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The "What If's" in Rutgers Men's Basketball History

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The Rutgers men's basketball program is suffering through what will likely be its tenth consecutive losing season, and twentieth in the past twenty-four years.  Rutgers hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 1991 and hasn't won a NCAA tournament game since 1983.  But it hasn't always been this bad. Most Rutgers basketball fans know they had a very successful run in the seventies, making the NIT four times and the NCAA's three times in seven consecutive seasons from 1973-1979. Post-season appearances also occurred in the late sixties and early eighties. Today, the program is sadly the worst college basketball team in a power five conference.

So what went wrong?  That is a complicated answer with multiple factors, decisions, events, and issues, that slowly buried this program at the bottom, mistake by mistake. Saturday's 34 point loss to George Washington, a former league rival of Rutgers when they played in the Atlantic-10, have rendered many ardent alumni and diehard fans utterly frustrated and devoid of hope.  Richard Kent is one of them.  He is a 1972 graduate of Rutgers College and was President of his class.  He also founded the Rutgers Club of Connecticut and has had ties to the basketball program for many years.

In addition to his love for Rutgers basketball and being a lawyer and litigator, Richard has written eleven books on the sport, including an in-depth look at last season in the Big Ten. He also has worked on the production team for CBS Sports for March Madness coverage.  In addition, he helps run the annual Schoolboy/Schoolgirl Classic, an all-star game between the best high school players in Connecticut and New Jersey.  Countless Division I players have been a part of the game over the years, including Marcus Camby, and the New Jersey team has been coached by Bob Hurley Sr. on occasion.

Richard and I spoke this week about the current woes of the program, and how disappointing it is.  We ended up speaking about a variety of events that occurred over the years, with each outcome changing the course of Rutgers men's basketball history in some way, shape, or form.

When Richard was a student at Rutgers, he was on the basketball beat as a writer for the Daily Targum.  During that time, Rutgers was coached by the great Bill Foster, who led Rutgers to the postseason for the first time in school history. Richard covered Foster's departure from Rutgers, when he became the coach at Utah.  Foster was replaced by Tom Young, who led Rutgers during their most successful stretch in program history, making the postseason eight of his twelve seasons as coach.  It was during Young's tenure that a major "what if" occurred. Let's review what happened, as well as several others through the years, that helped shape where the Rutgers basketball program is today.

Conference Realignment

Rutgers turns down the Big East

Richard: How can we not be better than Seton Hall? We haven't been better than Seton Hall since 1989, when they lost the championship game with P.J. Carlesimo.  We gave Seton Hall the Big East by turning it down. They wanted us! Rutgers was the #1 basketball school in the in the metropolitan area from 1975-1979. No if's, and's, or buts. There was no St. John's, no Syracuse, UCONN didn't even exist {meant figuratively on those schools, not literally}! It was Rutgers, they owned the metropolitan area. They were still respectable in the early eighties, after the major success of the seventies.  Joe Paterno told Fred Gruninger (Rutgers AD) not to join the Big East when we were invited. (Paterno's push for an all-eastern football league was covered here.) His argument was that it wasn't worth joining an all-sports conference and it was with ESPN, who was not significant at the time.

Rutgers turned down the Big East twice! When Rutgers played in a NCAA tournament game in Hartford, Big East founder/commissioner Dave Gavitt gave coach Tom Young and Fred Gruninger a tour of ESPN. Tom wanted to be in Big East badly, but Gruninger waited it out for Paterno's football conference to develop.  It never did, with Pitt screwing everybody by joining the Big East.  Penn State did their own thing with Big Ten and everything was over. What if Rutgers had joined the Big East in 1979?  Who didn't want Rutgers? They were one of the first schools invited. The counter argument won out though. Football drives the bus, why would you get involved with this all sports conference and with this new network ESPN, in which nobody knows anything about, when there is going to be a football conference?


Wenzel recruiting Tim Thomas/Kevin Freeman

Bob Wenzel is the last Rutgers coach to take the program to the NCAA tournament, doing so twice in 1989 and 1991. However, by 1996 the team was suffering through four consecutive losing seasons.  Wenzel's efforts to return the program to its winning ways were tied to the recruitment of a trio of New Jersey high school basketball stars: Shaheen Holloway, Kevin Freeman, and Tim Thomas. Ultimately, Wenzel struck out on all three, leading to the end of his tenure at Rutgers, explained here in this New York Times article.

