When Greg Schiano arrived at Rutgers, he promised championships. He promised multiple titles, and the ultimate goal of winning the national championship. He delivered none.
To be fair to him, Rutgers wasn't even at square one when he arrived. They didn't even know what board they were playing on. So he began to build, continuing to promise titles. In the lobby of the Hale Center, Rutgers' Football center, there was a place - a stand - with a photo of the then national championship crystal football. We had the place and the promise, but not the final result.
Was he wrong? Was he a liar? Was Schiano, if you read some other school's blogs, little better than a snake oil salesman? Could Rutgers seriously ever win a national championship? For that matter, what schools are truly able, truly capable, of winning the CFP?
Let's look at winning. Let's look at Nebraska, a program that is iconic, legendary. It is a program with five National Championships to its name, although none since 1997, the year before the BCS came into being. In 2003, it fired its Head Coach, Frank Solich. Solich had a 58-19 record, averaging just over 9 wins per season. But nine wins were apparently not good enough, although there were stories that there were other reasons for the dismissal. Bo Pelini also averaged over 9 wins per year and, again, it was not good enough. Fired with a 58-24 record.
There are some, including commentators on BTN, who feel that there very well may be a ceiling to Nebraska's success. A passionate fan base, lots of resources, tremendous facilities. Yet, in football they have leveled off - granted at a very high level - but no longer commanding the "icon" or "legendary" mantle.
So what does it take? What is necessary to be the ultimate winner in college football today?
The fact of the matter is, there aren't many schools that actually compete for that elusive championship, There are 128 schools that compete at the FBS level. Since 2003, there have been just 25 schools that have had a top five finish (BCS/CFP rankings). And of the sixty places that cover the top five (12 years x five spots), only fifteen schools have occupied any of those positions more than once including: Ohio State (8 times), USC (6), Alabama (4), LSU (4), Oregon (4), and Texas (4). And, of course, this year's playoff has three of those teams plus Florida State (2).
Over those 13 years, only seven different schools have won the national title. This year, two of those winners are back in the hunt. So it appears to be a pretty exclusive club, and one that doesn't open its doors very often to newcomers. Utah peeked into the room twice, once under Urban Meyer. Boise State crashed the party twice, too, but the last time was five years ago in 2009.
It probably isn't a coincidence that among the 15 schools with multiple top 5 finishes, nine were listed in the top 20 for revenue. Two of those 15 schools, USC and Stanford, are private and did not have to report those numbers. During that span, Rutgers had one top 25 finish, in 2006 when it finished at No. 12.
In early December, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics released an interactive database that showed a wealth of information on both academic and athletic spending. With it, we can compare Rutgers' spending per football player compared to other schools. I took Ohio State and Alabama, as examples of consistent top 5 finishers, along with Oregon and an RU "peer", Michigan State. The numbers are eye-opening:
While Ohio State and Alabama were pretty much where one would expect them, Oregon, MSU, and Rutgers are seemingly all in the same ballpark. And, somewhat incredibly, Oregon spent less than either RU or MSU while it was building its powerhouse program. But that spending was a steady upward trend. And there's a reason for it.
Money can certainly be factored into the equation of what it takes to win. Except according to the table, it didn't seem to apply to Oregon or, to a lesser degree, Michigan State. Oregon, though, has been a rising power, but one that only became a consistent national player in football in the last fifteen years or so.
The AP Poll began in 1936. Oregon's first ranking in the final poll was in 1948. It wouldn't appear again in the final AP Poll until 1994 (no. 11). By 1976, Rutgers had appeared in the final AP Poll three times, and not again until 2006. But from 1999 through this year, Oregon only missed being ranked in the final poll four times. Whatever the athletic ceiling had been for the Ducks prior to the turn of this century had dramatically changed. The change was, in part, called Mike Bellotti. Prior to Bellotti being hired as head coach of football, his predecessor had served 18 years with an overall record of 91-109, with eleven finishes in the bottom half of the Pac 10. Under Bellotti, the Ducks went 116-55 in 14 years. But more importantly, following the 1995 football season, the "O" decided it was going to be a major player in athletics. Enter - among others - Phil Knight and Nike.
Money was important, but so was a commitment to use that money wisely and aggressively. The relationship that Oregon built with Nike, and more importantly with Phil Knight, its famous and famously wealthy alum, was the key to take Oregon to the "next level" in athletics and academics. There seemed to no longer be a ceiling for Oregon athletics. Now, with impressive financial resources and the marketing and sales acumen of Nike, for Oregon the sky was the limit.
* * *
This is part one of a four-part series on Rutgers Athletics. Stay tuned each day until the series is complete:
Part I: What is the ceiling for Rutgers?
Part II: How far can we go without a money man?
Part III: How far do we need to go? What Nike brought to Oregon
Part IV: How far is up? A look at where we can and want to go