The Longest November

The following post is a modified and truncated version of a future column covering the history of Rutgers athletics from 1997 to the present.

''I'm looking forward to the challenge. I understand it is a challenge and a hot seat is involved. You don't have to keep reminding me. My career is about winning a championship. We are going to do everything to win. I won two championships at San Jose State; we were bowl champions. That's what it's about. If that's what 2000 means, that's the challenge I'm going to embrace.'' - Terry Shea

In November of 1995, the message of Rutgers athletics was clear:

Today, after two winning seasons out of six and a 29-36-1 record over all, Graber was fired with two years left on his contract. An immediate search for his replacement was begun by the university president, Francis L. Lawrence, who said he wanted a coach who could win consistently, "not do it for one year, then fall back."

I do not want to be an also-ran," Lawrence said at a news conference.

Any Syracuse fan reading those quotes should feel a shudder go down their spine, as they eerily mirror the circumstances surrounding the hiring of Greg Robinson in early 2005. Neither athletic department was satisfied with the present states of their football programs, fired their coaches, and hired inadequate replacements.

"Quickly, I’ll just talk about my vision and what I see. I think that’s what it’s got to be – a vision. Where are we now? What is the current reality and what is our vision? It’s got to be a vision that I have that is so strong that it pulls others up to it. I see that someday this program is going to be a model of excellence for a lot of schools. To do that, you have to be very, very successful. You must win, in a way that’s very special, like this program has done in the past. I look for it to be a program that others want to emulate. It takes a lot. I believe the way to do it is you build it on trust. You build it on discipline. You build it on perserverance. I think that if you can really focus on those areas, I think we have a chance to be successful. At the same time, we’re going to enjoy ourselves. As a football team, we’re going to enjoy the struggle. We’re going to find ways to have fun doing it. But, it’s going to be a lot of hard work. I’m looking forward to getting this group together and all of us getting on the same page and going from there." - Greg Robinson

The current search in Syracuse has a bit of a wild goose chase quality to it - Edsall! No, Gill! Whipple! Holtz! Edsall, again! When the coaching carousel stops spinning, where will it end? The strangest aspect so far is that this is occurring despite Syracuse securing the services of one Chuck Neinas. That's a name seemingly whispered in awe in the college football world. You hire Neinas when you have one marquee commodity in mind, and want that coach secured and delivered at all costs. Syracuse A.D. Daryl Gross, despite his denials, likely hired Neinas with Edsall in mind, and it still would not be a big surprise if the Orange end up getting their man.

If that does not turn out to be the case however, the chaotic Rutgers search from 2000 may serve as guide portending how this may all play out. Shea was finished by late October of that year, and the rumor mill soon began swirling. Robert Mulcahy (formerly of the NJSEA) had replaced Fred Gruninger as athletic director in 1998, and Mulcahy was eager to put his own stamp on the program. In Tom Luicci's first report on the topic, he identified three candidates as potential replacements - Western Michigan coach Gary Darnell, Toledo coach Gary Pinkel, and Miami defensive coordinator Greg Schiano.

The others on Mulcahy's suspected list of candidates, according to those close to the football program, include Massachusetts head coach Mark Whipple, Buffalo Bills assistant (and former Rutgers assistant) Ted Cottrell, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers and University of Miami offensive coordinator Larry Coker.

Luicci soon reported that Mulcahy offered the job to Darnell, on one condition: he would have to accept within two days.

Last night, Mulcahy met with a delegation of seven prominent high school football coaches, who were promoting Syracuse offensive coordinator George DeLeone, a former Rutgers assistant under Frank Burns.

Mulcahy also is keeping University of Texas assistant Tim Brewster on his radar screen after a strong show of support from several prominent college officials on behalf of the Phillipsburg native. Mulcahy spoke this week to Texas head coach Mack Brown about Brewster.

...

Greg Schiano, high on Mulcahy's original list, isn't considered a serious candidate at this point, even though Mulcahy recently had what was described as "a casual conversation" with Miami athletic director Paul Dee about Schiano.

Rutgers actually received a bit of a break for once, as Darnell could not interview right away. WMU was set to play in the MAC title game, and he was more interested in openings at Alabama and Virginia Tech. We ended up dodging a major bullet. Darnell soon flamed out, and likely could have buried Rutgers football for good. Meanwhile, a coalition of local high school coaches started lobbying Mulcahy to hire a New Jersey native that knew the terrain.

Two weeks in, by November 14th, the Boston Globe was reporting that the search was as muddied as ever.

A plan that would have elevated University of Massachusetts football coach Mark Whipple to the head of the list to fill the impending vacancy at Rutgers was put on hold yesterday because of a bizarre set of circumstances that had everyone involved scratching their heads.

According to sources, Rutgers athletic director Bob Mulcahy had moved off Western Michigan coach Gary Darnell as a replacement for Terry Shea and was ready to focus on Whipple - until he learned that plans he had for a preliminary meeting with Whipple over the summer recently became public.

Although the meeting never took place, Mulcahy felt compromised since he had told Shea that he'd be retained for this season but needed at least a .500 record to save his job.

