By all rights, 2014 should be a year of unbridled optimism for Rutgers athletics, fans and staff alike. Two decades of tireless effort finally paid off with a long-coveted invitation to the Big Ten conference, and the countless riches that come along with such status. University athletic department teams compete in talent rich-New Jersey, which is considered to be one of the best states for producing talent in most high school sports. Indeed, many Rutgers athletic programs can point to multiple top recruiting classes by the various ranking services in recent years. This is coupled evidence that its football program, even under trying circumstances, brings home the most eyeballs and interest of an extremely fractured New York City region; one seriously lacking in per capita interest in college sports, but with unmatched population numbers and coveted marketing demographics.
If only things were that simple. Athletically, Rutgers has long coasted on its geographic advantages to overcome rampant internal mismanagement and self-sabotage, seemingly receiving umpteenth chance after chance, and on the surface it does not appear that much has changed in that respect. If somehow a defeat could be wretched from this victory, Rutgers managed to find a way, with its cowardly administration refusing to fire abusive men's basketball coach Mike Rice, and then forcing popular former athletic director Tim Pernetti to take the fall for their mistakes.
This error was then compounded with the rushed hire of Julie Hermann; arguably the #3 athletics administrator at the University of Louisville, which is renowned both for its athletic success, and the sheer number of shortcuts that Tom Jurich employed for the Cardinals to claw their way to the top. Hermann, with a documented record of player abuse that arguably put Rice's to shame (and which Rutgers and Parker Athletic Search completely dropped the ball on), quickly damaged any chances of reconciliation with football boosters furious over Pernetti's firing by coming to office under suspicious circumstances, and immediately engaging in a series of unfathomable public relations gaffes.
Pernetti was seemingly forced out by uninformed critics of the athletic department's trajectory, and shameless university officials desperate to bury evidence of their own misdeeds. With the department forced to accept Hermann, against its own collective will, these same critics (highlighted by Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch) quickly changed course; unfairly castigating an athletic department for a hire that they wanted nothing to do with. An unwanted, unwelcome alien forced on the program by a hostile, bordering on incompetent university administration; one that had been high-jacked by a rogue athletic booster, and was more than eager to put the budding administrative scandal to rest to focus on its own ambitious plans for medical education.
While Hermann's brief tenure has thus far proven to be an continuing, unending series of embarrassments, it is undoubtedly true that she does not bear direct responsibility for a lot of the biggest ongoing problems. Chris Christie appointed the majority of the current university administration, enacting about as much care as he did at the Port Authority. In fact, ultimate athletic department authority arguably rests with Board of Governors chair (and Motorola CEO) Greg Brown. With the power vacuum created by Hermann's early missteps, and most other big donors retreating for the time being, Brown has assumed sway over the Rutgers athletic department in a matter that brings to mind the tenure of Bobby Lowder at Auburn.
Similarly, none of the current athletic department coaches were her hires. C. Vivian Stringer's Hall of Fame career appears to be in a slow descent. Kyle Flood is nearly as embattled as Hermann after a nigh-catastrophic 2013 season. The book is still out on Eddie Jordan, with a year of growing pains in transitioning to the Princeton Offense and cleaning up the mess left by Rice, but patience is already starting to wear thin. The current AD had nothing to do with these hires, with a search committee hiring Jordan in the chaos following Pernetti's ouster, and Flood (and before him, Rice) unfortunately hired by Pernetti as profound mistakes in admittedly very difficult situations. (Arguably, Pernetti's biggest mistake was in not firing Fred Hill Jr. early enough.)
Is it Julie Hermann's fault that Sean Franzier heavily courted Greg Brown's support last year, or that the overwhelming in-house favorite among athletic department employees was former associate athletic director Kevin MacConnell? The origins of the current conflict can be traced directly back to that search, with camps for all of the involved parties engaged in brutal leak campaigns in their own personal game of thrones. Little has changed since, with Hermann desperate to clean house at a hostile athletic department that has eagerly and overwhelmingly leaked its hostility to her presence to any member of the press within earshot, and her response has largely been to return those serves.
Hermann's ongoing feud with football coach Kyle Flood deserves special consideration. Flood's performance on and off the field in 2013 was so misery-inducing that no one at all could fault her for wanting him gone. Where she draws ire though is in her mishandling of the situation, being so unpopular with athletic boosters, and having so little credibility with prominent coaching candidates that she and Brown were forced to backtrack from a plan to depose Flood that came extremely close to completion. (Or at least, strong efforts were made to convince the media of this.) Flood's camp, sensing his own imminent danger, fought back with a vengeance even before the swoon, repeatedly whispering to the local media that they had it backwards, that she was the one who would soon be out the door.
The truth is that Julie has more job security than Kyle, but not nearly enough to be comfortable. The Rutgers administration is absolutely tired of the chaos (that they, of course, created through their mismanagement and negligence.) She is likely to outlast him barring a strong season, but is that going to be a pyrrhic victory? Even if Rutgers has Big Ten money to spend, it will be difficult to pull in a top name with so much speculation lingering about her future. Mid-tier candidates like Ball State coach Pete Lembo and Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi could have credibility with most fans, but will they have the sheer force of will that is needed to bring back some desperately needed stability.
Most critically, Flood's struggles have significantly warmed the prospects of Greg Schiano returning to Rutgers in the eyes of critical decision makers, although there are still major gaps to bridge on both sides before that could be considered as a realistic possibility. There is widespread doubt that two head strong personalities like Schiano and Hermann would get along. That may not ultimately matter if the hire is going to be made by Greg Brown, as is wildly believed. Schiano will certainly demand concessions from the administration to ensure a strong commitment to football. Time will tell if one of those requests is bringing back MacConnell as the replacement athletic director, but speculation continues unbounded regarding these and other scenarios for the time being.
Unfortunately, right now Rutgers athletics is about as far from united as an organization can get, with Jim Delany's plea for sanity falling on deaf ears. Every side claims they want unity, but the truth is that they want it on their terms, which is how we got into this mess in the first place. Last year, smart boosters pleaded and begged for decision makings to quit arguing about Frazier, Boeh, or MacConnell and united behind a consensus football candidate with majoritarian support. Instead, Hermann won with a plurality, and now we are still seeing endless bitter infighting continue with no seeming end in sight.
Genuinely suing for peace requires real concessions, and the only real, surefire way out of this mess is for a full, clean slate to put the bitterness of the past year and a half to rest. It is not going to be submission to Hermann's authority for two reasons. She does not actually have any, with her largely serving at the whim of Brown, and even if fans and boosters did hop on the Julie-wagon, Flood's camp is likely to scorch the earth as his likely December firing approaches. That is why everyone has to go, no questions asked. Any attempt otherwise is just delaying the inevitable, and will only lead to continued and unending chaos and infighting in what should be our time of triumph.