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Rutgers Football Is The Key To Big Ten & National Respect

The success of the 2006 Rutgers football team helped grow the university's brand more than ever. Ten years later, we need the football team's help in rebranding the image of the Rutgers athletic department.

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Yesterday, Dave White wrote about how Eddie Jordan and the men's basketball team is hurting the overall Rutgers brand.  Bob Cancro also wrote about how it takes time to build a brand, perhaps one program at a time.  Is our epically bad men's basketball team the reason Rutgers is generally panned as unworthy of being in the Big Ten? No, it is just the icing on the cake for haters who feel Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany went insane by adding Rutgers to the mix. Football has been and always will be the revenue driver and leader of perception of a university from an athletic perspective.  This past season thrust Rutgers onto the national scene as a perceived laughingstock. The past decade of bowl games, strong academic performance, and multiple NFL players were quickly forgotten. Between player arrests, the Kyle Flood Incident, blowout losses, our best win being over 6-7 Indiana, and a last place finish in the Big Ten East, our football program hit a low point.  While Rutgers hasn't yet truly benefited from the main stage that is the Big Ten, the 2015 season was a learning experience for how negative issues can amplify under the national microscope.

Thankfully, President Robert Barchi had felt the negativity associated with Rutgers was finally enough, and he hit the refresh button with both the athletic director and head football coach.  Patrick Hobbs will of course have the most influence and ability to improve the brand and overall reputation of the athletic department.  His fundraising plan for improvement of all Rutgers athletic facilities will be crucial to the long term success and perception of the university's sports programs. He has a lot of work to do with multiple sports within the department.  However, his first major decision, the hiring of Chris Ash as the head football coach, will be legacy defining.  The reality is, no matter how much of a positive impact Hobbs makes on the entire athletic department, a large majority of the country will perceive Rutgers based on the success of the football program.

This week ESPN is unveiling their second annual power 5 rankings for the most desirable coaching jobs in college football. Out of 65 head coaching jobs, the Rutgers job was ranked #56th, falling in the top ten worst for power 5 conference football teams. Here is the explanation for the criteria of the rankings:

We've broken down the jobs into five categories, using the expectations for the program as it stands today as a general guideline for the groupings. A five-person panel of ESPN college football reporters -- Travis Haney, Chris Low, Ryan McGee, Adam Rittenberg and Mark Schlabach -- settled on the rankings, considering criteria such as location, recruiting base, budgets and administrative stability. Thoughts from coaches, agents and administrators were then solicited for feedback on the rankings.

We can safely assume that Rutgers scored well with location and recruiting base and not so much with current status, budgets and administrative stability. Location and recruiting base have always been there, and being in the NYC metro area and it's traditionally strong recruiting ground, are tools that can help Rutgers emerge.  The problem is other than Greg Schiano, Rutgers has never fully taken advantage of these positives.  In terms of budget, Rutgers reduced the athletic subsidy by almost 35% this past year, before Hobbs even came on board. In terms of administrative stability, it seems in the early stages of the Hobbs/Ash partnership, there is finally alignment between the university, athletic department and football program.

Ash is already making significant progress with his vision for what is needed to bring Rutgers to the big time in college football.  The upgrading of the strength & conditioning program with the hiring of Kenny Parker from Ohio State, and the recent donation secured to improve that department's facilities, is a major step in the right direction. His experience in college football programs like Wisconsin, Arkansas, and Ohio State serve as a blueprint for his construction of success at Rutgers and building a winning culture.

In regards to the ESPN rankings, Rutgers was listed 12th in the Big Ten overall, ahead of only Purdue and Indiana. Two other Big Ten schools directly ahead of Rutgers were Illinois and Northwestern. A few more spots ahead included Minnesota and Maryland. Some non-Big Ten schools in the ten slots directly ahead of Rutgers were Kentucky, Duke, Oregon State, Kansas State, and Colorado. I am willing to say the Rutgers job has more potential to become a highly desirable power 5 conference job than any of those schools, with a possible exception for Maryland.  I think both programs are about even as of now and have a lot of potential, but Maryland has a key advantage in the form of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and his open checkbook. However, the closer Rutgers gets to receiving it's full conference share from the Big Ten in the next few years, the less of an advantage it will be. If Hobbs can develop long term success with fundraising, then I foresee no reason Rutgers can't leap beyond their peer on the Mason Dixon Line. Essentially, the more time passes that Rutgers has competent leadership and an increase in financial capital, the more dangerous they become.

It's been a brutal year for Rutgers basketball fans, suffering through what is currently a 30 game conference losing streak.  In fact, our friends at SB Nation CBB more or less proved that Rutgers is probably the worst power 5 conference team in college basketball history.  In November, we were worried about living up to the projection of worst power 5 conference team...this season.  Now we are proving to be the worst ever.

The social media landscape has been a battlefield, as other Big Ten fanbases have trashed our teams and screamed "I told you so" regarding our lack of qualifications. Our Final Four women's soccer team and Top Ten nationally ranked wrestling team are an afterthought, an unfair but sad reality in mainstream perception of general college sports fans. They declare that Rutgers hurts their brand, and sadly, we had a god awful year with basketball and football. Regardless, Rutgers is closer today to becoming that mythical sleeping giant, a fact Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has viewed RU as all along.  In the long run, the debacles that were the 2015 football season and 2015-2016 men's basketball season were necessary in leading to positive changes. I'm more confident than ever that Pat Hobbs will put the basketball program on the same path as he has done with the football program. He understands the importance of brand recognition, and right now the basketball program is a national laughingstock, taking the place of the football program from the fall.  The point is Rutgers supporters have never had more reason to be optimistic for the future.

The administration, led by Barchi and Board of Governors Director Greg Brown, made the decision to change the path of the athletic department with the hiring of Pat Hobbs as the new athletic director.  Hobbs in turn, changed the trajectory of the football program by hiring Chris Ash.  There is no reason to doubt he will do it again with basketball. Ash's success is the key to turning around the national perception of Rutgers athletics.  Tweets this week from national sports journalist and author Armen Keteyian are a prime example of perception trending in the right direction.

Time will tell if Ash is the home run hire we all hope he is, but there is no denying the early signs are very positive. His ability to transform Rutgers football into a respected Big Ten program would do wonders for the Rutgers brand.   There is no better public relations strategy than winning with dignity and class.  While Rutgers basketball has become a national punchline this winter, something special is brewing with Ash and the football program.  His positive impact in such a short time is another reason to be confident Hobbs will hit the reset button on the basketball program in quick order. That is the only action he can take, or the Rutgers brand will be hurt even more, as Big Ten and national coverage will interpret inaction as a lack of caring. Once a decision is made, it will take time to rebuild the shattered program, but a trend towards respectability would feel like a dream come true.  For now, Rutgers fans can look forward to football with optimism, and hope that the best days of the program are ahead. And if that becomes a reality, the Big Ten fans that laugh at us now, will realize Rutgers has truly arrived.