area. But none met Newhouse’s criteria.
“In addition to trying to find a school that met Newhouse’s standards, I also had to continually petition Newhouse and SU to keep my academic file active. I was becoming frustrated and disappointed, but not deterred.”
By the start of the 1997 NFL season, Pioli had rejoined Belichick in New York, this time with the Jets as director of pro personnel, where he helped the team reach a franchise-high 12 wins. And he finally found a way to complete his degree, as Newhouse approved transfer credits from one of three New York-area schools: New York University, Fordham University or New York Institute of Technology.
“New York Tech was much more affordable, but that meant one night a week I would sneak out of the Jets complex early and commute from Long Island into New York City to take classes,” Pioli said. “It was inconvenient, but I finally had my chance to finish my degree and have a master’s from Newhouse, so it was worth every minute.”
Ten years after first enrolling at Newhouse, Pioli felt that he had finally accomplished what he had set out to do: earn a master’s degree.
But Pioli hit a stumbling block when he learned he could no longer complete the degree by writing a thesis, as had been the case when he was on campus. Newhouse now required the completion of comprehensive exams. “I was so close, but still wasn’t done. I had to figure out a way to take and pass these exams. I had to finish what I started,” Pioli said.
After three seasons with the Jets, Pioli headed to the New England Patriots as the vice president of player personnel, reuniting with Belichick. Even as he was helping the Patriots draft players like Tom Brady and win three Vince Lombardi Trophies in four years, Pioli was trying to find a way to complete his degree.
In 2004, Pioli finally found a way. He joined a study group of current Newhouse students who were preparing for the comp exams, meeting with them via conference call and, when he could schedule scouting trips to Syracuse, in person.
Two weeks after the 2005 NFL draft, Pioli passed the exams and earned a master’s degree in television, radio and film from the Newhouse School.
“It took a while, but I never gave up,” Pioli said. “Life rarely goes exactly as we plan.”
Pioli’s grandmother, Rosa Anna Costa, was an immigrant and the first in the family to graduate high school. “When presented with the opportunity to get a master’s degree from one of the finest schools in the country, I imagined it hanging it next to my grandmother’s high school diploma,” Pioli said.
Today, Pioli’s master’s degree certificate hangs side-by-side with his grandmother’s high school diploma in his office.
Grit, Gratitude and Respect
As I listened to Pioli’s story of determination and success, I couldn’t help but think of today’s master’s students and the struggles and uncertainty they face during this pandemic. This was a story they needed to hear. This was the dedication they needed to find within themselves.
Pioli agreed to let me share his story with our students and alumni.
“I look back on this academic odyssey and see it as a microcosm of life,” Pioli said. “Our actual path doesn’t always look like our intended plan. Life changes, circumstances change so we need to adapt. In the end, our experiences along the way can give us an education that is beyond the academic. Ultimately, things work out as God intends, and there is only so much in life we can control. One thing we can control is how we react to adversity and difficulties. That choice is truly ours, and if we respond to life with grit, gratitude and respect, we have a chance to be OK.”
About Scott Pioli G’05
Scott Pioli is an NFL executive and television analyst who most recently worked as the assistant general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, helping the team win an NFC Championship in 2017. Pioli is now a consultant for the NFL and an on-air analyst for CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and Sirius XM NFL Radio. He also served as an NFL analyst for NBC Sports' “Football Night in America,” NBC Sports Network's “Pro Football Talk” and the NFL Network.
Pioli’s career in the NFL has spanned over 27 years, including four trips to the Super Bowl with the New England Patriots as vice president of player personnel. During his tenure with the Patriots, he and coach Bill Belichick built a football dynasty, winning their first three Super Bowls, four AFC championships and six AFC East titles.
Pioli was named NFL Executive of the Year five times and NFL Executive of the Decade by ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Sporting News. In 2003, Pioli was the youngest NFL executive to receive the George Young NFL Executive of the Year Award by Sporting News, an award voted on by his peers. With NFL Hall of Fame executives Bobby Beathard (Washington Redskins ’82-83) and Bill Polian (Carolina Panthers ’95-96), Pioli was one of only three people ever to win that honor in consecutive seasons.
Pioli was recognized by the NCAA as a 2019 Champion of Diversity and Inclusion for his efforts as an advocate for equality in sports. He continues to serve on the NFL Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship Advisory Council, where he mentors minority coaching candidates, scouts and executives. He also serves on the boards of the Women’s Sports Foundation, the Black College Football Hall of Fame, the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), CFES Brilliant Pathways, the Michigan Task Force on Women in Sports and the Alliance Theater.