Richard: Rutgers was trying to get Holloway, Freeman and Thomas as a package.  It became clear that Holloway was going to go to Seton Hall. Thomas and Kevin Freeman were teammates at Paterson Catholic. Thomas was controlled by Jimmy Salmon, the major jersey AAU guy at the time. Thomas's mother Dorothy really wanted Tim to go to Rutgers. She liked Bob a lot and really liked the academics and curriculum at Rutgers. There was a meeting in Bob's office with Thomas, his mother and Jimmy Salmon.  Salmon asked for an assistant job at Rutgers, implying if he did, Thomas would commit.  Wenzel, to his credit, is very honorable, and said that is not going to happen. And the next day Thomas announced for Villanova.  A few days after that, Villanova head coach Steve Lappas announced that Jimmy Salmon was a new assistant coach.

{In this article detailing Thomas's recruitment from a Villanova perspective, there is this mention: "Meanwhile, Salmon was on a quest of his own. He wanted a job as a college assistant coach, perhaps even a job at Villanova. When Salmon did land a job at Villanova, everyone involved insisted that it was not part of a ``package deal.''}

Freeman started to get recruited by UCONN in the spring.  He wasn't wanted by Villanova and didn't want to go to Rutgers on his own, so he went to UCONN, as they were a rising power.  Bob was shut out of Holloway, Thomas and Freeman, which was almost inconceivable as of that January. I think when that happened it was kind of cathartic for him and he knew the writing was on the wall. That it just wasn't going to happen, at least for his regime at Rutgers. If Rutgers had gotten Freeman and Thomas, their whole history would have been different. Bob would have been at Rutgers longer, they would have made some form of a mark in the Big East tournament.

Instead, Bob had a horrible Big east record (11 wins in two seasons was a league worst) and I think he intuitively knew that his career at Rutgers was over when he didn't get that package pf players. They were really close to getting Tim Thomas! The whole Thomas/Freeman thing soured him on recruiting and he didn't want to do it anymore. Never coached again.  I did some work at the CBS studio during that Final Four and Bob was at the studio and I said to him, "what are you doing here?" He said, " I'm observing because I'm getting into broadcasting." I think Bob's career in broadcasting took off as quick as almost anybody, as he was doing the tournament I think within a couple of years.

Jay Williams recruitment

Jay Williams was a local star at St. Joseph's of Metuchen in the late nineties and was being nationally recruited.  I relayed to Richard that I had heard a story that Williams was set on going to Rutgers before his mother insisted he visit Duke.

Richard: Until he saw the Duke campus, Williams wanted to go to Rutgers, his mom made him visit anyway.  If Thomas and Freeman were 1 and 1A, Williams was 1B for near misses of top recruits that could have changed the program for the better. However, I think Troy Murphy (another local star at the time) was always going to Notre Dame.

Transfer Epidemic

Rutgers has had a litany of players transfer out of the program over the years, including several stars.  I asked Richard about several, which changed the course of the program

Todd Billet & Dahntay Jones

Richard: Wenzel's biggest recruiting coup was landing Geoff Billet.  When he left and Kevin Bannon became coach, he hired Geoff as an assistant coach once his playing career was over.  Ultimately, Geoff's brother, Todd, came to Rutgers. Then Geoff was not retained by Waters after Bannon was fired, which was one of the reasons Todd ended up transferring to Virginia. Dahntay Jones transferred to Duke at the same time.  Jones didn't get along with Bannon, I don't think the love lasted very long. (Note: I asked Richard about Jones because I played against him in high school and knew he was very close with Bannon before joining the program at Rutgers.)

Bannon lost 7 or 8 players actually, all of them or all but one of them ended up playing in the NCAA tournament. Josh Sankes went to Holy Cross, Earl Johnson went to Iona, etc.

Mike Rosario & Fred Hill

Fred Hill gave Rosario the star treatment from day one, ultimately ruining the dynamic of the team.  Rosario ended up transferring to Florida and Hill was eventually fired.

Richard: Rosario from what I was told, didn't feel that he would generate enough NBA interest, no matter how many points he scored at Rutgers. He didn't feel that he would get the same amount of looks from the NBA that he would if he were with a different program, and that is why he wanted to play for Billy Donovan.

Coaching What If's

Tom Penders/Sonny Werblin connection

Richard: The person that was always the dream of Sonny Werblin was Tommy Penders. For a number of years Rutgers always went after Penders because of Sonny Werblin. I knew Penders from Stratford, Connecticut and I know that there were a number of times in which Penders was the object of their desire. Even with the Werblin connection, they were never able to grab him. Listen, there was a lot of reluctance on the part of a lot of coaches, to go to Rutgers, just because of a concern that it was a dead end.

Jay Wright instead of Gary Waters

Richard: After Bannon was fired, the search to replace him was all about Wright. Mulcahy met Wright when he was at Hofstra, trying to woo him to Rutgers. Steve Lappas was the coach at Villanova and he just missed the NCAA's that season and was fired. And then almost overnight, Wright was went to Villanova replace Lappas.

