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Why Can't Rutgers Ever Win?

Aug. 25, 2003
Aug. 25, 2003

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Aug. 25, 2003

College Football
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Why Can't Rutgers Ever Win?

Rutgers is the biggest school in New Jersey, a state swarming with good young players. Yet over the last decade the Scarlet Knights are 32-83-1. The coach says things are turning around. Many others on campus say it's time for the school to get out of the big-time football business.

Rutgers University acquired its vaguely Ivy League-sounding name in 1825, changing its original name of Queen's College in anticipation of a large bequest from Col. Henry Rutgers, a wealthy former trustee and prominent Revolutionary War veteran. The joke was on the school five years later, when the colonel left his namesake institution a bell and $5,000. ¶ That figure is some $2.3 million less than the university's football program lost last year, and both numbers bespeak the unfortunate way things often turn out for the state university of New Jersey. The Colonel's bequest was the first example of what is known on the New Brunswick campus as the RU Screw: the university--or, more typically, its students--getting shafted thanks to administrators' gullibility, ineptitude or greed. Nowadays, in fact, the one point of agreement among many academic purists and football-starved fans at Rutgers is that the Scarlet Knights' dismal gridiron program could be described as an industrial-sized RU Screw.

This is an article from the Aug. 25, 2003 issue Original Layout

Even for a program whose worst months generally are September through November, this off-season was not kind to Rutgers football. In June, Miami and Virginia Tech announced that they will defect to the ACC in 2004, eviscerating the Big East as a football conference and potentially costing the remaining members millions in future shared bowl revenues. Rutgers joined other Big East schools in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Miami and the ACC, as a diaphanous veil of boola-boola slipped to reveal naked moola-moola.

That same month, facing sanctions from the NCAA, Rutgers put itself on athletic probation for two years and stripped itself of 20 scholarships in 10 sports, including four in football, after discovering that between 1997 and 2001, 40 Scarlet Knights athletes in 15 sports had been ineligible or improperly certified. There was no intent to violate NCAA regulations--just rank incompetence by the athletic administration then in place. When asked at a press conference if the university had bent the rules to gain a competitive advantage, Robert Mulcahy, who took over as AD in 1998, replied, "If you saw our record, you wouldn't ask that question."

The record is pathetic. Rutgers's program has gone from college football's first--the Scarlet Knights beat Princeton 6-4 on Nov. 6, 1869, in the sport's inaugural game--to arguably its worst. Consider:

--Rutgers has suffered 19 losses by 40 points or more in the last seven seasons. Those defeats include the expected pummelings by Miami and Notre Dame, but one came against Temple and four against West Virginia, including an 80-7 defeat in 2001.

--The Scarlet Knights have won nine Big East games in the past decade, none since 1999. Their last winning season was 1992.

--Rutgers was 1-11 last year, losing its first two home games to Division I-AA Villanova and I-A newcomer Buffalo by a combined 41 points. "I was with some friends, and the score rolled across the screen and they said, 'You lost to Buffalo,'" says Deron Cherry, Rutgers '81, a six-time NFL Pro Bowl defensive back with the Chiefs who now owns a car dealership and a Budweiser distributorship in Kansas City. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding.'" The Scarlet Knights would go on to finish last in the nation in both total and scoring offense. In two seasons as coach Greg Schiano has three wins, at the expense of Buffalo, Navy and Army.

The program's struggles have riven the university. On one side is a small but vocal group of faculty, students and alumni unhappy not over the team's losses but over the school's fixation with playing big-time, quasi-professional college football. On the other side is a larger group, led by Mulcahy, Schiano and first-year university president Richard L. McCormick (formerly president of the University of Washington), who believe that a state university with 28,000 undergrads ought to be playing in Division I-A and that the program can return to glory.

There were, in fact, some glorious years. In 1976 the Scarlet Knights finished 11-0. Two years later they went 9-3 and made the lone postseason appearance in school history, losing 34-18 to Arizona State in the Garden State Bowl. But soon thereafter--eager to become what then university president Edward J. Bloustein called "bigger time, not big time"--Rutgers began shedding traditional Ivy League opponents like Princeton and Cornell and sprinkling its schedule with a Michigan State here, a Tennessee there.

The program soon fell into decline. "The institution never made a commitment [back then]," says Ron Giaconia, a member of the school's board of governors and chairman of the athletic committee. "You don't go big-time by waving a magic wand and saying this is what you want to be. There was no [top-level football] infrastructure in place until the last few years."

The new infrastructure includes a refurbished 42,000-seat stadium, a $12 million face-lift for training facilities that will be finished next June and a more competent athletic administration. But many on campus remain pessimistic about the program. Last spring a professor asked quarterback Ryan Hart, now a sophomore, "When are you going to take expository writing?"

"Probably over the summer," Hart replied.

