Amid ongoing scandal, Flood and football a bright spot for Rutgers
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Nestled in a leather chair in his office, Kyle Flood donned sweatpants and a red pullover, a life-sized replica of a knight positioned by his side. The Rutgers football coach had just finished overseeing the Scarlet Knights' final practice before their April 27 spring game. Flood leaned forward a few inches; he was ready to talk about teaching.
Not teaching football, however. Flood wanted to talk about teaching in a classroom setting, the kind that has more to do with parabolas and graphs than X's and O's.
Before he was a football coach, Flood was a math teacher. Today, the 42-year-old still abides by the same principles as when he roamed the halls of St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens, N.Y.
"I loved my time teaching," Flood said. "That's all I ever wanted to do was be a high school teacher. And then somehow I got mixed up in this."
Last year, in the wake of Greg Schiano's sudden jump to the NFL, Flood took over as Rutgers' coach less than 24 hours before National Signing Day. First, Flood was tasked with retaining a historically strong recruiting class; then, he was charged with leading the Scarlet Knights to their seventh bowl berth in eight seasons. Virtually overnight, Flood had to morph from a little-known assistant into the face of the program.
While Year 2 is typically a smoother process for most coaches, Flood actually faces a more daunting task entering the 2013 season. In addition to replacing seven players who were selected in this year's NFL draft, Flood has to prepare his team amid an unmistakably toxic environment in the athletic department as a whole: Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice and former AD Tim Pernetti were ousted after video surfaced of Rice abusing players during practices; new AD Julie Hermann has come under fire following reports of her habitual mistreatment of players and assistants while serving as the head women's volleyball coach at Tennessee; and new basketball coach Eddie Jordan, the supposed Rutgers graduate who was tapped to replace Rice, never actually earned his degree. It's been one unmitigated public relations disaster after another for Rutgers athletics.
While the stench of scandal hasn't actually infiltrated the football program, Flood and his team make up the most visible branch of the school's athletic department. Fair or not, they'll be responsible for helping to rebuild the image of a university that's reeling.
"The first thing I said to [the players] was it's not Rutgers athletics as a whole," Flood said after the Rice scandal. "Those are very specific incidents that happened and certainly within our athletic department. But they're not indicative of what's going on in Rutgers football."
Mere months after being lauded for its move from the crumbling Big East to the expanding Big Ten, Rutgers is under a microscope. Yet sitting in his office this spring, Flood spoke with purpose. He knew what he needed to do, and how he wanted to do it. To take his team to the heights he thinks it can reach, and to help clean up a mess he didn't create, Flood will use the lessons that came to define him -- the lessons that he hopes can come to define his program in time.
"We have to continue to be what we say we want to be, which is the class of college football," said Flood. "If being the class of college football can be an example for the rest of our athletic department, then we'll do that."
Pat McLaughlin can still envision Flood as a bulky 5-foot-10 power forward. McLaughlin, the assistant principal at St. Francis Prep, was Flood's junior varsity basketball coach. When Flood came to suit up for McLaughlin in 10th grade, McLaughlin quickly relegated Flood to the bench. "I didn't give him a lot of time," said McLaughlin. "He didn't deserve a lot of time, quite honestly."
Growing up in Queens, Flood focused primarily on football, eventually becoming an All-Liberty Conference offensive line selection at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. As a high schooler, though, Flood played basketball in the offseason to stay in shape. He wasn't a gifted passer or ballhandler, and he certainly wasn't a lights-out shooter. But he learned to do the little things well. He played hard. He fought for rebounds. Flood carved out a niche as a bench bruiser, a fundamentally sound backup willing to do whatever it took it win.
Flood also assumed a leadership role, trying to mirror the way McLaughlin conducted himself while running the team. "A lot of the way I carry myself on the field at practice is really based on him," said Flood. "Because I always admired him. I thought he did a tremendous job, even though I was the 12th man."
McLaughlin likes to talk about the time Flood was thrust into a critical role during the Catholic High School City playoffs. (Official scores and statistics for junior varsity were not recorded at the time.) McLaughlin remembers St. Francis Prep playing St. Nicholas of Tolentine High, a now-defunct hoops powerhouse from the Bronx that had beaten his team by nearly 50 points in a scrimmage earlier that season. Looking for a spark, McLaughlin inserted Flood into the game to guard Tolentine's high-flying, dominant big. It was the type of matchup that only happens in high school -- the jayvee hoops equivalent of Derek Fisher trying to defend Dwight Howard.
"He was playing against a guy who was probably 6-7 at the time," said McLaughlin. "Previously he had dunked on about three of our guys. And Kyle just took control of the floor. He just took control of the game. It must've been no more than three minutes, but it stabilized what we were doing."