Bobby Knight instead of Mike Rice

Richard: There were three reasons Knight wanted the Rutgers job. He, like almost everyone else, felt that Rutgers was a sleeping giant. Knight liked the hunting area in Central Jersey and his wife liked NYC. However, Pernetti never called him, and went with Mike Rice. The irony of that is Rutgers avoided a legendary loose cannon, but ended up hiring the ultimate loose cannon in Rice. In terms of his tenure, I think what he did with players was reprehensible. I think he was a good recruiter, I think he was a really good bench coach, and I think if he didn't have this personality flaw, he might have been successful at Rutgers.  By the way, his father is the only broadcaster to be ejected from an NBA game. (read here.)

Danny Hurley instead of Eddie Jordan

Richard: There were legitimate coaching searches at Rutgers. Mulcahy chose Bannon over Bill Herrion and Tim Welsh, all three of them were very credible coaches.  Bannon had gone to a couple NCAA tourneys when he was hired from Rider.  The search for Eddie Jordan was preordained by three people, it wasn't a search. They wanted a healer, after the Rice scandal. I truly believe there were many good coaches that could have served as a healer for the program. The offer that was made to Danny Hurley, was an offer that no one expected him to accept. But they felt that they had to do it.  The irony of it is it hurt the prospects for the future. They would have been better served not offering him at all, because it burned the bridge. I think if that hadn't happened, Danny would have been open to coming to Rutgers potentially down the road. He is a really good recruiter, he is an underrated X's and O's guy, and I think he would have assembled a really good staff.

Thoughts on Rutgers coaches through the years

Richard: Rice was a good bench coach, Gary Waters was a very good bench coach, Wenzel was a good bench coach, Bannon was a good bench coach. I thought Bill Foster was an exemplary bench coach, Tom Young was an excellent bench coach. Freddie Hill wasn't, Eddie isn't, Craig Littlepage wasn't.

One of the things that has haunted a lot of coaches at Rutgers has been the quality of their staff. You could definitely say one of the contributing factors to Bob going to the tournament in 1989 was having Jeff Van Gundy as an assistant on the staff.  A lot of people credit Van Gundy with a lot of the X's and O's, but Bob was a good coach.

St. John's/Chris Mullin comparison

Richard: Look at what Chris Mullin is doing, Yes, this is not a quintessentially great Syracuse team, but I watched that game. It was a 11 point game all game, St. John's led the whole way.  St. John's is way better now than when they played Rutgers, and Rutgers is way worse now then when they played St. John's. I think that speaks volumes about the state of the program.  He is going to have that team in the tournament in a couple of years.  There is no comparison between Chris Mullin and Eddie Jordan. Rutgers is worse and St. John's is significantly better.



Richard: Eddie should appreciate playing Princeton more than anyone.  Two of the three most critical wins during the 1976 Final Four run was against Princeton, so Eddie knows how significant it is to beat them. Rutgers beat Princeton by 1 point in the tourney.  You don't play Central Connecticut State, Monmouth and Rutgers-Newark for gods sake's and not play Princeton!

Current State of Team

Richard: This is not watchable basketball. Rutgers is not bad because they are in the Big Ten.  First of all, they haven't played any league games yet this season. Secondly, they would finish last in the Ivy's, they would finish last in the Big East, they would finish last in the Atlantic 10. They would get massacred in the A-10, George Washington is no lock to win that league and you saw what they did to them. I'm sure Rutgers wouldn't play NJIT, they are way too dangerous to play. It is laughable at this point.  I don't get psyched for games at all anymore.

I think it's ridiculous that we don't recruit more New Jersey players.  Rutgers basketball needs to recruit New York and New Jersey successfully. The problem is I don't know if those guys want to play in the Big Ten?  I always thought Rutgers basketball would suffer by joining the Big Ten. I think those kids want to play at St. John's, Georgetown, Syracuse, UCONN and Seton Hall.

As for facilities, I never understood the argument that without them, a program cannot be successful.  If Rutgers had a state of the art practice facility today, I think their record would be exactly the same. Look at Princeton, their facility is as antiquated as they come.  And they are successful, year after year!


Thank you to Richard for sharing many stories and thoughts on the history of Rutgers basketball.  Sadly, the program is suffering through a historically bad stretch.  Many "what if's" have contributed to the current state of the program. Richard has seen the good and the bad through the years, and hopefully one day we can do this again, discussing the "what if's" that ended up going Rutgers way.  Until then, we wait for something to change our tortured history of the past 30 or so years!