17 games into his rookie season as Rutgers head coach, Fred Hill's team stands at 8-9, and 1-3 in the Big East. They will not be favored to win very many games the rest of the way at all this year. Forget for a moment that Quincy Douby is in the NBA and that Byron Joynes is red-shirting; the loss of two starters from last years Nobody's Interested Tournament team is not the bigger story. Fred Hill is Rutgers 5th head coach in 21 years, and you have to go back six coaches – to Tom Young - and a decision made when he was here to find the roots for Rutgers' ongoing malady.
It is perhaps a cruel irony about Rutgers basketball that the most calamitous decision ever made in the programs history occurred during its most successful period ever. Tom Young, who coached at Rutgers from 1973 to 1985, is by far the most all-around successful coach ever at Rutgers. He compiled a 239-117 record in 12 years at RU; his 239 wins are the most ever at Rutgers, and his .671 winning percentage is also a school record (for coaches who coached more than one season: Thomas Kenneally led RU to an 11-3 record, a .711 percentage, back in '44-'45).
Tom Young is also one of only two coaches at Rutgers to have ever taken the school to the NCAA tournament, having done it four times. To put it another way, he's taken them there four out of the six times they have ever gone. In the last half of the 1970's under Young, Rutgers had become one of the top programs in the East, quite capable of holding its own against the likes of St John's and Lou Carnesecca, John Thompson and Georgetown, and Jim Boeheim and Syracuse. So it was only natural then that in 1978, Rutgers would be a logical choice to be an original member of the Big East.
The impetus for the formation of the Big East conference arose in early 1978 when the NCAA imposed new in-season scheduling requirements for men's basketball. This did not sit well with three independent institutions: Providence, St John's, and Georgetown. Soon the Athletic Directors of these three schools would meet with Jake Crouthamel, then the newly-hired AD at Syracuse, to discuss a strategy. As Crouthamel put it: "These requirements forced independent institutions like the four of us to align and schedule schools with whom we had no interest or tradition. Self determination was far better than being told who your partners would be".
Crouthamel added: "The four of us met for countless hours in countless sessions to determine the make-up of our new conference-to-be. We considered the quality of men's basketball programs in the northeast, regional representation, significant media markets, etc. Boston College was invited over Holy Cross, UMass and Boston University". And Rutgers was invited to join the Big East – not Seton Hall. And Rutgers declined. As Crouthamel explained, RU declined because "…it was aligned in the Atlantic 8 (now the Atlantic 10) along with Penn State. Rutgers didn't feel comfortable disassociating itself with Penn St. Seton Hall took Rutgers spot".
Perhaps, if Fred Gruninger, Rutgers AD at the time, could've known that just two years later Penn St - after failing to get Syracuse and Boston College to leave the Big East to form an all-sports conference (for as Crouthamel put it, although it would've been good for football, "…it would've been a step backward for men's basketball) – would itself ask for membership in the Big East, maybe he would not have declined the offer. Perhaps if he could've sensed just how quickly the league would take off, winning two NCAA championships in the 1980's and twice losing in the title game, (while putting three teams in the Final Four in '85), he might not have declined the offer.
In any case, Rutgers was hardly in a position to withstand the formation of not being a member of such a conference - and then of course having to recruit against it. For one thing, Rutgers was never able to really capitalize on its successes on the recruiting trail. The reasons are many, but a few can be mentioned here: For one thing, Rutgers never even offered athletic scholarships until 1972 - the notion of RU as a "public ivy" was not a myth. RU has never had a general studies majors, nor did it have a good academic support system in place in those days. Playing at the Barn until 1977 didn't help, either.
(Rutgers, by the way, has always been a clean program. The competition for top players, even in those pre-ESPN, AAU and sneaker-camp days, was often fraught with underhanded goings on – it's of course worse now. RU has never stooped to that level, but unfortunately has been hurt by those that have.)
