Is Rutgers a Big Time Football Program Yet?

"Big-time football" has been the mantra at Rutgers for 30 odd years now. The dream started with a few unexpected wins in the 1970s under Head Coach Frank Burns, the winningest coach in Rutgers history and architect of the perfect 1976 season. This dream continued through the 1980s under Head Coach Dick Anderson, a disciple of Penn State's beloved Coach Joe Paterno. Anderson received ...

"Big-time football" has been the mantra at Rutgers for 30 odd years now. The dream started with a few unexpected wins in the 1970s under Head Coach Frank Burns, the winningest coach in Rutgers history and architect of the perfect 1976 season. This dream continued through the 1980s under Head Coach Dick Anderson, a disciple of Penn State's beloved Coach Joe Paterno. Anderson received significant investment and support to build a winning team, but after only 27 wins in five years, Rutgers turned it's hopes to Coach Doug Graber, a long-time NFL Defensive coach. Coach Graber oversaw the team as Rutgers was admitted into the Big East Football Conference, and entered the newly expanded Rutgers Stadium, and lead Rutgers to it's first back-to-back winning seasons in 14 years, but could not bring the team to the next level, and was let go after compiling a 29-36-1 record over 5 seasons. Coach Terry Shea came to the banks with much hoopla as a former assistant of Bill Walsh at Stanford. Despite earning Big East Coach of the Year honors during the 1998 season, Shea oversaw a disastrous downturn as recruiting fell off and Rutgers cemented their reputation as one of the worst teams in Division IA Football before departing after the 2000 season, having won just 11 games.

Rutgers had spent over 2 decades in pursuit of big-time football, yet appeared poised to fail. The naysayers waited breathlessly for that announcement, yet the administration decided to give it one more try. A new athletic director was hired, and his first goal was to find a way to make a successful football program or give up altogether.

The school that invented the game had fallen so far that almost nobody thought it could be fixed. The new Athletic director, Bob Mulcahy began a nationwide search for a coach. He was turned down several times as prospective coaches dodged the dead-end job, but eventually he met another disciple of Joe Paterno, a young assistant coach from the University of Miami named Greg Schiano. In some ways, this seemed like another bust. The commonly held opinion was that Rutgers needed an experienced and successful college head coach, yet here was a coach who had never been a head coach at any level. There were those who wondered if Greg Schiano was a genuine defensive genius or simply feeding off of the success of his Miami mentor, Butch Davis. However, young Greg Schiano came to the Banks with a fresh optimism, a contagious enthusiasm, and the balls to make a national championship a goal.

Greg Schiano's gravitas won over the AD and many fans. He started off on the right foot by stressing recruiting and getting the top High School coaches in New Jersey on his side and even promised to do it all while making sure that every player would receive a quality education, a distinction that is rarely discussed in big time college football programs.

It's been a tough run for Greg Schiano. After going 3-20 over his first two seasons, it appeared that his program would be another failure. Yet, Bob Mulcahy insisted that Greg Schiano would turn the program around.

That turn-around appears to have occurred when Schiano cleaned house two years ago, replacing several assistant coaches and taking over the position of Defensive Coordinator himself. Now Rutgers is in a better position. Greg Schiano's record since his first 2 seasons has improved to 18-19, the team has gone to it's first bowl since 1978, and now the players walk and talk with the same swagger as their coach. Rutgers games are becoming a regular feature on national TV. New Jersey High School players no longer skip Rutgers without looking back. The best players in the area are now staying here and are becoming the stars of the team.

Meanwhile, Greg Schiano has done it all with class. The first sign of a classy team was the small gesture of handing the football to the official after each play. Greg Schiano has been firm with discipline. The worries that a big-time program would bring discipline problems that would tarnish Rutgers' reputation have not been realized, yet recently Schiano has shown a forgiving side in permitting a previously dismissed player to try out as a walk-on. Possibly the most incredible accomplishment is that Rutgers has achieved so much and yet now has one of the best graduation rates in all of College Football. Greg Schiano's program has only enhanced Rutgers fine 136 year reputation.

Has Rutgers really turned the corner? Few people doubt that Rutgers can compete. They have received significant national attention and have risen to the occasion at times when faced with tough competition. Last week, and as the fans wilted in the heat, the Scarlet Knights turned up the heat and shut out a Big 10 team, a noteworthy accomplishment in Rutgers history.

We must accept the reality that greatness never lasts forever, and Rutgers has still only scratched the surface of how great they can become. The sight of future stars Jabulani Lovelace, Kordell Young, Kenny Britt and Jack Corcoran playing for the first time leaves little doubt that the best New Jersey players are truly staying home and should make the foreseeable future bright indeed. But what about today? Does Rutgers have a true big-time football program right now?

The promise of those 1970's teams is finally being realized. The depression of the 80s and 90s has been all but forgotten, and is now replaced by a seemingly unlimited supply of euphoria. There are still places where people will ask "What's a Rutger?", but this group like that 1979 team has the answer, and the rewards should come soon.

By the end of October, I expect Rutgers to receive enough votes to be counted among the top 25 college teams by the most important judges, the nations top football coaches. When this happens, it will be the first time that it has ever happened in the lives of these players.

True entry into the realm of Big Time football is best measured by the peers of the program. When the coaches finally grant Rutgers that admission, it will be a sign that they respect what Rutgers University has accomplished. That respect is what defines big-time football.

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