Rutgers Needs Southern Exposure
Scarlet Knights Yet to Tackle South Jersey Recruiting
By Dave Paich
Interstate Highway 195 runs from west to east across New Jersey in nearly a straight line from Roebling Park near Trenton to Belmar, where it melts into State Highway 138. It marks the Garden State's beltline, an expanse of highway stretching from the Delaware River to the Jersey shore. It's a highway that separates North Jersey from South Jersey, but to the Rutgers football team, I-195 must seem like the Mason-Dixon Line—no matter what you do, you just can't make recruits cross it.
I-195 has no respect for provincial boundaries. It slices through the Shore Conference Liberty Division, leaving Matawan, Raritan, Red Bank Catholic, and Saint John Vianney high schools to the North while Wall, Point Pleasant, Monsignor Donovan, and Manasquan reside in the south. The highway separates suburban tracts from rolling woodlands, but it separates more than topography: the State of Rutgers, it seems, also has a split personality. On the other side of the line, "What's a Rutgers?" still applies.
Hollybush in Glassboro
A Roster Lacking in South Jerseyans
The team's current roster mirrors the distant relationship between north and south. Of 45 New Jersey scholarship players, only nine hail from the combined counties of Ocean, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Salem, Atlantic, Cumberland, and Cape May. Two of them—linemen Mark Segaloff and Mike Clancy—are from Tom's River North High School, which is south of the line, but hardly the Deep South. Only four of the nine were recruited by current head coach Greg Schiano. These southern representatives are the only things preventing the State University of New Jersey from being the State University of North Jersey. And if early 2004 recruiting data is any indication, south Jerseyans will again be a lonely lot in Piscataway. Mike Fasano, a recruiting analyst who operates the Rutgers Insiders website, says that of the top seven south Jersey seniors, only one gives Schiano a strong shot, while three have taken a wait-and-see approach and three have essentially ruled out the state university. Those are unfavorable odds for a program longing to make an impression in the southernmost counties.
Still, even the long odds of this year's crop of south Jersey talent have to count as progress, even if the next player from Salem County to sign a national letter of intent to attend Rutgers will be Schiano's first Salem County recruit. "They've started to make inroads", says Forbes. "When the current staff arrived, they had a coach's clinic in south Jersey, where attendance was less than stellar. That tells you about the attitude south Jersey coaching staffs had about the Rutgers program. Right now, Rutgers is doing O.K. in the area, where they are at least on the lists of some good players."
If progress in south Jersey is slower than Rutgers fans had hoped, it's not due to lack of effort. There's no denying that Schiano has approached college recruiting with an unmatched fervor. "Coach Schiano recognizes the issues in south Jersey just as he recognizes them in other areas of the state," according to Don Forbes, a former Rutgers football player. "Every year, Rutgers coaches visit every high school in New Jersey." Schiano, a tireless worker with a personality that resonates with both high school athletes and their parents, pursues recruits even when they tell him to give up. Fasano confirms that even if the Scarlet Knights are likely to come up short with the top south Jersey players this year, it won't be because the Rutgers coaching staff wasn't interested. "They want them bad, but they aren't coming." Even dogged determination and eternal optimism, it seems, might not be enough to prevent Rutgers from another near-shutout in the counties of South Jersey this year.
and Philly skyline
Past Recruiting Success Hasn't Translated to Current Results
Rutgers has tapped South Jersey before. The school has had five coaches since committing to play big-time college football in the late 1970s—Frank Burns, Dick Anderson, Doug Graber, Terry Shea, and Schiano. The first four landed between 12 and 21% of their recruits from south Jersey. Schiano has clearly been the least successful at recruiting the area, with only 8% of his recruits from south of the line.
Burns recruited future Pro Bowler Deron Cherry and receiver David Dorn. Anderson reeled in defensive end Shawn Williams of Burlington and receiver Gary Melton of faraway Mays Landing. Graber signed defensive back Taman Bryant of Newtonville and wide receiver Steve Harper from Atlantic City even while spending significant resources in recruiting south Florida, just like the present-day Rutgers coach. Even Terry Shea got his share. Lambasted for being out of step with the New Jersey coaching community, he still managed to recruit Kevin Sinclair, a flashy running back from Kingsway Regional, tailback Dennis Thomas from Salem, defensive end Wayne Hampton of Paulsboro, defensive lineman Marcus Perry from Mainland Regional, and offensive tackle Rich McManis from Triton Regional. Maybe these players weren't program makers, but they were recruits that helped keep the southern pipelines open. If Terry Shea could do it, why can't Schiano?
