The Rutgers weight room is being overhauled. So is the way Rutgers recruits. There is a new nutrition plan, changes in where Rutgers football players will live, programs in place for life skills beyond football and a new, and much higher, level of accountability within the program.
New Rutgers coach Chris Ash already made a bundle of changers -- and tons more are coming -- in basically every facet of the football program. But those changes can only take place when one or two questions are answered.
"Does the change help us develop our current student-athletes?" Ash said. "Does the change help us recruit?"
And there, in its simplicity, is how Ash will run his football program.
The strategy starts with Ash and moves throughout the program. Whether it is an assistant coach, a trainer, an equipment person, an academic advisor or tutor, a strength coach, or anyone else, before a change is made, the answer must be "yes" to one or both of those questions.
"If it is not," Ash said, "we are blowing it up and changing it."
Ash, who possesses nearly two decades of coaching experience, spent the first two months as the Rutgers coach talking to current players, high school recruits and high school coaches. And, at every turn, the big-picture plan he implements revolves around the player.
The massive changes include everything from bringing in Kenny Parker as the strength and conditioning coach to changing over the entire coaching staff, to the behind-the-scenes elements like a new recruit area for presentations in an overhauled weight room, to different dorms for the players, and new nutrition guidelines, plus an always-open food area.
"They show up in the morning and they eat," Ash said. "They come back from a workout and they eat. They will walk out the door with a snack. We have a 24/7 area where players can come get something to eat. If they are hungry after a study hall or tutor session, they can get something to eat. The food and nutrition was not at a championship level, so we changed it.
"We are incorporating sports science aspects to training. We are educating the players on the importance of hydration. We did our first hydration test (last week) and it was not good. Probably 90 percent of this football team is dehydrated, so we are educating them. We are incorporating sports science into developing our football team."
There is also the not-so-noticeable details of changing the colors of the walls (brighter) and altering the lighting in the football offices, and making the television screens throughout the Hale Center, Rutgers' football building, clear rather than a tad fuzzy.
However, the changes in the weight room are some of the biggest.
"We're training not only the body (in the weight room) for physical development, but it's more about the mental training," Ash said. "We are going to put these guys in adverse situations to see how they are handled. We are going to challenge them. We are going to create a competitive environment every single day in that weight room. We're going to find out who will compete, and find out how tough they are when faced with adversity, and we're going to find out what type of leadership we have when you create that type of environment.
"They are going to be trained a lot different than they were trained before. We talk about being able to rise to the level of training, not the level of the occasion."
Renovating the weight room, a key component in recruiting and player development, includes getting more modern equipment. Some smaller changes already were made, but the big ones, including a new floor, will be made after the spring semester.
"I want there to be a 'Wow' factor when recruits walk in," Ash said. "This is where players spend the most time, so they have to like it."
Ash said changes throughout the program include higher expectations, and more accountability, from the players. If a player wants to live off campus, he must prove he is mature enough to handle it.
All players must live on campus for two years. After that period, if a player is in good academic and social standing, and has the right attitude and gives the proper effort, a he can earn the right to move off campus. And, according to Ash, it is a right to move off campus.
"I want them to feel like they are in an environment where they are taken care of, and it's conducive to making the right decisions, and it's a good place to study," Ash said. "I don't feel like they've been provided that. There are a number of really nice options here on campus and the head of student affairs is going to work with us on finding better alternatives. We're going to get that done for the incoming class of 2016.
"I don't want a place that doesn't have security. I don't want a place they don't feel safe, and I don't want a place where they can party and make bad decisions, and get away with it."
The changing of the culture within the program, Ash said, begins with constant communication with the players. He holds weekly team meetings, and assistant coaches stage weekly position meetings. In addition, the staff is constantly in touch with players via phone conversations when they cannot meet regularly on campus.
Is it changing the attitude of high school coaches, and recruits, in the region, and particularly in New Jersey?
"Right now they won't know because the only thing they can go off is what we say," Ash said. "How do you build trust over how a program is going to be run? It's repeated actions over time. We're going to need a good year to demonstrate we're going to build a football team full of guys who will make right decisions off the field. We'll build a football team full of guys that will want to perform well in the classroom before we have a football team that will win on the field,
"It gets back to constant communication and education of what we want. The standard is going to be high in all areas, and it's going to be crystal clear to the players. Our culture that we want has been clearly defined. It's been communicated over and over and over every time they come into (the Hale Center) by every coach, by every support staff member."
Ash developed a lot of his ideas while he was the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, Arkansas and Ohio State -- "all three of those places try to do things as good as you can do them in college football," Ash said -- and he is implementing strategies learned at many of his stops.
One key program implemented is "The Performance Pathway." Ash looks to build leadership throughout the program.
"We are trying to motivate the players to think different," Ash said. "The way they think dictates how they behave. Their behavior leads to performance, and their performance leads to results in all areas. That doesn't get done overnight."
Ash views the academic support side, which is run by executive director of academic support services Scott Walker and director of football academic support Jenna Beverly, as an asset, and he lauded their work. He said enhancing the academic support is vital.
Each student-athlete will be assessed individually, and each one will have his own plan for academic development.
"Everything we're going to do in this program is going to measure the attitude and effort of the players," Ash said. "That's in the weight room -- if a kid shows up in the weight room with a good attitude and effort, he's going to succeed. In academics, it's no different. We are not judging these players on GPA. Every one of the players has a different ceiling to learn, a different ceiling on where they can go academically, and our job is to identify what that ceiling is, and we work to get the players to that ceiling."
Ash also hired long-time coach Nick Quartaro for player development. He is running the "Life Beyond The Game" program -- Ash calls it "a game changer" -- to help players find jobs after graduation.
The eight-week program will run in the spring, and begins in March.
"In this day and age, college football uses the student-athlete," Ash said. "When they get done here and the cheering has stopped, they get a piece of paper. What do they do what that piece of paper? There are so many people across the country getting a piece of paper.
"It's going to be a program every spring, for their four- to five-year career, where we're going to bring in speakers to educate the student-athlete on building a network, developing the skills needed, getting work experience through job-shadowing opportunities or internships that lead to employment when they are done playing."
And while much of the outside focus is on winning games, inside there is a different goal.
"The No. 1 goal of this program is to make sure players are graduating," Ash said. "It's everybody's job in this organization to make sure the players are working toward graduation, and to get a degree when they are finished in this program. That's a big change, from what I can tell. It's a program goal. It's not just an academic advisor goal. It's a program goal. We're going to be involved in every step of the way."null