A Walk on the Banks, pt. 1

A beginner's guide to the history of Rutgers and its football program.

The history of Rutgers is the history of disappointment and poverty. In 1674, as a result of the third Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch ceded their colony of New Netherlands to the English. In 1746, those limeys created Princeton University. Twenty years later, British colonial governor William Franklin granted permission to the Dutch Reformed Church of America, led by Jacob Hardenbergh, to form Queen's College in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

In its early days, the university was so poor that it only held classes in a tavern. Owing to a lack of funds, Queen's College closed its doors multiple times during this period. In 1825, the Queens College trustees decided to rename their school "Rutgers College," hoping for a sizeable donation from philanthropist and Revolutionary War hero Col. Henry Rutgers. In typical New Jersey fashion, Rutgers stiffed Rutgers University, eventually only sending them a bell, which is still prominently displayed on campus as a monument to our abject failure and disappointment.

Flash forward a century or so. The end of World War II and the enactment of the G.I. Bill saw an expansion in the growth of public higher education in the United States. The ever-forward thinking state legislature, in lieu of large-scale investments into higher education, instead decided in 1956 to adopt a tiny, elite private school in New Brunswick.

What many outsiders do not understand about Rutgers is that, until half a century ago, it was a tiny private college. It is now one of the largest public universities in the nation, but it is still in the midst of getting comfortable in its own skin. Unlike the United States Military Academy, or even several Ivy League schools, Rutgers never historically placed a major emphasis on its athletic programs. In fact, sports were deliberately de-emphasized. Rutgers turned down several bowl bids in its nascent history, including after its undefeated 1976 season. Beat Princeton in Crew (Rutgers no longer sponsors Crew), and the big-pocketed alumni donors were happy.

When the Rutgers football team is accused of never winning anything, of utterly lacking tradition, that's a completely vacuous point. They were never trying. It was a different world then, and coaches didn't feel the need to fly to Boise late in December to justify their own existence. In its history, Rutgers has logged a plurality of its games facing the likes of Columbia, Colgate, Lafayette, Lehigh, and Princeton. Until 1979, they played the equivalent of a Patriot League schedule (BTW, someone remind me to tell whoever runs CFBDataWarehouse that Rutgers Stadium is in Piscataway and not New Brunswick.)

Two factors led to the current status quo. Under the leadership of former star quarterback Frank Burns in the seventies, Rutgers graduated from "consistently mediocre" to "respectably above average". Sonny Werblin was opening doors to the best of his ability.

Rutgers football came under new leadership in 1973. Longtime Rutgers athletic director Al Twitchell was replaced by Assistant Athletic Director Fred Gruninger. Legendary Rutgers quarterback and longtime associate coach Frank Burns took charge of a Scarlet Knights program seeking a new direction. "There’s great talent in this state," Burns said at a press conference. "If we could just get the top ones to stay home we could compete with anybody. It would be a team of great state pride." Burns’s coaching staff included former Rutgers players Jim Taigia, Mike Kizis, Pete Savino, Bob Naso, and Bill Speranza. Paul Moran and Ted Cottrell rounded out the staff. Cottrell was a former NFL linebacker.

At the same time a committee of prominent Rutgers alumni headed by David "Sonny" Werblin submitted a report recommending that Rutgers upgrade its sports programs. Werblin was also a member of the Rutgers Board of Governors. "The major fscal need for our program if it is to be upgraded will be fnancial aid to athletes," new AD Fred Gruninger advised. At the time, the Barr Scholarship supported 15 to 20 football athletes per year. To go big-time Rutgers would need 25 to 30 scholarships per year. Rutgers planned to generate more sports revenue by playing name schools at the huge new Meadowlands Stadium in Hackensack, New Jersey. Rutgers also formed its Scarlet R Club to serve as a fundraiser for additional scholarships.

Rutgers had finally had a taste of success in 1976, and their appetite was only whetted for more. That decade was very kind to Rutgers athletics, with Phil "The Thrill" Sellers and Scarlet Knights basketball arguably the top draw in the East. One of the major factors in the decline of Rutgers basketball was declining an invitation to the Big East Conference in 1979, which was also to have repercussions for football down the road.

Another major development happened in 1979. The Division I "University Division" split in two. Congress had enacted Title IX years earlier, and it was now being interpreted by the Carter administration. Every major football program had to decide whether they wanted to swim with the sharks, or withdraw to Division I-AA. Would Rutgers continue to play at a Patriot League level, or would they aspire to the levels of other big state universities?

The consequences of their decision, the formation of the Big East Conference and the political machinations of the Eastern Independents, and a lot of Cocaine and shoulder pads will be the subject of the next installment in this series, to be published at an undetermined time in the future.

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