To be fair, even Schiano's predecessors lost out on many of the best southern recruits—Tony Sacca, Ron Dayne, and Ryan Roberts among them. And the competition for some of Shea's most notable recruits was less than spirited. In fact, it's possible that Schiano would have passed over many of Shea's signees if he had the chance to recruit them today. "Sinclair, McManis, and Perry were not that highly recruited", according to Fasano. "Sinclair had a great high school career but was not sought after by Division 1 schools. I'm willing to bet that if Kevin Sinclair was a senior today, Schiano would not offer him."
Hampton and Thomas, however, were important recruits for Shea, so the last staff was able to tap at least some of New Jersey's southern talent. Schiano's recruiting classes have been nearly devoid of south Jersey players so far, and in order to truly become the State Football University, it's essential for Rutgers to penetrate the region. How much higher would the school's local sports profile be if they were to establish a pipeline into Camden and Burlington Counties? Imagine the attention Rutgers would command statewide if they were to tap the rich talent of Rancocas Valley, Willingboro, Woodbury, and Paulsboro—or the tribal triangle of Shawnee, Cherokee, and Lenape?
As to what's holding Rutgers back, the answers appear to be focus, competition, and perception.
A Focus on Winning First?
Schiano may not be equipped to fight the Battle of South Jersey yet, so he's likely to concentrate on other areas first in order to build the program's ground floor. When he took the job, he was well aware that there would be tough sledding ahead, particularly in his home state. The school's credibility with many New Jersey high school coaching staffs was embarrassingly low, and even Schiano was surprised at the dearth of local talent. He ran smack into the Catch-22 of struggling college football programs: you need good players to get wins, but you need wins to get good players. How on Earth could he flip that relationship on its head and get good players without winning? His short-term plan, it seems, is to stick to what he knows—areas where his strong local connections outweigh anxieties over the direction of the program. Schiano knows north Jersey, where his roots run thirty-six years deep. And he knows South Florida, where a successful stint as Miami defensive coordinator put him on the map. South Jersey? The coach and his university are still getting to know it.
Schiano hasn't given up on south Jersey, but even the most optimistic coach in the world has to be prepared for the sting of the words "I have no interest", a sting Rutgers has felt from the top tier of south Jersey talent so far. And Schiano won't compromise on talent, so it's on to Florida, where there are plenty of fast and strong athletes available. Even the most passionate Jerseyan would probably admit that recruiting Florida's second tier will probably fix the program faster than recruiting New Jersey's second tier. Why take the lesser quality kids from south Jersey when, instead, there's an eager Florida star who was overlooked by the Big Three of Florida, Florida State, and Miami? Which players do you think will help Schiano win first?
The White Horse Inn in Chatsworth
Heavy Competition from Major Conferences
Don't think for a minute that other conferences have turned a blind eye toward the talent-rich southern regions of New Jersey. The Big East, Big Ten, and Atlantic Coast Conference are all keenly aware of the abundant talent base, and Schiano isn't nearly as well-equipped to play defense there as he is north Jersey. A number of these programs have used their stronger sports traditions and their own south Jersey ties to nab premier players. North Carolina does it with head coach John Bunting, a former Philadelphia Eagle linebacker and Rowan University head coach. Bunting was able to land fellow linebacker Melik Brown, who grew up in Camden, just across the Delaware River from Veterans Stadium. Bunting also received a letter of intent from top-rated quarterback Nick Cangelosi of Cherry Hill. Iowa running backs coach Darrell Wilson, a native of Pennsauken, New Jersey, will be putting highly-ranked running back Albert Young of Moorestown through his paces.
