Yesterday morning brought some very sad news to the Rutgers athletics community. Former coach Frank Burns, the winning-est football coach in school history, not to mention a record-setting quarterback and former high NFL Draft choice, has passed away at the age of 84. Burns, with a hefty assist from legendary Rutgers athletics patriarch Sonny Werblin, oversaw the initial stages of the transition at Rutgers from the equivalent of I-AA to I-A football. A split was coming, and the combination of Burns and Werblin were determined not to be caught on the wrong side of it. That strength of determination alone secured Burns's legacy as one of the towering legends in the history of the Rutgers football program and athletic department.
While the majority of his career was played against what would not be considered a DI schedule today (he regularly whooped Syracuse though!), Burns's later coaching prowess (defeating Tennessee in Knoxville, nearly upsetting Bear Bryant-era Alabama at Giants Stadium, and leading Rutgers to a magical undefeated season in 1976) only hints at what he could have accomplished with more resources at his disposal. We see today the repercussions of Rutgers treating athletics as a complete afterthought until relatively recently. Imagine what things must have been like at the very beginning of that process, with a minuscule, ancient stadium, and outdated-to-non-existent athletic facilities. In fact, one of Burns's most famous quotes at his introductory press conference serves as the first principle for this very site.
"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.
Unfortunately for Burns, the split between I-A and I-AA only exacerbated the growing divides between the haves and have-nots in college football. Despite the best efforts of Burns and Werblin, Rutgers remained on the fence about big-time athletics, being over a decade away from even starting to build a modern stadium. Other programs around the country did not have such qualms, resulting in Burns later being caught in the undertow after a few losing seasons as the end of his tenure.
Farewell, Frank Burns. You were a true man of Rutgers, loyal through and through even when that earnestness may not have been deserved or reciprocated. Rutgers University is far, far better off for you having chosen to associate with it for the past 70-odd years.