On an August day in 1997, I went to my first ever Rutgers football game.
It was my freshman year, and everyone who moved into the dorm got a free ticket and voucher for a hot dog and soda. The idea was perfect: learn the fight song, meet new people, have some lunch and enjoy some quality college football. There was a problem, though: It was blistering hot. Ten minutes into the game, the people on my floor and I decided it was better to sit in the empty stadium corridor and eat our hot dogs. Meanwhile, some guy named Michael Vick was tearing up Rutgers.
We left at halftime.
Later that day, I had to go out to the parking lot for some reason, and an older couple who was visiting campus stopped me. They welcomed me to Rutgers and asked if I went to the game. When I told them I'd left early, they frowned. Rutgers was going to be all right, they said. They really came on in the second half.
Despite losing 59-19, Rutgers had a bright future, they assured me.
Little did I know how long it would take to reach that future.
The College Years
The football team didn't do much my freshman year. They finished 0-11, which included a 50-3 Thursday night drubbing at the hands of Syracuse. Terry Shea, then the coach, promised a bright future, with quarterback Mike McMahon taking the reigns.
The following year, the team finished 5-6, and Shea was named Coach of the Year. He built off that honor with a 1-10 season and a 3-8 season. He was fired after the 2000 season, and during my four years at Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights amassed 9 total wins. My interest in football waned considerably.
Basketball, however, really did catch my eye. I'd written two articles for The Daily Targum, the second of which was an interview with Coach C. Vivian Stringer (who scolded me about asking her for a prediction from her 97-98 squad). When I entered the RAC to interview her, the media room was difficult to find. A short man with scruffy hair, and wire framed glasses stopped and said I looked lost. I told him what I was there for, and he smiled and walked me down the floor and into the room.
Kevin Bannon, the first year coach, got me into the media room. I followed the men's basketball games, that year--the ups and downs of a team struggling to find its identity. But the team was interesting--and featured a scrappy guard named Geoff Billet. Without cable on campus, it was hard to keep track of the away games, but I do remember a Thursday night--after class--I waited on line in the Tillet Dining Hall for take-out. Instead of the the usual menu posted on the whiteboard, there was a score. RUTGERS 61 GEORGETOWN 60.
Soon, the game highlights were everywhere. Billet at the buzzer. I cleared my schedule for the next night, and went home to watch the team on ESPN. They lost, but all the announcers could talk about was Billet, Rob Hodgson, and Bannon's recruiting class the following year.
And that following year, boy did I fall in love with the roundball. A scrappy small forward, Dahntay Jones, and an undersized big man with heart, Rashod Kent filled out a team with two solid senior leaders. A JUCO with crazy hair came off the bench.
This was the year. It had to be.
The team got out of the gate big time, and put up some major wins. Hodgson's bloody shirt against Syracuse, Billet at the buzzer again at Notre Dame. But, as CBS cameras focused on Billet on Selection Sunday, it wasn't to be. The two seniors couldn't find that 1 more win to get to the dance.
The following year brought Todd Billet and a disappointing NIT run. And then, as they always do in Rutgers basketball, the transfers started. Dahntay Jones left for Duke.
The wheels fell off the following year, as the team struggled, and rumors of Bannon running a naked free throw contest came to light.
By the end of the 2001 season, Bannon was fired.
The College Experience
Meanwhile, I was making my way toward a college degree. I struggled the first year, through an Archaeology class, and some other out there classes--like Theater Appreciation. The campus was big, sprawling, and dynamic. I never quite felt like I fit in in these big lecture hall classes, and I always had to go home to work when the parties were happening.
Halfway through my sophomore year, three things happened: I declared myself an English major. I took a weird computer class to fill my math requirement. And, for the hell of it, I signed up for a Creative Writing class.
Being an English major helped a lot. Writing was my strong suit, so seeing multiple choice tests based on 15 ninety minute lectures go away was a relief, both to my anxiety and my GPA.
In the computer class, I met a guy who I went to high school with and we became fast friends. Suddenly, Rutgers didn't seem to sprawling after all. Plus, he understood basic computer programming, which helped me pass the course.
And finally, I wrote a little story called "God Bless the Child". It got published, and I knew I wanted to be a writer.
Rutgers wasn't just a big, huge campus anymore. It wasn't a place to be snickered at by in-staters who only wanted to leave. It was a place where you could make a mark. At least, that was how I felt.
Not many others seemed to, however.
The Coaching Searches
As my days on campus wound down, the future of Rutgers athletics wound up. The football team was going to be manned by someone named Greg Schiano. To me, his press conference was laughable. He stood there promising national championships while some group who wanted Rutgers to return to playing teams like Bucknell tried to shout him down.
At the same time, Rutgers basketball kept swinging and missing. First, it seemed like Jay Wright was in the Scarlet Knights' wheelhouse, only to have Villanova intercept him at the goal line. Next, they took a shot at John Beilein, but he had little interest in moving to the Garden State. Instead, Gary Waters--out of Kent State--was tapped to be the coach. His press conference, was equally as hilarious. He promised to hug players, and eat breakfast with them. He talked only about healing and not about winning.
Meanwhile, I was searching for a rudder after graduation. I ended up substitute teaching at a middle school. The days were challenging. Much like Schiano struggled through his first season, I tried to guide some 8th graders through a Language Arts class while all they were focused on was the aftermath of 9/11. And all I wanted to be doing was the same thing they were.