The University of Virginia has done a number on Rutgers the last few years, with a coaching staff headed by Al Groh, who coached an NFL team in New Jersey, and defensive coordinator Al Golden, a Colts Neck native and former Penn State tight end. Golden is a rising star in the college coaching ranks and is also an ace recruiter, plucking New Jersey high school stars like Eastern safety Lance Evans and Wali Lundy of Holy Cross. Big East schools like Syracuse and Boston College lean much more heavily on northern New Jersey, but still grab their share of southerners—Holy Spirit running back William Green from Absecon was a major star for the Eagles and is now a star in the NFL.
Little Egg Harbor
Penn State's shadow still looms the largest, though. Television stations in southern New Jersey are filled with images of the Nittany Lions. Rutgers images are, to put it kindly, rare. Want proof of the tangled relationship between the two universities? How about one of Schiano's predecessors at Rutgers, Dick Anderson? Anderson has been over the hill and back on the local college scene, and he is a walking illustration of the conflicted nature of New Jersey's state football program. Anderson is a Penn State alum. As a matter of fact, so is his wife, and two of his sons. Anderson coached the offensive line for Penn State for 11 years until Rutgers lured him away, hoping that some of that Nittany magic would rub off. Anderson spent five years as Rutgers' head coach, and even scored one of the schools all-time upsets over his own alma mater in 1988. He was fired in 1989 and went right back to Penn State as an assistant coach, New Jersey connections and all. Oh, and by the way, he had a young graduate assistant at Rutgers that last year, a rising star in his own right who followed Anderson to State College and spent six years coaching defensive backs. His name was Greg Schiano.
Maybe once Joe Paterno retires, or simply ossifies, things will begin to swing back in Rutgers' favor down south. But it won't happen overnight. Just listen to Green as he spoke to SuperPrep's Allen Wallace five years ago during his recruiting process:
"Everybody in Absecon Valley is a Penn State fan."
The boardwalk at Atlantic City
Battling Against a Tradition of Frustration
The final reason for the lack of success, and the most difficult to overcome, is the perception down south that Rutgers is a perennial loser, a perception that's difficult to refute after years of losing and lopsided beatings—not just during Schiano's tenure, but during Shea's stewardship, and even at the tail end of Graber's. Why would a high school star gamble his next four years on the coach of the day turning things around? It's a vastly different situation than the one Notre Dame faced when trying to claw its way out of the Bob Davie backslide. Then, the program's decades of winning tradition made the weak Davies teams seem like aberrations. In New Brunswick lately, it's the winning season that's the aberration, until proven otherwise. Schiano seems to have everything in place to improve the program, but the advantages he possesses in north Jersey don't carry through to south Jersey. Schiano isn't likely to win the hearts and minds of teenagers from southern New Jersey until he fields a consistent winner. Fasano agrees:
"I think winning, winning, and winning will make the difference. Kids in South Jersey just don't believe in Rutgers. The only things that will turn this around are some wins."
Arny's Mount Friendship
If the players are tough to sway, converting coaches is even harder. Players come and players go, but a coach's tenure is usually measured in decades, not years. While fresh-faced high school seniors may not be prejudiced by the failure of previous Rutgers coaching staffs, their high school coaches will certainly be. It's a case of "fool me twice, shame on me." While Schiano may get a clean slate from a 17-year old looking at schools for the first time, what once-bitten coach is going to stick out his neck by sending yet another player down the road to potential disappointment? It's the bitterest of ironies that while Shea holdovers Mike Williamson, Brian Duffy, and Rich McManis still anchor Schiano's offensive line, the bad feelings left over from the Shea era continue to undermine the new coach's footing. Would Schiano's job be any easier if his own coaching staff had more of a southern flavor? Some think it might.
"Schiano has a number of coaches from north Jersey, but only one from south Jersey", says Forbes, "With the lack of recruiting success and the need to build relationships in the area, Rutgers has an uphill battle right now to get the necessary talent."
For now, Schiano's plan appears to be this: Win with whatever players he can get, and the south Jersey blue-chippers will arrive after the victories do. Until that time—until a 5-win season is viewed as a disappointment and not a sign of progress—Rutgers fans will have to settle for the State University of North Jersey. And for the time being, Schiano will continue to find the southern exits from the State of Rutgers propped open.
Please send any comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org