"A very good idea," said the professor, "because if you took it in the fall, you'd be so demoralized [by your team's losses that] you wouldn't do well." She was joking, but clearly Rutgers football needs what Mulcahy calls a "change of culture."

That is precisely the goal of two men at Rutgers who bristle with idealism, even if their ideals are antithetical. One is Schiano, the coach. The other is William C. Dowling, a professor of English who has led the fifth column that wants the school out of the sports business. They have never met, which is not surprising. It is amazing they share the same planet, let alone the same campus.

On a muggy Monday in June, a man with the compact build of a small-college linebacker and an open face accentuated by the gap between his front teeth gazes out picture windows to the home stands at Rutgers Stadium. Greg Schiano imagines how this charming midsized stadium might someday expand--rows of seats rising out of the corner where there's now a hillock, and another deck where there's nothing but air. He envisions the large stadium advertising signs being replaced by luxury suites.

When you've left the University of Miami to become, at 37, the youngest Division I-A head coach, when you've rebuffed subsequent offers to be an NFL defensive coordinator and signed a two-year extension of your original five-year contract--all to be at Rutgers--you are either clairvoyant or delusional. "When we go to the Sugar Bowl in 2005," Schiano says, "maybe we could spend some of that [bowl] money on a new training table and a players' lounge."

Schiano, a Wyckoff, N.J., native and former Hurricanes defensive coordinator, was hired in December 2000. Though he has yet to win his first Big East game, he has made some progress in turning the Scarlet Knights around. "Self-esteem was absolutely horrible in this program," he says. "Negativity. Sarcasm. One of our kids told me that before practice, one of our receivers asked for a pair of gloves. An equipment guy who's no longer with us told him, 'What the hell do you need gloves for? You can't catch anything anyway.' That attitude is something we've changed."

Another area of improvement has been recruiting. When his hiring was announced, Schiano proclaimed New Jersey the "State of Rutgers" and vowed to put "a wall" around it to keep the high school football talent at home. Of course, walls are not built overnight--of the 23 scholarship players in his third recruiting class, which enters this fall, only nine are homegrown--but the Scarlet Knights are signing a growing number of good Jersey players and may have landed their biggest blue-chipper yet in July, when quarterback Mike Teel of Don Bosco Prep, the state's top-ranked high school, made an oral commitment for 2004.

"Everywhere I've gone in New Jersey recently, Rutgers has been there," says Penn State assistant head coach Fran Ganter, who's been on the Nittany Lions' staff for 34 years. "I go to a clinic, and I'm the representative from Penn State. I run into [Notre Dame assistant] Bob Simmons, and we turn around and there are five red sweaters in the crowd--Greg's got five guys from Rutgers at that one clinic. You go to a clinic the next night in Central Jersey, and there's six or seven guys from Rutgers. They don't care if the kid has offers from Notre Dame, Penn State, Texas and Tennessee. They're battling for him."

The potential payoff is huge in a state that has traditionally been picked clean by outsiders. "You walk into other states, and there's some school there that really dominates," says Purdue coach Joe Tiller, who has seven New Jersey players on his roster. "In Ohio they all want to go to Ohio State. In Michigan they all want to go to Michigan or Michigan State. In Indiana they all want to go to Notre Dame. In New Jersey they don't necessarily want to go to Rutgers. If they could keep those kids in state, Rutgers would be as good as anybody in the Big East."

Schiano started his tenure with glitz--commercials with Sopranos star James Gandolfini (Rutgers '83), billboards in South Florida (long a recruiting hotbed for the school) and more than 100 speeches in six months--but has since consolidated his efforts to nurture the tepid relationship between Rutgers and the 347 football-playing New Jersey high schools. Although Schiano's predecessor, Terry Shea, was 1998 Big East coach of the year after a 5-6 season (a measure of how low the bar is at Rutgers), he is not remembered fondly in the state. Shea was a Californian who'd coached at San Jose State and Stanford, among other places, and Hoboken High coach Ed Stinson jokes that Shea's staff didn't even know where the Jersey Turnpike was.

There were encouraging moments last season: a 14-7 halftime lead over Tennessee, a modest (if unsuccessful) comeback after trailing 21-0 at Virginia Tech, a 17-14 lead over Miami after three quarters. Those three teams were ranked 10th, third and first, respectively, when the Scarlet Knights played them. "Those were not moral victories," Schiano says. "They were tangible proof our program will get better."

Athletic director Mulcahy shares that optimism and insists that the school can win at football without forfeiting its academic integrity. Mulcahy points to Michigan and Cal, both of which, like Rutgers, rank among the nation's leading research universities. "They successfully combine academics with high-level athletics," he says. "So why can't Rutgers figure out how to do it? It's not brain surgery."

Yet critics on campus contend that the university has already neglected its mission by focusing money and resources on a program that has little to do with education. They argue that with Big East football gutted, now is the ideal moment for Rutgers to clamber out of the swamp of commercialized college athletics, to make sports incidental if not inconsequential in campus life.