Kevin Rogers was out. With Whipple a no-go, Tom Luicci reported that the search was back to square one.

Rutgers would then have to turn to one of the other candidates on Mulcahy's list, although that number appears to be shrinking as well. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers, interviewed by Mulcahy on Saturday night, seemed less than enthused about the Rutgers job in his quotes to the South Bend media, saying he wasn't sure if he'd take the job even if it was offered. And University of Miami defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, set to interview with Mulcahy on Sunday, is said to be lukewarm about the prospect of risking his carefully crafted career on a job as risky as Rutgers' is. Schiano, 34, knows he has time on his side if he decides to wait another year or two.

The most confusing detail of all? Along with Ted Cottrell, Charlie Weis was the other person most vigorously lobbying for the job, and he could not even get an interview.

Weis also had the in-your-face attitude that defined the Giants in that era. Rooney remembered Weis telling people he would be the coach at Rutgers someday.

...

Weis, who has never been a head coach in college or in the N.F.L., had tried to land a head coaching job. He wanted to become the coach at Rutgers the last two times the job was available. He even called some reporters to see if they would mention his name in their articles. Rutgers did not even interview him.

Schiano's mentor Joe Paterno, whether he was still wary over the firing of Dick Anderson, or fearful of increased competition, reportedly advised him against accepting the job.

Paterno expressed his doubts to Schiano about the job. He didn't think it was the right fit. Schiano was a Miami assistant at the time, and appeared to be in line for the head-coaching job there if Butch Davis quit.

Schiano listened, but he took the job anyway.

"I wasn't sure Greg should have taken that job, but he knew what he wanted," Paterno said this week. "He's a Jersey kid, going back home. He felt like he could get it done, and obviously he knew best."

Luckily, Schiano would soon relent. All's well that ends well, because on December 1st, 2000, Greg Schiano was named as the head coach of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

Schiano told two Miami beat reporters on Saturday, following the Hurricanes' 52-6 victory over Boston College, that he wasn't particularly keen on the Rutgers job or the idea of interviewing for it at the time. He apparently changed his mind following two days of talks with Mulcahy, finishing their meetings by telling him he was excited by the challenge and the prospect of returning to New Jersey.

Schiano's first task would be to heal Shea's fractured relationships with the ever-parochial local high school football programs. Schiano needed to show the locals that he meant business. It would not be enough to merely start talking about winning a national championship, causing many to peg him as a braggart or loon. Two weeks after taking the job, Schiano invited 35 of the state's top players to a meeting where he personally pitched them on staying home at their state university. Those are some Colbert-level cajones.

The first few years of Schiano's tenure were a learning experience at best, as Rutgers suffered through two more miserable seasons of rebuilding in 2001 and 2002. Even after the team finally began showing signs of life in 2003, they continued to suffer hiccups along the way (and still do, to this day), largely owing to Schiano's lack of experience as a head coach. The bottom line though is that he brought Rutgers football back from the dead. It's still a work in progress, but the Scarlet Knights are no longer a doormat. Until the foundation of Syracuse football is rebuilt, that program is going to have to go through several years of rebuilding before even Don McPherson's goal of consistent seven win seasons (seen as too pessimistic by many Cuse fans) is realistic.

From this experience, a few key points are clear.

1. Not hiring an A.D.'s first choice is not necessarily the end of the world. Mulcahy was dead set on hiring Gary Darnell, and had to have his arms twisted by local high school coaches (at a November 9th meeting as per Steve Politi), compelling him to look into candidates with NJ ties like Schiano, Rogers, DeLeone, and Tim Brewster.

2. The right search can take time. When your program is as low as Rutgers in 2000 or Syracuse in 2008, it's not necessarily realistic to get a slam dunk candidate in your crosshairs and deliver him without a sweat. The RU search saw several twists and turns, in a month of speculation and anxiety. Schiano was eliminated as a candidate at first, and then had major qualms about taking the job. He was Bob Mulcahy's third choice at best. Mulcahy "settled" for Schiano, but also slowly came to realize that he had to put his preconceived notions aside to make the correct choice. Many aspects of the RU search were completely bungled in notable aspects, and it could have easily led to the wrong candidate. Things ended up working out in the end.

3. Ultimately, the draw for Schiano, and what he later parlayed into turning the program around, was an overall passion for the program and the area. Even if Gary Darnell could turn Rutgers into a winner, there's no doubt that he would have been out the door in seconds if given the right opportunity. Beggars can't be choosers. It took a local to see the upside in the program, and dream of better days. If Syracuse strikes out with its top targets, it definitely needs to think long and hard about bringing in candidates like Steve Addazio and Doug Marrone that eagerly crave the opportunity and don't see Syracuse as a stepping stone. I think the locals in Central NY will respond to a coach that has passion for Syracuse football, and patience for the lengthy rebuilding process that likely awaits him.

November of 2000 surely was the longest month in the mind of Rutgers fans. In retrospect, almost all of them will tell you that it was well worth it.

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