Tom Young made the most of things. He was able to land Roy Hinson in 1979 and John Battle in 1981, and took RU to its fourth and final NCAA appearance under him in 1983. It is the last year that Rutgers has won a game in the tournament. But the new balance of power was already firmly entrenched, and Rutgers was clearly not part of it. Young would coach just two more years at RU before leaving for Old Dominion. Then the RU athletic department would turn the slow burn that was beginning to consume its basketball program into a raging inferno by choosing as Young's replacement Craig Littlepage.
If Tom Young still stands as RU's greatest coach, then Craig Littlepage must surely be its worst. His .261 losing, er, winning percentage is the worst in Rutgers history for anyone coaching more than a single season. That spells out into losing 63 out of 86 games. Exactly ten years after going 31-2 and reaching the Final Four, Rutgers would go 8-21. While the Big East had roared to power in the mid-‘80's, Rutgers basketball had completely, thoroughly, and totally, hit rock bottom.
Meanwhile, at Seton Hall, after Hoddy Mahon coached the Pirates for one year after Bill Raftery left in 1981, PJ Carlesimo became the Hall's new head coach in 1983. Things did not go well at first, and PJ was hardly an overnight sensation. He took over a program that went 11-16 in each of the two previous seasons, and at first the losing not only continued, it got worse. Carlesimo's first four teams posted records of 6-23, 9-19, 10-18, and 14-18, and PJ's Pirates were, for a good little while, Big East whipping boys.
But Carlesimo, despite criticism from some increasingly restless Pirate faithful, kept at it, and in 1984 was able to lure 6'9 Mark Bryant out of Columbia High in Maplewood, to South Orange. It's no coincidence that this is when things began to turn around, and Bryant, who would go on to a 15-year NBA career, stands as arguably the single most important recruit in modern Pirate history. By the time he graduated in 1988, Seton Hall had gone 22-13 and made their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. But the best was yet to come.
As good a player as Bryant was for Seton Hall, Carlesimo's hard work had finally paid off, for next year they hardly missed him. In 1988-89, the Pirates went all the way to the championship game of the NCCA tournament, where they lost to Michigan in overtime by a single point. All told, the Pirates went 31-7 for the season. Interestingly enough, over at Rutgers, Scarlet Knight alum Bob Wenzel replaced the fired Littlepage, and managed to orchestrate a minor miracle in Piscataway. Taking over a team that won just seven games the year earlier, and with no major recruits, Wenzel managed to lead RU to an Atlantic 10 tournament championship and an automatic NCAA birth (where they lost to Iowa in the first round).
All told, RU would finish 18-13 on the year. Still, as magical as RU's turnaround was, their success was dwarfed by Seton Hall's, whose run to the title game was clearly the major college basketball story in the metropolitan area. Just as significantly, Seton Hall was clearly (and had been for several years prior) the stronger team not just on the court, but on the recruiting trail as well. The Pirates were able to land Terry Dehere and Jerry Walker from St. Anthony's No. 1-in-the-country powerhouse, and those two would be cornerstones of the Pirates for the next four years.
Rutgers meanwhile, seemed poised to make a sudden return to basketball prominence, but it never materialized. In spite of four returning starters and Syracuse transfers Keith Hughes and Earl Duncan being eligible, the Knights actually took a step back the following year as they were only able to make the NIT. They would return to the NCAA's the following year (where they again lost in round 1), but it was all downhill from there, and they were back in the NIT a year later. Bob Wenzel would coach five more seasons at Rutgers, and all of them were losing ones. His '91 squad was also the last RU team to ever make the NCAA tournament.
Seton Hall's ascension to power was a long and hard one, and under Carlesimo, the Pirates were not about to leave the limelight anytime soon. In spite of going 12-16 a year after their run to the title game, Seton Hall was legit and their recruiting success proved it. With Dehere and Walker leading the way, the Pirates would go 25-9, 23-9, and 28-7 over the next three years, all with trips to the NCAA's. Carlesimo would coach one more year at Seton Hall, where his overall success would result in his accepting an offer to coach in the NBA.
