In early spring of 2001, Rutgers University was a basketball school.
Not a very successful one, but a basketball school. The RAC was packed and loud every night. The team was 1 yearremoved from an NIT appearance, and 2 years removed from having a camera watching them on Selection Sunday (they were the last team out). But their rising star head coach, Kevin Bannon, had been embroiled in a scandal that left 3 players suing the school.
In the time before social media and YouTube, the words "naked free throws" still managed to do the rounds of bar conversation.
In the spring of 2001, Rutgers University-a basketball school-was in search of a new coach.
Just a few months earlier, Greg Schiano had been hired as head football coach. Some laughed at him when he talked about national championships at his press conference. A few members of the Rutgers 1000 protested. This proves to be an important move in the history of the basketball program, but more on that later.
Because in the early spring of 2001, Jay Wright was making his way down the Turnpike to meet with Rutgers Athletic Director Bob Mulcahy. The hire was going to be a home run. Wright was an up and coming Hofstra coach who looked the part. He was from the area. He was going to get Rutgers back on track.
The problem was Wright wasn't meeting with Mulcahy to take the Rutgers job. He was going to turn it down because Villanova--whom Wright had ties to--had fired their coach in order to hire Wright. So Mulcahy was left without a coach.
He also tried to hire John Beilein who didn't want the position.
Mulcahy had to settle on his next choice, Gary Waters, a basketball coach hot off a Kent State run to the Sweet Sixteen with no New Jersey ties. At the initial press conference, Waters was a man who preached healing the team by giving hugs and having breakfast together. He brought his entire Kent State staff with him.
People were not enthused.
Gary Waters 2001-2006
That lack of enthusiasm was short lived. On the backs of senior forward Rashad Kent and sharp shooting JUCO Jerome Coleman, Waters continued the RAC's dominance, losing only 1 game at home the entire regular season. A lack of road wins kept Rutgers squarely on the bubble, but when the team missed out on a trip to the tournament, they fell flat in a home NIT game to Yale.
Meanwhile, Greg Schiano recruited.
The next season was full of promise, but after that team blew a double digit lead to North Carolina in the second game of the season the wheels came off. Despite beating future National Champion Syracuse on a banked 3 by Herve Lamizana, the team was plagued by chemistry problems and awful body language on the court. They managed to win only 4 conference games.
Schiano continued to recruit. His state of the art Hale Center and Practice Bubble were turning high school coaches' and athletes' heads.
But Waters, recognizing the problems, purged the team of the cancer and brought in several new players such as Byron Joynes, Marquis Webb and Quincy Douby. The year was a success, starting with a near miss playing #1 UConn and then a fun run to the NIT final at MSG.
Schiano's team was starting to show signs of being a real football team.
Waters appeared to have the basketball team rolling, but his fourth year was another chemistry bust and this time the wheels came off after a blown 20 point lead to Syracuse. This season also included a loss to a horrendous Penn State (tTFP) team. Around this time, Waters began to preach that fixing Rutgers was a 7 year project.
Schiano gets Rutgers to their first bowl game in, basically, forever.
For Gary Waters, the 2005-06 year was full of a promise. He'd brought in a solid recruiting class of JR Inman, Jaron Griffin and Anthony Farmer. He'd added a new assistant coach to his staff, at the behest of the AD, slick recruiter Fred Hill. The team got off to a great start, with Douby leading the Big East in scoring. And Waters was going to be honored at his former school.
Unfortunately, it snowed the night before the game. Waters was stranded in Ohio, Fred Hill coached the team to a win, and there was fan outrage.
Waters was bought out at the end of the season, and his slick recruiting assistant was given the job.
Fred Hill 2006-2010
The night of November 9, 2006 is probably where it all changed.
Undefeated Rutgers football was playing the #3 team in the nation, the Louisville Cardinals. Hours before the game, Fred Hill appeared on the Mike and Maddog show. Saying that practice was going well, but he needed a shooter, Hill charmed the radio hosts to the point where the Maddog remarked he wanted to run through a wall for Coach Hill. The football team won that night, finally crashing through years of promise and landing on the national stage.
