Rutgers football had its worst record last season at 2-10 since the beginning of the Greg Schiano era in 2001 & 2002. There were a lot of contributing factors to the struggles on the field, including trying to fit personnel not suited for the rigid spread offense that was newly implemented, a buzz saw of a schedule in the first half of the season, a lack of depth and talent on the roster overall, as well as some young coaches learning on the job. It resulted in some brutal losses on the field. However, the most encouraging part of the changes that head coach Chris Ash made within the program were happening outside of what fans were seeing on Saturdays.
One of the main priorities of any new head coach in any sport and something they all address early on in their tenures is the culture of the program. At Rutgers, the strong foundation built under Schiano in the early 2000’s had since suffered far too many cracks to ever recover under Kyle Flood. I don’t need to rehash the many incidents that occurred off the field in 2015 that not only sabotaged the season, but made Rutgers football the laughingstock of the Big Ten. It was clear the success of the past decade was long gone and it was time to start anew.
Ash made no secret of the fact that many things needed to change within the program upon his arrival. His experience working at two Big Ten powers in Ohio State and Wisconsin enabled him to bring a vision to Rutgers that was sorely needed. While we have seen an uptick in recruiting with the 2017 class, the biggest improvement under Ash so far has been the culture change under his leadership. Structure, expectations, and accountability have be the core of that change and it’s bred competition in everything the players do.
These type of internal changes are less visible for fans, but this week’s dismissal of quarterback Tylin Oden due to “a violation of team rules” highlighted the difference in how Ash is running the program. A few days later and there haven’t been any reports of an ugly off the field incident. Instead, it appears from a real world perspective, Oden wasn’t holding up his end of the bargain while on scholarship, so the program parted ways with him. Oden said as much himself to Keith Sargeant of NJ Advance Media this week in this article:
"Coach Ash tried many, many, many times to help me and get me on the right track,'' Oden told NJ Advance Media in his first interview since his dismissal. "There was only so many times he could try. So no hard feelings. I respect his decision and wish the best of luck to him for what he's trying to do at Rutgers.''
Sadly, it seems as if Oden had shown the type of maturity in his response during his time with the program, he likely would be on the field today. However, the greater point is that this highlights how much higher the standards and expectations are for the players under Ash. Players were dismissed during the 2015 season with Flood as head coach due to some ugly off the field incidents. In 2017, a 3-star quarterback at a position lacking depth was dismissed for what appears to be not much more than a lack of commitment to the program. As unfortunate as it is to see Oden leave, it marks a significant positive step forward for the culture of Rutgers football. Ash took the high road in discussing Oden’s departure this week:
“I wish Tylin nothing but the best of luck. We have standards and a culture that we expect out of our players. We have to make tough decisions at times. I like Tylin and we will do anything we can to help him down the road.”
In terms of the current culture of the program, Ash seemed genuinely pleased with how things have progressed in the early stages of year two of his tenure:
“I really like the brotherhood that we have on this football team right now. The chemistry is really strong. Guys are hanging out together, working out together, and practicing really hard for each other. I’m really happy where we are at from that standpoint right now.”
In terms of tangible changes within the culture, Ash has implemented the Champions Club, which rewards players who handle all of their responsibilities and perform at a high standard in all that they do. There is a banquet to celebrate those players and reinforces competition in every aspect of the players lives. Another positive change has been a continuing speaker series the program terms “Life Beyond The Game.” On a regular basis, speakers with all types of backgrounds present to the team about important aspects of life after college and football.
This reinforces Ash’s emphasis on the complete development of his players. These type of programs are so valuable for the players, but are also an important factor in keeping the culture strong. Another is what seems to be regular activities between the players and their position coaches, such as movie and golf outings, which the program has documented on social media. A far better support system exists.
Rutgers has a long way to go on the field and Ash talks about the lack of depth at positions such as quarterback, wide receiver, and linebacker in his below presser with the media from Thursday. More talent needs to be infused into the program through recruiting. The current players need to continue to develop and improve. Another positive is that Ash made an important change this offseason by upgrading the coaching staff with the hires of Jerry Kill, Lester Erb, and Henry Baker.
Patience is needed from fans heading into next season, but there have been a lot of positive signs that Ash has the program moving in the right direction. He has a plan and it has helped to form a new, solid foundation for the program to continue building on. Losing Oden is disappointing, but it also sends a clear message to players and recruits that the demands for greatness are extremely high. Without a leader like Ash ensuring that the culture being built is rock solid within it’s foundation, a house of cards results. He showed this week that making tough decisions is necessary in protecting that foundation and that there are no shortcuts to turning the program around. It will take time, but the culture being built is one of a winner.