A Spring Football Game Rutgers Would Rather Forget

Tom Luicci

This should have been a spring filled with optimism, enthusiasm and energy for Rutgers football fans. The recent hire of Jersey native Greg Schiano, returning to where he fits best and has had proven success, had already rejuvenated the downtrodden program overnight, and that would have carried over into spring practice, another victim of the coronavirus pandemic.

Interestingly, it was 24 years ago when Rutgers also had a newly-hired head coach who was supposed to inject life into – sigh – a downtrodden program. Things did not go so well that time.

Terry Shea arrived in Piscataway via the CFL’s British Columbia Lions, where he served as the quarterbacks coach. He was a West Coast guy filled with West Coast ideas in a decidedly East Coast college town.

One of the ideas he came up with upon his arrival was to match his new team, coming off a 4-7 season, against a group of the school’s alumni to play in the spring game.

Get the old alums involved. Entertain the fans. Have some fun. That’s what spring games are about, right?

Know this about what was essentially a rag-tag bunch of alums that the Rutgers varsity would take on that April day in 1996: More than half of the 50 “players” had graduated before 1990. According to media reports, the alumni team had a single one-hour practice as preparation (no one knows for sure if that was due to time constraints or physical ones).

The alumni team won, 10-6. Media reports say there were approximately 3,500 witnesses in the stands who can verify the outcome.

Sure, there were reasons for the stunning embarrassment. Shea’s top quarterback recruit was delayed because he was arrested in California. None of the key players at wide receiver was available. There was no proven quarterback. Shea was installing a new West Coast offense.

Still: This was an alumni team, with many guys showing their age around the middle, with one hour of practice, with more than a few guys who hadn’t been in pads in years -- if not decades. Their Gatorade bucket on the sideline was packed with Ben Gay.

The varsity managed 189 yards of offense and one touchdown against them.

“That’s the risk you take any time you enter the arena,” said Shea, who was only recently supplanted as the worst coach in the program’s history by Chris Ash.

Corey Valentine, a redshirt freshman quarterback at the time, was more forthcoming in his post-game assessment.

“I think those guys showed a lot of pride and they didn’t want to come in here and get embarrassed,” he said. “As for us, I think we were more shocked than embarrassed.”

Including alumni in spring games back then wasn’t common. But it had been done before by other schools. There are no reports, however, of any other college varsity team losing to a hairline-receding alumni squad.

That Rutgers team would go on to be 2-9, followed by an 0-11 campaign a year later, in what would be a largely forgettable five years and 11-44 record under Shea.

The players who won that spring game watched the 1996 season mostly from their recliners at home.

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