The only time Schiano's mood darkens during five hours of conversation is when this subject arises. "Where do they want us to go?" he asks. "I-AA? You're going to lose more money in I-AA than you do now. D-III? A major state research institution playing Division III athletics? Maybe there are some, but that's a hard model to find. Maybe you'd be starting a model with that one."

Give Professor Dowling a drafting table and a mechanical pencil, and get the hell out of the way.

William C. Dowling strolls back and forth in his classroom, bearded chin in hand, answering questions. Sometimes he shuts his eyes while making a point, as if carefully composing each word. He is teaching Milton's Paradise Lost, discussing a section on how Eve persuaded Adam to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Dowling describes the passage as "the hardest 20 lines in English literature."

Dowling's work often focuses on heroism. His Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard was on James Boswell and the idea of the hero in the late 18th century. He taught a course in 1996, Mirror of the Enlightenment, in which students read not only Locke and Gibbon in English, but also Voltaire and Diderot in French. He says those students made a heroic effort, one that went unacknowledged on campus, despite being at least as praiseworthy as, say, rushing for 100 yards against Syracuse.

Dowling, 59, lives near Princeton, about 16 miles from the Rutgers campus, so it is more convenient for him to do research in the Princeton University library, which is, not surprisingly, superior to Rutgers's. "You can't afford books when you're buying linebackers," Dowling says. He characterizes his school's athletic program as "a Sophoclean tragedy, starring the Three Stooges"--presumably McCormick, Mulcahy and Schiano.

"The Division III model is very useful," Dowling says as he polishes off a plate of eggs at a hangout across from the Princeton campus. "Good major private universities--like Washington U in St. Louis, Emory and NYU--have what we want for Rutgers. The admissions office accepts a class, and those who are good at football or baseball go out for it in the same way people who are good at theater go out for theatrical productions. We want Rutgers to be the first [major] public school in the U.S. to do this. It'd be a shining beacon to every other public institution, an example for the nation that also gets us out of the morass."

In the mid-1990s Dowling became faculty adviser to a group called Rutgers 1000, which is made up of more than 1,000 alumni and students who want the university to drop Division I athletics. The group rose to prominence in 1998 after the school alumni magazine refused to accept an advertisement from Rutgers 1000 trumpeting a statement of support from that other Milton, Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedman (class of '32). Rutgers 1000 sued and won. The ensuing publicity--and the $465,331 in legal bills run up by the school--made Rutgers look stiff-necked, scared and ridiculous.

Dowling is not antiathletic. (He ran marathons until a few years ago.) He says he simply wants "to make sure people care more about a kid who is brilliant at Greek or philosophy or physics than which moron is hired for the football team." He always roots for the football team to lose by lopsided margins. "That way," he says, "the honor and reputation of the school are saved."

Dowling might not get his wish every week this fall. The Scarlet Knights have some intriguing freshmen. Tennessee and Notre Dame are off the schedule, replaced by Navy and Connecticut. Mulcahy has set modest goals: beating Buffalo and UConn, and winning two Big East games, one at home and one on the road. "The rest takes care of itself," he says. "We're going to get it done."

Schiano versus Dowling is an intriguing but hardly fair fight for Rutgers's soul, not with the lure of BCS millions, the big-time designs of McCormick and the conviction of Mulcahy. After two decades of losing, the university's commitment to football is stronger than ever, although Milton--the poet, not the economist--could tell you that 2003 will again be no Garden of Eden for the team from the Garden State. The English professor would have it no other way.

COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY RUTGERS ATHLETICSCOLOR PHOTO: TED S. WARREN/AP COMIC RELIEF Unable to beat Buffalo, let alone Notre Dame (far left), in 2002, the Scarlet Knights were preparing last week (above) to try again.B/W ILLUSTRATION: DREW SHENEMAN/NEWARK STAR LEDGER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHYCOLOR PHOTO: RAY STUBBLEBINE/REUTERS UPSET BID Shawn Seabrooks' touchdown gave Rutgers a 17-8 lead before Miami stormed back for a 42-17 win last season.COLOR PHOTO: RICK SCHULTZ/APB/W PHOTO: RUTGERS ARCHIVES GLORY DAYS Rutgers was 11-0 under coach Frank Burns in 1976 (above) and two seasons later went to its only bowl.COLOR PHOTO: JOE MCLAUGHLIN/HOME NEWS TRIBUNE

 

Tight games against Tennessee and Miami "were not moral victories. They are proof our program will get better." --COACH GREG SCHIANO
"[Michigan and Cal] successfully combine academics with high-level athletics. So why can't Rutgers? It's not brain surgery." --AD ROBERT MULCAHY
"[I want people to] care more about a kid who is brilliant... than which moron is hired for the football team." --PROFESSOR WILLIAM DOWLING