Truth be told, Schiano has had several doubters along the way. Sure, the Scarlet Knights win a few more games under Schiano than they would have otherwise, but for the most part they would still be the same old Rutgers. That was never more apparent than during the 2001 meeting between WVU and the Scarlet Knights. The Mountaineers won that game by a final of 80-7, though it was their only Big East victory of that inaugural season under Rich Rodriguez.
"By the end of that day, it had been bad for so long that game that I was pretty much numb when it ended," recalled Schiano.
Since that time, though, the Scarlet Knights have shown a steady improvement. It's all culminated this season as Schiano has his program sitting at 10-1 going into the regular season's final weekend. The 2006 Knights are built on a solid one-two punch in the offensive backfield. Sophomore running back Ray Rice is a Maxwell Trophy finalist. Senior fullback Brian Leonard has taken a backseat to Rice, but has been the bell-cow of resurgence on the banks of the mighty Raritan.
If the Mountaineers can stop Rice and Leonard, then their chances of beating Rutgers for the twelfth straight season will increase. Sophomore quarterback Mike Teel struggled during the loss at Cincinnati two weeks ago, tossing four interceptions to the Bearcat defense. While the Knights are a run-first team, Schiano says that if they have to throw the ball on Saturday then they will.
"Our philosophy is to take what's there," explained the Bucknell graduate. "I think that early in the year especially we were a better football team running than we were passing. I think that we're improving in our passing game, so we go into every week trying to have some kind of balance. If the defense takes one side of that away, then we try to take what's there."
Part of changing the fortunes of Rutgers football has been changing the attitudes of those who follow Schiano's program. It wasn't too long ago that Rutgers Stadium was half-empty (or half-full for you optimists) no matter who the opponent was. Now, the Knights are packing the seats whether they're playing Louisville or Hicksville. That, perhaps more than anything, has been the most significant change under Schiano's watch.
"It was changing a culture of losing and a culture of indifference to Division I football," he said of the area that, ironically, markets itself as the Birthplace of College Football. "That has really changed not only at Rutgers, but in the New Jersey-New York-Philadelphia metropolitan area."
Six years after he took the job, Schiano has led Rutgers to its most successful Big East season. That would culminate should they beat the Mountaineers in Morgantown, where the Knights have never won. Making the job he's done at Rutgers this season even more impressive is the fact that for much of the season, the conference had three teams that were undefeated and part of the BCS title game discussion. No matter what teams are playing, Schiano feels that every week is a challenge in the Big East Conference.
"There's evidence in this league that it's not who's good on paper, it's whose good during that three hours and twenty minutes that the game is played," said the national coach of the year candidate. "Our league reminds me of the old Big Ten, where they'd beat each other up all year and at the end of the year, everybody had one or two losses because it was so darn tough."
With his team on the cusp of its first ever league title, Schiano is keeping his focus solely on the Mountaineers, and the challenges they will present on Saturday night.
"We're looking forward to the opportunity we have this weekend against West Virginia. Certainly when you look at them on tape they're an extremely talented football team, not only at the obvious positions but all through their football team. They run well and they play really well together," he said of the three-time defending conference champions.
After years of toiling in the bottom of the college football barrel, Rutgers is no longer a pushover. After years of hearing "Watch out for Rutgers this year" the Knights are finally a force to be reckoned with.
"I wouldn't have remained here if I didn't see the day that we would play for a championship, and hopefully there will be many more days like this in the future," Schiano said.
For a program that always dreamed of being mentioned among college football's elite, the future is now the present.