The recent history of Rutgers basketball is punctuated by losses and scandals. But if you look closer -- beyond the nude free throws, steaks of turmoil and of course Mike Rice-- there is one bright spot: the almost forgotten week when Rutgers basketball ruled New York City.
As we drag the state U toward the gates of the Big Ten, Scarlet Nation should find time for some reflection. Rutgers owes a debt to the people that got the Knights into the B1G. Fans will celebrate names like Tim Pernetti, Greg Schiano and Jim Delany, but the secret hero is almost never remembered — former Rutgers basketball coach Gary Waters and his 2004 Scarlet Knights lit the fuse that ended up with the RU in the Big Ten.
Recently, former Athletic Director Bob Mulcahy lumbered out of the mists of time, espousing the normal party line of Rutgers' ascension into the Big Ten. Among his bullet points, Mulachy intoned, "We also understood we had to prove our television value to the New York market, which we did in 2005, 2006 and 2007 in those memorable games." Mulcahy is off by one year. The football-minded AD forgets when Gary Waters led thousands of Rutgers fans into Madison Square Garden. The 2004 NIT Final Four run was the first spark of Scarlet enthusiasm in New York City—a fact central to the ascension of Rutgers to the Big Ten.
For many, former coach Gary Waters is just another line in a line of basketball embarrassments. The way he was deposed by Rutgers by manufactured crisis, in favor of Fred Hill Jr. (my pick for the worst coach in Rutgers history), makes nostalgia hard. But the 2003-2004 season was one where Rutgers basketball actually achieved some success. The team was anchored by fan favorites like Sean Axani and Herve Lamizana, with freshman Quincy Douby lighting it up from beyond the arc. The team also beat Penn State, Notre Dame, Miami and ‘Nova AT the Ski Lodge. Regrettably number 1 UCONN escaped by one point. Yet in classic Rutgers fashion, they blew it at the end of the season. I remember listening to WCTC’s Bruce Johnson -- another Rutgers icon unfairly jettisoned -- despondently describe the meltdown at Virginia Tech that guaranteed another trip to the NIT.
In the unlikely story of the 2004 Scarlet Knights, even the "Losers Tournament" helped. In the postseason, they received three NIT home games, beating Temple, West Virginia and Villanova. It’s entirely plausible that the NIT scheduling committee saw that they could sell more tickets to their Final Four at the Madison Square Garden to a local team. Take it one step further, and you see that the NIT Committee could be one of the earliest groups to see a relationship between successful Rutgers athletics and college sports taking off in NYC. Again, Gary Waters deserves the credit for guiding a shaky team to MSG, and winning three straight postseason games.
Big programs often play games at MSG -- Syracuse in particular has a tradition of bringing a large contingent -- but Rutgers outshone them all at the NIT. Don’t believe me? Watch the video! Go to 49:23 and hear the echo of thousands of Rutgers fans. It was a pandemonium in Penn Station! For one night, Rutgers was on par with the Knicks in terms of fan support. The RU chant around 52:40 roars with enthusiasm that even football rarely musters. And while Rutgers lost to Michigan in the Finals (a grim prediction of the future), the media noticed what Rutgers could do in New York City. The New York Times wrote, "The atmosphere inside the Garden had the feel of a big game. With many of the 16,064 in attendance clad in Rutgers red, the game was a virtual home game for the Scarlet Knights." When was the last time an atmosphere at the NIT was likened to a "big game?" A Rutgers fan sums up the brave new world atmosphere at the NIT final 4, writing in the Daily Targum, "My wife and I attended both games at the Madison Square Garden, and simply walking up the street from the PATH station, I saw a larger collection of Rutgers clothing, hats, shirts and jackets than I have ever seen before. We stopped at a nearby restaurant for dinner before the final game, and it was filled with Rutgers fans discussing the coming game. Never before have I seen that many people proud to be associated with New Jersey's state university. Their clothing didn't say "Rutgers Basketball," it said, "Rutgers University." Mostly when walking around in various scarlet clothing, I find myself defending the school to various people who notice me, but not this night."
The Rutgers NIT run in 2004, coupled with a football win against Michigan State later in the year (let’s forget about the accompanying New Hampshire loss), could be recognized as the beginning of Rutgers achieving enough credibility to be invited to the Big Ten. Head Coach Gary Waters and that team were the first modern successful Scarlet venture into the city. The NIT run, along with the football seasons from 2005-2008, created enough goodwill and media buzz to accomplish the induction into the Big Ten. When Rutgers kicks off against Penn State in a few months, drink a beer in honor of the NIT and Gary Waters. The 2003-2004 Rutgers basketball team lit up New York for two nights, and the Knights would never be the same.