Finally, in December, I started to find my niche. While Gary Waters rode the hot hand of a JUCO Guard named Jerome Coleman, I started to find myself drawn back to the Rutgers campus. I still had friends there, and they were actually attending games. I took full advantage and watched Coleman and company beat UConn, Syracuse, and a ranked Miami team.
Again, it felt like things were on the up and up. The basketball team was on the bubble and I was writing.
They missed the dance that year, but Waters kept building. He liked to ride hot hands, and did so again in 2004. A scrawny freshman named Quincy Douby lead the team to the NIT finals at MSG and fans clad in scarlet packed the subways. I was in graduate school. I knew then I wanted to be both a teacher and a writer.
Maybe that bright future was here after all.
It wasn't to be. Not yet anyway. Gary Waters missed a game 2 years later, and the fans turned on him. Greg Schiano had lost a season of growth because of a nearly fatal accident for two of his top players.
Fans tended to wonder if it was ever going to happen for either team. Rutgers brought in assistant Fred Hill who was going to use his recruiting ties to build a Big East basketball powerhouse.
That didn't happen.
Elsewhere, Schiano quietly kept doing his job. He insisted the future was bright.
The Big East was a different animal. Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami had shipped off to the ACC. Talks were the conference was going to break apart. It was clear Rutgers wanted to be in the Big Ten. UConn wanted out. But the Big East hung together and brought in a ton of teams to create a football league and a monster basketball league.
And the fruits of Schiano's labor finally came to bear. He got the team to a bowl game in 2005, and fans went nuts. And that was just the beginning.
Riding a strong defense and Ray Rice, the team was nationally ranked in 2006. And it was coming down to a Thursday night match-up with the number 3 team in the country-and new Big East member-Louisville.
By that time, I was done with grad school, was teaching 8th grade English, and had signed a two book deal with Random House. Things were looking up.
However-for me-the day before the game was a particularly rough day and I decided at the last minute, what the hell.
I scalped tickets and drove down to the game with a friend. Rutgers was trailing at halftime, and it looked to be the kind of game where RU hung close, but could never get over the hump. At halftime, my friend lamented the fact that I may have wasted my money.
But all Rutgers fans know what happened next.
Ray Rice, the defense, and Mike Teel took over. And Jeremy Ito put one through the uprights.
That was it. That was the moment. Rutgers was over the hump and headed to a BCS. But it never quite happened. A dropped pass at West Virginia killed it in 2006.
Sloppy losses killed momentum the following year.
A life changing injury to a team favorite player hurt another year..
And then--Greg Schiano was off the to the NFL.
Meanwhile, Fred Hill had buried the basketball program, cursed out an umpire, and was shown the door.
The Big Time
None of that was enough to kill my love for my alma mater. Not the snickering from residents who were convinced Rutgers was no better than Montclair State or Seton Hall. Not the fans of other schools who thought 2006 was a flash in the pan, and still think Rutgers basketball will never be more than a bottom feeder.
There are always going to be ups and downs in life and fandom. In the 16 years since that couple told me brighter days were coming, I published 3 books, got a great job, married a wonderful woman and fathered a great, cute kid. But it wasn't smooth, not by a long shot. There were moments of sadness and loss. But I'll always remember the smiles and the laughs.
Most of all, I look toward sharing those smiles and laughs with my family. And bringing my son to a Rutgers basketball game. I'm still writing. I still want to put more books out. And I love educating kids. My bright future is here.
And today, Rutgers is coming out of the darkness. The big time has come. Gone are the videos of Mike Rice throwing baksetballs at players' heads. Gone are the weak schedules and boring bowls of Rutgers football.
And, after today, the snickering is gone as well.
Today, Rutgers University merged with the local medical school UMDNJ. Rutgers can no longer be laughed at by in-state residents who don't get it. Today, Rutgers has been transformed into a powerhouse university. One, if everything continues to go as planned, that will be on par with the Michigans and North Carolinas or the world.
In a year, Rutgers will be in the Big Ten--playing big time football schools, and battling in the one of the best basketball conferences in the nation. And the coaches who lead Rutgers: Stringer, Kyle Flood, and the newly appointed Eddie Jordan will be doing it with class and civility.
Flood calls his team a family. Rutgers fans feel like they are a part of it. And all families have good days and dark days. But, good families, promise each other that the next day will be better.
Eddie Jordan, at his press conference, talked healing--just like Gary Waters did 12 years ago. This time it didn't come off so funny to me. It was heartfelt, genuine, and truthful. No promises of hugs or breakfasts. It was just his goal to get things better and represent Rutgers as well as possible.
We all-Rutgers graduates and alumni--have these stories. Moments that tie our lives to this university.
Today is a great day.
Good times are coming. Academically, Rutgers is skyrocketing. Athletics will follow soon after.
The RAC, with a little success and some money, will be redone and players will want to play for a coach who's had success at every level. The football team will attract more and more talent. And they will want to continue a tradition that a man who got heckled at his press conference believed in.
Rutgers doesn't lose 59-19 anymore.
The older couple was right. The future starts today.
It's a brand new Rutgers, and I can't wait to watch it grow.