Waking the “Sleeping Giant”: Why hasn't Rutgers gotten it together? At least so far.

R.V. Cancro

Rutgers has over 400,000 living alumni. A location that sits in the middle of over 15 million people, in one of the wealthiest states. Yet Rutgers has never been the place for college sports. Regardless of the sport, it has never really been a consistently successful school on the field, court, or mat. What’s up with that?

It's Spring! Time to awaken from the long winter. So when does Rutgers, long termed a "sleeping giant" in athletics, finally wake up? This isn't a new topic. Will membership in the B1G finally make the difference? Let's look at some ideas on that.

It was the Birthplace of College Football. A-a-a-and then what?

Take a very brief trip through the Rutgers' sports history book with me and consider some major moments and people. How about Paul Robeson? The AIAW National Championship in women's basketball in 1982, beating Texas. A trip to the College World Series in 1950 (beating eventual champion Texas as well as Wisconsin - twice). Jim Valvano or Jeff Torborg? Men's Final Four in '76. Alexi Lalas and the College Cup finals in 1990 vs. UCLA. Two Final Fours with the women.

But never that watershed moment or event that would signal that this is a program to be reckoned with? Why not? Well, I'll throw out a few personal thoughts - in no particular order - about why Rutgers never seemed to achieve that moment of glory that would catapult it to greater success, and that despite being around forever and having some pretty decent athletes and coaches along the way.

#1. We're Ivy League. Well, not really, but that was the feeling and the attitude for a long, long time. We were, after all, the eighth oldest school in America, the only state university to pre-date the Revolution - pretty cool. Rutgers considered petitioning to join the Ivy League at the formation of that conference in 1954. For years, Rutgers scheduled the Ivies, as well as the smaller traditional liberal arts colleges of the east (the 91 games against Princeton in football is the most against any opponent, followed by Lehigh and Lafayette). The mindset had always been small, parochial, regional. There was never a sense that bigger things were possible.

#1A. The RU1000. Led by William C. Dowling, a University Professor in the English Department, the RU1000 is a group of anti-big-time-athletics individuals, some faculty, some alumni, who continually attack anything that doesn't look like the 1869 Rutgers-Princeton game. They may not have stopped anything from happening, but they created noise that distracted. As an example of their commentary: "....[from a discussion] of a RU1000 web feature devoted some years ago to coach El Supremo (Schiano) and his sidekick Robin Mulcavity (former AD Bob Mulcahy), the two individuals who in their day did so much to destroy Rutgers' reputation as an old eastern university and distinguished institution of higher learning. (emphasis added) ‘Nuff said.

#2 Fred Grunninger. Actually, in my mind Grunninger - who served as Athletic Director from 1973-1998 - was one of the main reasons, perhaps the biggest reason, Rutgers stagnated. He did many good things, like hiring Theresa Grentz as the first full time women's basketball coach and building the RAC (hmm, maybe that wasn't that good). But he also turned down membership in the original Big East back in 1979, instead hoping to be a part of an eastern "all sports conference" with Penn State as the lead dog. Penn State said good-bye to "eastern" football - and Rutgers' dream - in 1990. He also never capitalized on the Final Four appearance in '76, not taking a strong lead to push us forward. With the Big East offer just three years removed from the Final Four, RU was poised for growth. Grunninger also rejected an offer from the Somerset Patriots to put lights on the baseball field while they were waiting for their ballpark in Bridgewater to be built (but that's just an irritation compared to the Big East fiasco).

#3. Alumni and fan support: Phillip Roth was born in New Jersey, but he wrote a story that featured references to Ohio State, the novella Goodbye, Columbus. Those opening lines: "Good bye college days, good bye Ohio State, good bye, Columbus". Good stuff. What does RU get? We got "Nobody Ever Died for Dear Old Rutgers" from a 1947 musical called High Button Shoes. But I digress. Whether alums, the state in general, politicians, or the business community, Rutgers is a very under-appreciated asset. For too many kids, Rutgers was their "safety" school. What kind of connection and bond does that create? It isn't like the other schools in the Big Ten (or 12 or wherever). In other places, the world revolves around attending "State", or the University of You-Name-the-State. That's what Rutgers needs. It's what needs to be built. And that brings us to.....

#4. Money. Rutgers doesn't have a lot now, and it didn't have it then. How come? It ties in with #3. There are issues that are kind of unique On the Banks. Rutgers is a big place, spread out, disparate. Each of the New Brunswick-Piscataway campuses could be a good size college by itself. The former smaller residential colleges (Rutgers, Douglass, Livingston) sometimes inhibited common bonding. Connections can be hard to make. One of the things that is covered in the recently released University Strategic Plan is an effort to improve the student experience (p. 41). Lots of kids seem to like a Rutgers education; fair amount of work and diligence needed, pretty good reputation, relatively inexpensive. They then say, 'now leave me alone'. They don't connect and feel an affinity for dear old Alma Mater. Which, simply put, means they don't contribute back. And it isn't just with athletics, it's across the board. Rutgers has the smallest university endowment among Big Ten schools and contributions to athletics cover less than half of what the average B1G school gets. But people have to understand that they need to kick in. Put some skin in the game. I wonder how many posters here (a) go to Rutgers games (and not just football and basketball) or (b) donate to Rutgers. Just wonderin'. Which brings us to....

#5. "Bigger time" athletics. I loved Ed Bloustein, Rutgers' 17th president. He was a scholar, a good human being, and he worked the legislature pretty well on behalf of RU, especially so for a guy coming out of tiny Bennington College. But he and a lot of others (see Fred Grunninger above) had no idea what they were getting themselves into when, in the late 70's, he felt Rutgers should go the route of the Michigans and Penn States of the world. We're a state university: big, powerful, strong in academics and athletics. Great idea, but there was no money to make it work. Simply upgrading and adding big name schools to the schedule didn't make you better. What would be needed to compete, even minimally, wasn't there in financial/facility support. We were working on the cheap while the competition was growing. The football program suffered, losing a lot.

#6. The pro teams are in charge. No doubt, the New York metro area is dominated by the pros. South Jersey gets hit big time from Philly pro teams. So how much room/time/money is left for a college program? Consider: according to Google Insights for Search, the term "college football" is searched for about 5 times as often in Birmingham, Alabama as it is in New York City, relative to overall search traffic. Hmmm, wonder why? So how do you change things? I say it all comes down to marketing. You put a good product out there, people will come. You sell it right, people will see its value as a place to be. Look at football and how it changed over the last two decades. St. John's has generally been able to rally the NYC market with a much smaller school and alumni base than Rutgers. It can be done, but it will take time, energy, and (you guessed it) money.

I believe it was Greg Schiano who coined the phrase, "It's R Time". It can be, but people in the state need to wake up to what they have here. Maybe the Big Ten changes everything. We can hope!!

Your thoughts? What's kept Rutgers from overcoming the "sleeping giant" moniker and what needs to be done to shake things up?

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