McLaughlin said St. Francis Prep eked out a narrow win, advancing to that year's semifinals before eventually bowing out.
"I assigned him probably the biggest kid on the other team all the time," said McLaughlin. "Not some of the time, but all the time in a backup role. And he always rose to the occasion. He never let us down."
In those games, Flood demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice, a quality he's tried to adopt in every facet of his life. Over the past year and a half, he's tried to translate that attribute to his team. As a result, members of the football program have been leaders on and off the field and recently the football program raised more than $160,000 for the Hurricane Sandy relief fund.
"Love is really sacrifice," said Flood. "What would you sacrifice for your family? And I think it's important for the young people in our program that they understand that. When we talk about love, it's not holding your girlfriend's hand. It's sacrifice. What did the people in your life sacrifice -- your parents, your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, whoever they are -- to get you to this point to now you're a Division I football player?"
McLaughlin remains in close contact with Flood and was in attendance when Rutgers played Louisville last fall. He hopes to bring Flood back to St. Francis Prep to speak to his faculty in the coming months. As he's followed Flood's career trajectory -- from reserve forward to teacher to coach -- he's seen a common thread: Flood works hard to do things the right way. On a campus wrecked by controversy, McLaughlin thinks Flood is the man to start the process of turning things around.
"He's a man of integrity," said McLaughlin. "He's gonna tell you what the right thing is to do, and he's gonna hold you to it, he's gonna make you accountable.
"I think when you have all those things it adds up to someone who's gonna bring fame to an institution instead of defaming an institution. So I think Kyle's the right guy."
When Vince O'Connor hears the name Kyle Flood, the first word that comes to mind is "consistency." O'Connor should know: Last fall, he completed his 60th season as St. Francis Prep's head football coach, a tenure that spans 12 presidencies.
O'Connor, who has won 329 career games and 14 Catholic High School Football League titles, coached Flood. He was Flood's boss when Flood worked as an assistant at St. Francis Prep from 1993-94. And he remembers Flood's knack for motivating others, getting the most out of players from the time he first strapped up as an offensive lineman.
"In high school, whatever it was that made a player go above and beyond, he was at the base of that," said O'Connor. "Kids played their best by having him out there."
Much like on the basketball court, Flood wasn't the most physically imposing player in the trenches. He emerged as a leader, however, and he soon became a team captain. He developed his technical knowledge of the game, but he gained an even greater understanding for what it takes to manage a roster -- to get others to believe in the things for which he stands.
As Flood rose through the coaching ranks -- he served as a position coach at Long Island University C.W. Post, Hofstra and Delaware before landing on Schiano's staff at Rutgers in 2005 -- he tried to emulate the way O'Connor inspired and interacted with his players.
"I had a chance to coach with him for two years," said Flood. "And I would like to think -- and I don't know if I could do it as well as him, because I don't think anybody can -- but I would like to think that the way I treat people, I learned that in this business from Vinnie O'Connor."
When the appalling footage of Rice aired on ESPN's Outside The Lines in early April, Rutgers decided to review practice videos in all sports. It led to the inquiry and suspension of men's lacrosse coach Brian Brecht. But Flood welcomed the policy. He dealt with his players as O'Connor would have. He made it known he had nothing to hide.
Last December, O'Connor, now 83, flew to Orlando to watch Rutgers play Virginia Tech in the Russell Athletic Bowl. He had watched the team on TV all season, and he spoke highly of its style and scheme. He singled out the defense's staunch performance, in particular; Rutgers allowed just 196 total yards against the Hokies to finish the 2012 season ranked 10th in the FBS in total defense.
Still, he came away more impressed with the way the team played. The result, a 13-10 overtime loss, wasn't as important as the manner in which Flood and company represented Rutgers. "They did lose the game," said O'Connor, "but it's the way they lost that was most important."
O'Connor has manned the sidelines for 60 years. He knows the difference between a good coach and a bad one. He thinks Flood is the former, both on and off the field.
"He's a person of good character," said O'Connor. "Kids respect it. He's what you see. He's what you get."
Throughout his career, Schiano has followed a practice of hiring assistants who had previous experience with him or another member of his staff. He made an exception for Flood.
When Schiano began his search for a new offensive line coach before the 2005 season, he started with candidates with whom he was familiar. He'd completed stints with Penn State, Miami and the Chicago Bears before taking over at Rutgers in December 2000, and he considered reaching out to several people in his coaching network. But he was soon inundated with messages about Flood. One reference after another advocated hiring the then-Delaware assistant, to the point that Schiano couldn't ignore them anymore. "I must have got 50 phone calls on his behalf," said Schiano. "I mean I really, really just had people calling me non-stop."