Hill couldn't capitalize on his goodwill. Though he recruiting was good, landing highly ranked guards like Corey Chandler and All-American Mike Rosario and stud big men like Gregory Echenique and Jonathan Mitchell, Hill couldn't get results on the court. In his career, he lost games to Jackson State, Bradley, St. Peter's, Rider, St. Bonanventure, Lehigh and Vermont. His conference games were largely blowouts. He was plagued by transfers and kids kicked out of school.
The RAC was decimated, student interest at an all time low. They had a successful football program, so why support a basketball team that was getting blown out all the time. Hill complained he needed the RAC to be upgraded, by why? His teams were losing, and the football stadium begged for expansion.
In the spring of 2010, new Athletic Director Tim Pernetti promised Hill one more year. Hill celebrated by going to a baseball game and getting into a shouting match with the umpire.
Fred Hill was let go, and in early May, fiery coach Mike Rice, who'd nearly beaten Villanova in the NCAA at Robert Morris, was hired.
Meanwhile, the football team rolled on, making yearly bowls and mostly filling the stadium.
Mike Rice 2010-2013
Mike Rice roared into the position. Before his first season even started, he landed a top flight recruiting class that made fans who were considering dropping their tickets turn their heads. He brought big time recruits in to visit, and leaked the names to keep fan interest. He took a team of Fred Hill's remains and turned them into a hard working, gutty group who'd do anything to win a game. They beat Villanova on a ridiculous 4 point play. They lost a game to St. John's in the Big East Tournament that should still be going on.
And when that top recruiting class actually got on campus, Rice got them to beat a top ten Florida team that featured Rutgers' transfer Mike Rosario. The game was an instant classic. He also beat top ten UConn that year. And the team seemed destined to turn it around.
Greg Schiano left for the NFL. New plans to renovate the RAC were announced, just like Hill had wanted and Rice said he needed.
The following season brought high hopes for at least an NIT seasson. Rice seemed to be on the verge of landing another monster recruiting class. But something felt off. Those top recruits suddenly looked elsewhere. And the team opened with a heartbreaking loss to St. Peter's.
Meanwhile, Tim Pernetti and new football coach Kyle Flood were celebrating an invitation to the Big Ten.
And then Mike Rice was suspended. And the team never quite recovered from that suspension.
And then, a year ago today, came the story all Rutgers fans know by heart. The team was decimated. The athletic department gutted.
The biggest one of all. The RAC plans were scrapped. Only 4 players remained on scholarship.
And there appeared to be only one man who could save them. Former NBA legend and Rutgers' legend, Eddie Jordan.
Eddie Jordan 2013-?
Jordan's first year on the banks was not a great one. But, in his first months on the job, he preached healing and winning. He energized a stunned and hurt fanbase. He got out and recruited.
But, he lost 21 games. Much like Gary Waters, he purged 3 players from his team, and fired an assistant coach. He has a solid recruiting class coming in. Maybe he can turn it around.
But he's got the burden of four scandals and 13 years of neglect on his shoulders. Football drives the bus, and at Rutgers-a former basketball school-that's because Schiano came in and did what he was supposed to. He kept his head down. He built and built and built.
Meanwhile, basketball floundered. Its fanbase withered and died under all those losses to the Jackson States and Bradleys.
And every time there was life, something popped up--something unexpected--which snuffed it all out again.
There is hope now with Jordan. Maybe he can get a new practice facility. An upgraded RAC. Maybe he can be the one who, like Schiano, will keep his head down, recruit, and run a clean program that will eventually breakthrough the doldrums. Because this football school is in a position where its basketball team is where the football team was when it was a basketball school.
Get to work, Eddie.
There's still a lot of cleaning up to do.
Disclaimer: Much of this story was written based on memory. Any errors are my own.
Like mystery novels? Read Dave White's crime novels on your e-Reader. When One Man Dies is available on Kindle, Nook and anywhere else e-books are sold. You can also find the Shamus Award nominated The Evil That Men Do and the best selling Witness to Death in the same places. All the books have at least a small tie to Rutgers, and they're very well reviewed. Best of all? Cheaper than Starbucks coffee!