Building, or alternatively, rebuilding credibility in the realm of football recruiting is no picnic; doubly-so when it comes to the parochial local high school fiefdoms of New Jersey. Take Wisconsin for example. The Badgers' 90's-era turnaround under Barry Alvarez (look it up - their program was historically mediocre, and fell into disarray in the late 80's) was keyed by players from New York and New Jersey. Troy Vincent, Ron Dayne, Jonathan Casillas (we didn't even offer!), Garrett Graham, Chris Pressley - each out-of-state success story was a mental punch in the gut to long-suffering Rutgers fans, dreaming about the day when New York and New Jersey's best players would stick close to home and build a winner in their figurative backyard.
Bernie Wyatt's retirement damaged Wisconsin's NJ pipeline, and the Badgers lost their last link to the area several years later following Alvarez's retirement. Oh, Bielema didn't just cede New Jersey by not hiring a replacement; he actively antagonized the state's coaching fraternity by pulling a scholarship offer from Don Bosco lineman Nate Nurse months after Signing Day. Rutgers had not originally pursued Nurse, but quickly swooped in with a scholarship offer. Nurse later left the Rutgers football program, transferring to California University of Pennsylvania. This article laughably glosses over Nurse and John Palermo leaving, but is otherwise informative, and (and independently came up with the same NJ player list that I did.)
"New Jersey is all about respect, especially in North Jersey," said Matt Alkire, Northeast recruiting analyst for Scout.com. "You just really have so many different types of personalities as you separate from North Jersey (basically New York), Central Jersey and then South Jersey (a little bit of Philly). I have good relationships with many coaches who are legendary in the Garden State, and if they don't know a new coach, it's all about presentation. How do you carry yourself? How did you dress that day? It's like your grandfather taught you: 'Shake that hand firmly, son.' Literally, that initial impression can kill a recruiter with some coaches, and I've seen it countless times."
That last line brings to mind a certain former Rutgers men's basketball coach....
Actions have consequences; the Badgers were completely shut out of the area in the four subsequent years. They signed Joe Brennan and Sherard Cadogan from South Jersey in a 2009 package deal, and started paying more attention to New Jersey in last year's class, but the damage had been done. With an opening on Wisconsin's staff this year, Bielema moved to hire former Minnesota assistant Thomas Hammock. Hammock's bio says he was born in Jersey City, but he grew up in Indiana, and recruited Florida and the Midwest for the Gophers. Wisconsin will probably do better in NJ going forward merely by making an effort, coupled with the bitter memories of Nurse fading, but Bielema is arrogant if he thinks a Fort Wayne native can waltz right into New Jersey, armed solely with a birth certificate that says "Jersey City."
What's happening right now with Doug Marrone and the Syracuse football program is not directly analogous to the above example, but is similar in some respects. Dick MacPherson rebuilt Syracuse from the mediocre Frank Maloney era, and a great deal of credit was attributable to the recruiting efforts of former Rutgers/Frank Burns assistant George DeLeone. DeLeone stuck around through the Paul Pasqualoni era, and the Cuse were very successful In New York City and New Jersey, if almost by default. Rutgers was perpetually mired in mediocrity, and suck into oblivion during the Terry Shea era. Now Marrone and Syracuse are fresh off an overachieving bowl season, and looking to build momentum and establish Greg Robinson's tenure as a distant memory. Robinson's dismal record, more than any other factor, remains the overwhelming obstacle as the Orange try to rebuild credibility on the recruiting trail.
If one ventures to internet recruiting web sites like Rivals or Scout however, SU's classes bare more than a passing glance to another former Big East coach with Syracuse ties: Randy Edsall. There are a few high-profile names, but the Syracuse staff is largely finding diamonds in the rough that were previously unbeknownst the Rivals and Scout. That does not mean that the prospects lack, or will not develop into fine players. Most of them are just complete mysteries that cannot be evaluated fairly one way or another by a layman. That is not to suggest that Marrone shares Edsall's historic animosity towards the recruiting process. It's also worth mentioning that while the early returns look promising, Marrone still needs to establish more of a track record before his skills as a talent evaluator and developer can be compared to Edsall's.
Like Bielema, recruiting within the borders of New Jersey may remain a challenge for Marrone. Yes, Syracuse has signed players from the state, with Ross Krautman and Marquis Spruill starting as true freshmen last year and seeing a fair amount of success. Shutang Mungwa was a solid recruit. Marrone turned a recruiting afterthought in Zack Chibane into a terrific offensive lineman. For whatever the reason, neither was considered a high-profile recruit coming out of high school. That drought is continuing through this summer. Syracuse already stands at sixteen signees, which includes a single lineman out of Camden County. That presents somewhat of a dilemma for the Syracuse partisan. They think their program is great and Rutgers is garbage; so why do top New Jersey prospects apparently not see it the same way?
Coach Marrone weighed in on this matter slightly over two years ago, alleging a sinister plot out of Piscataway. Such conspiracy theories are preposterous, when the real explanation is rather straightforward. Rutgers is popular in New Jersey, and with New Jersey high school programs. One rough year isn't going to threaten years of goodwill. More importantly, there's still the little matter of Marrone ticking off multiple top NJ programs with his roster purges over the past few years. Throw in New Jerseyans being as parochial as ever (two Long Island assistants with no one from NJ isn't going to cut it), and there is suddenly no longer a need for the amount of mental gymnastics needed to posit the existence of Scarlet illuminati.
The facts are that a lot of people in NJ don't exactly care for Syracuse football, although we still hate Notre Dame and Penn State more. From the fan perspective, it mostly owes to being on the brunt of ridicule and insults for decades. Shut the hell up about Snooki for one thing; half of SU's students are from NJ, and that orange-colored moron is from Upstate New York anyway (the rest of that stupid show's cast is from Long/Staten Island.) Yeah, some of us are biased by the team we root for on Saturdays, and included in that group are some influential movers and shakers. The rest, well, it has more to do with symbolism and gestures. Even sustained success on the field will only mean so much. Until Doug Marrone and his assistants are willing to play the game, don't count on him, or Bret Bielema for that matter, to have all that much success winning hearts and minds inside our beloved Garden State.