After going over the situation with a friend, Schiano decided to give Flood a chance. Sure, Flood was an unknown. Sure, he was relatively raw. But he was only a two-hour drive away on the New Jersey Turnpike. If nothing else, Schiano could arrange for an hour-long interview, appeasing all of the callers who had hounded him in recent weeks.
Ten minutes into his meeting with Flood, Schiano's stance shifted drastically. He knew he'd found the man for the job.
"At that time, we hadn't won yet, so it wasn't like he was chasing after the spoils," said Schiano. "And I thought, this guy, he's worth taking a shot on because I just believe in the way he was so passionate about what he wanted to do and teach."
Schiano's decision to hire Flood quickly paid dividends. In 2005, Rutgers enjoyed its first winning season in 13 years. In 2006, its Ray Rice-led squad went 11-2, and, at one point, ascended as high as No. 7 in the AP Poll. Four offensive linemen from that team eventually went on to play in the pros.
But Schiano was struck most by Flood's orderly yet approachable demeanor. After every win, Flood greeted Schiano in the locker room with a giant bear hug. Flood kept his players loose, but he also kept them disciplined. Before the 2008 season, Schiano promoted Flood to assistant head coach.
Nearly four years later, when Schiano left to become the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he knew exactly who he wanted to replace him. "Kyle is gonna run that program in his personality, but I know that we agree on the core values, and that's what's important to me," said Schiano. "Whether it's raising my kids or raising somebody else's, those core values are what Rutgers football is built on and I felt comfortable that he was gonna carry those on."
Schiano preferred not to comment on the current state of the Rutgers athletic department; he felt it would be unfair for him to draw conclusions about Hermann, president Robert Barchi or anyone else. But he did stress his admiration for Flood's first-year success in the top job. Flood always had a way of resonating with players. His lessons sunk in. And though they're no longer on the same staff, Schiano still tries to bring some of Flood's techniques to his roster in the NFL.
"I think Kyle is a tremendous teacher," said Schiano. "He has a way of crystallizing the message. ... A lot of the things that he kind of made simple I've carried on and used -- programs or teaching methods -- that I learned from him."
Schiano and Flood still keep in touch. They chatted about once a week last season, typically on Friday afternoons, a slower period in the NFL cycle. Sometimes their talks were football related, and sometimes they weren't. "He's been a great resource for me," said Flood. "He's somebody who did this for 11 years and was able to build something here that a lot of people doubted he'd be able to build."
Years after taking calls on Flood's behalf, Schiano is now ready to do the convincing. "The big thing that I've always said to anybody is when you get your shot you gotta do it in your way," said Schiano. "Don't try to do it someone else's way because you can't pull it off. And that's one thing that I'm sure of with Kyle. He's a confident guy and he's doing it the way he thinks it should be done. And that's the best way to do it."
Rutgers needs someone to do things the best way, as the poor decision making of a select few has halted the larger goodwill generated over the past few decades.
"He's a great friend," Schiano added. "He's what you want in coaching and he's what you want in college football. He cares about people and he's a family guy."
The testimonies speak volumes, but they only pertain to one man. Rutgers faces a long road back to respectability, and so this year's football team can only do so much. "We're gonna worry about us as a football program because that's all we can control," Flood said. "We can't control the outside stuff."
Still, Flood understands the reality. The next move is always the most important, and if he wants the narrative surrounding his program to change, he'll need to help make it happen.
Sitting in his office, Flood dissected his roster. He laid out the differences between Year 1 and Year 2. He talked about Rutgers' image, one that's in dire need of a facelift.
Then he told a story about one of his most vivid memories from last year. It wasn't a happy moment. Kent State had just handed Rutgers its first loss of the 2012 season, on Oct. 27. Flood entered the locker room to a sea of somber faces.
"The first time you gotta walk in that locker room and see the team after a loss, it's a very telling moment in your life," said Flood. "Because everybody is looking at you and it didn't go well. The locker room after a win, those are easy conversations. When it doesn't go your way and you gotta go in that locker room, that's where you really find out about yourself."
Before he became a football coach, Flood was a math teacher. He has told his wife, Amy, that he wants to be one again when he retires from athletics. But even though Flood has traded in his chalk for a whistle, he'll continue to do what he's always done: working to solve problems by relying on lessons from his past.
"The great teachers in anybody's life are people that motivated them," said Flood. "And the great coaches in people's life are people that motivated them. They helped them do things that maybe they thought they couldn't do, or maybe faster than they thought they could do them."