George Blaney would take over for Carlesimo, but would only last three years in South Orange. He was a loser for two of those three years, and the Pirate administration was apparently not content to see the program's hard-won successes squandered so quickly. He was replaced by Tommy Amaker. Over at Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights were finally able to gain entrance into the Big East for the ‘95-‘96 season, but it was not enough to stem the floodgates of futility that were transpiring during Wenzel's last five years. He was replaced by Kevin Bannon.
This is perhaps a good place to begin to put this all in perspective. Both Tommy Amaker and Kevin Bannon joined their respective schools in 1998 and both were there for four years. However, although both men left a decidedly bad taste in the mouths of each school by the time they left, the reasons for their departures were entirely different. Amaker at the end of his third year had succeeded in taking the Pirates back to the NCAA's were they won two games to reach the round of 16. Then (along with an assistant named Fred Hill) he managed to haul in a recruiting class that was ranked as the best in the country.
Bannon also recruited well at Rutgers, but his signature recruit, Dahntay Jones, lasted just two years before transferring to Duke. His tenure was also marked by his minor scandal and embarrassment (the now-infamous strip free-throw shooting incident) and he was unceremoniously fired, much to the relief of Rutgers fans. Amaker, one year after kind of falling flat with his flashy recruiting class (which would include Andre Barrett, a four year tormenter of RU), but still a hot commodity, would suddenly bolt Seton Hall for Michigan – much to the dismay of Pirate fans.
Seton Hall and Rutgers were again bringing in new coaches at the same time. The Hall opted quickly for Louis Orr while Rutgers, after failing in their attempt to land Jay Wright, brought in Gary Waters. Both new coaches inherited teams in turmoil. Orr, however, was able to persuade an upset Barrett not to transfer, and he (along with Orr recruit Kelly Whitney) would anchor the Pirates, who made it back to the NCAA's in '04 and this past season.
Waters, meanwhile, was unable to convince his team's young star Todd Billett not to transfer, and once again, a new Rutgers coach was faced with a huge rebuilding task – which never got done. His five years were characterized by weak local recruiting, uneven performances, and ultimately the bottom line - no NCAA's. One year after Fred Hill was brought to Rutgers as associate head coach (with his primary task to help shore up recruiting), he was named RU's head coach. This was a move that was clearly made to thwart Seton Hall possibly trying to lure Hill back to South Orange to take over the Pirates.
The fact that Seton Hall would fire Louis Orr after taking Seton Hall to two NCAA tournaments in five years indicates how high the stakes are in New Jersey for college basketball. The Pirates clearly emerged as the dominant program in the ‘80's, and with Rutgers entrance into the Big East in '95 – a move Seton Hall, for obvious reasons, was adamantly opposed to – the Pirates have since been determined to maintain the pecking order. They didn't have to do very much initially, as Rutgers was able to shoot itself in the foot with the hiring of Bannon and then Waters. However, Hill's arrival at Rutgers got the Pirates attention, and laid bare just how pronounced the battle between the two schools has become.
Once again, both RU and Seton Hall have brought in new coaches at the same time. Seton Hall seems to have hit a home run again by hiring Bobby Gonzalez, who was able on short notice to land a signature recruit in Eugene Harvey. The Pirates, now thanks to being original members of the Big East, also have a more recent tradition they can also sell to recruits: that since 1988 they have produced 10 NBA Alumni and gone to 9 NCAA's, 4 Big East Championships, 4 Sweet 16s, 2 Elite 8s and 1 Final Four.
Rutgers, however, yet again appears to be starting from scratch. That is why if – and when – Fred Hill is finally able to build this program and take it back to the NCAA's ( a place it is worth mentioning one more time they have not been to since 1991, and where they have not won a game since 1983), it will be a coaching and program-building feat of epic proportions. It will indeed be one that two men (who impatient Rutgers fans should keep in mind these days) who know what it takes to get it done, PJ Carlesimo, and the new Saint of Piscataway, Greg Schiano, will be able to tip their hats to and say "Job well done!".