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Rutgers soccer, and its implications for basketball

Last week, Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti said that he'd announce the new men's soccer coach on Friday or several days later. What has been an extended search process finally ended with the hiring of St. Louis coach Dan Donigan. Scarlet Scuttlebutt has four, count them, four pieces covering every detail of the story. There are many interesting aspects in play here, as pertains to both the soccer program and the athletic department as a whole.

By now, most readers have probably seen the story about Fred Hill's contract, and his generous extension from Bob Mulcahy two years ago. That...stings, especially on the heels of how Gary Waters was able to shake down Mulcahy with fake interest from Ohio State for a lucrative extension several years back. These details seemingly contradict what Brian Lewis said in the Post last week. Yeah, the Post (visualize a derisive sneer here), but Lewis covers soccer and does have a good track record, and he's a Rutgers alum. Definitely not as plugged in to the athletic department as one of the top beatwriters though, so you'd leave to lean towards Sargeant and Carino's take here.

Saying that news is unfortunate would be the understatement of the century. The only light of hope being the last line of the story about recouping some of Hill's salary if he takes another coaching job. Maybe we can pass around copies of J.R. Inman's rant, but the thought of Hill as assistant at another program, luring in the top local talent after so many others have transferred away would, in a sad way, be the fitting end to an era of shattered expectations and gloom. Ah well, maybe a program like FDU would take him off our hands. They could be in the market, and Freddie arguably should have cut his teeth first at that level anyway.

So what does that have to do with Dan Donigan? For starters, it'll be very interesting to see how the soccer search serves as a model for the eventual hunt for Hill's replacement. That still has a dishearteningly high chance of not happening for another year, but Hill's so cooked that Inman's steak of turmoil is now burned to a crisp. Tim Pernetti has shown a strong commitment to improving non-football sports. The eventual firing is an absolutely certain foregone conclusion. In that case, what did we learn from the process that eventually turned up Donigan?

All of this is, of course, heavily grounded in my own personal speculation, but I am trying to reason about this topic as best as possible. After Coach Reasso announced that he was stepping down, the media immediately fingered Dave Masur from St. John's and Monmouth's Rob McCourt as the obvious replacements. While it's hard to get a definitive grasp on the tea leaves in Piscataway to say the least, sometimes leaks do happen. After Mulcahy was canned, while there was wishful thinking about Chris Hill, and Kevin MacConnell was the obvious in-house replacement, almost immediately there was a sense that Tim Pernetti would almost certainly be hired. I never got that impression with Masur, but there was definitely something there to a greater extent than with Chris Hill. For one thing, Masur actually interviewed for the job.

After Reasso was out, there weren't any public updates on the search for over a month. That's partially owing to the holidays. We may have gotten a look at Pernetti's model for future hirings three weeks back, when a round of interviews leaked including two potential bigger names in Masur and George Gelnovatch from UVA, which appeared to signal that Rutgers was quite serious about making a splash. Virginia was just coming off a national championship (although that's not nearly as big of a deal as it is in the revenue sports). My immediate thought was "Pernetti must know everyone in the country from his work at CSTV". All of the candidates had obvious, immediate ties to the area.

Now, this is where things get murkier. Some of what I read from the UVA side about Gelnovatch suggested that he was just leveraging Rutgers for more money, and his subsequent contract extension (from the ur-Fred Hill Craig Littlepage) seems to support that theory. Fans yearned for the prodigal son Masur, and were somewhat disappointed to hear that he wasn't one of two finalists. Naturally, this led to speculation about who said no first. Finances are a very pressing concern to the Rutgers athletic department, so it was inevitable to gossip about facilities and salary demands.

However, McCourt was still seen as an excellent choice, and wait just a second, who exactly is this Donigan character that's suddenly on the radar? Everyone's focus had been on McCourt and Masur from the start, and now a coach from a small Atlantic 10 school is emerging as a darkhorse. There were a handful of Hamilton natives on rivals touting his credentials, but because everyone had been immediately primed for McCourt, we all just assumed that he'd be the guy. Then, all of a sudden, he's no longer a candidate, which correspondingly leads to more speculation about whether or not Donigan is the first choice. It may be unfair and even downright misleading to go down that path, but that question is out there.

On the other hand, there was a lot of growing, positive buzz about Donigan, and he does at first glance appear to have an excellent resume. It's not hard to imagine a young, energetic candidate who blew the doors down in his interview. In nine years, he has seven NCAA tournament appearances and a 118-42-23 record, which dwarfs the recent soccer stagnation at Rutgers. Combined with his success as a club player in New Jersey and at UConn, he seems like a great hire on the surface. In the interest of fairness, there are some comments by St. Louis fans he didn't do that well in the NCAA tournament. For the moment, that'd be an upgrade for Rutgers soccer. Hopefully he can turn the program around as fast as Scott Goodale has done with wrestling.

Beyond the overall structure of how everything played out, this tale is relevant to the future of the basketball program in two direct ways. While the athletic department is making progress, finances remain a pressing concern. That's why we have to sweat the total left on Fred Hill's contract, and it could be an issue for his replacement both in terms of contract and facilities upgrades. It's one thing to have blueprints and use them as a selling point for down the road, but with dwindling attendance figures, Rutgers is stuck in a vicious cycle of substandard facilities, poor play, and lagging interest all feeding off and reinforcing each other. Can't replace anything unless fans are buying tickets, which won't happen until there's a product worth watching, which is harder with a decaying RAC. Simply put, will Rutgers have to cut corners with either personnel or facilities? Is it trying to save money in the meantime with an eye on making change? Won't we be in worse shape if basketball keeps floundering?

Secondly, while typing this all out, I was really struck by how the pool of candidates looks somewhat similar to the expectations surrounding Hill's replacement. Specifically, if he gets the axe this year, you'd think that all speculation will almost certainly center around Eddie Jordan from the Sixers and Fran McCaffery of Siena. Go to the message boards; there's a ton of speculation, but those are the two names who keep coming up on every wishlist. A Rutgers product, and an extremely successful local mid-major coach; does that ring a bell?

I'm still working on the remainder of my candidates list, but they're at the top of my list too for the same obvious reasons. Now, wouldn't it be something if the basketball search plays out somewhat like what just occurred? Let's say the initial list, is, I don't know, everyone above the Welsh line (a concept in my coming post about the minimum level of candidate who'd be acceptable enough to the fans and booster that there'd be some modicum of support). Jordan, McCaffery, Fraschilla, Jim Christian, Jim Baron, and maybe a Gelnovatch-style wild card who's a surprisingly big name. (I'm also trying to explore candidates from other major schools who might be willing to jump; or at least interview as a negotiating ploy.)

In my writing, I'm growing increasingly pessimistic about the RU's chances of landing Jordan or McCaffery. The program is in bad shape right now and the job is unappealing in a disturbingly high number of aspects. I was already leaning in this direction from working on that, but looking back at the soccer search, I am even more so now. Can anyone else see things playing out similarly? I.e., everyone jumps on the two favorites to start. There's a month-long search, with a splash at the beginning followed by quiet and speculation. Eventually, Rutgers will settle on someone like Christian, who may not have as much pizzazz, but by many accounts looks like a fine candidate. That's how I'm seeing things right now, although I'm still trying to come up with alternative scenarios. Send in any suggestions if you have them, and I'll have more to say on this as time permits.