Longtime Rutgers fans, those who have followed the team prior to the success of 2006 and beyond, have lived through plenty of losing teams. Aside from the early sixties, mid-to-late seventies, a few seasons mixed into the eighties and nineties, current Rutgers football fans have suffered and endured plenty of losing. That’s part of the identity of being a Rutgers fan, like it or not. Greg Schiano is revered by most not for winning championships, but for making Rutgers a consistently decent to good team year over year for less than a decade. 2006 season was an outlier, but Schiano is remembered like a king by a good amount of fans who still hold out hope he will return.
In the past 25 years, the program has yielded the Terry Shea era of the late nineties, which led to a decade of losing in great ways, including the first four years of the Schiano era. Rutgers football made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2001 because the discussion of whether the program should continue was debated on a national level.
With all that being said, I don’t recall ever feeling that this team was as miserable a task to follow as it is today. What we are experiencing is joyless, soulless football. The passion, the fire, the heart isn’t just absent from the program on the field on Saturdays, it’s sucking the life out of the fan base.
Chris Ash came to Rutgers with a national championship ring from Ohio State, as well as boxes and boxes full of binders of notes from his two decades as an assistant coach. He also brought a lot of gusto in knowing best how to turn the program around and seemed confident he would be able to recruit New Jersey at a high level. He also failed to embrace even an ounce of past history for a program that has never been a storied one, but has always been full of pride.
There are plenty of .500 teams from Rutgers past that fans affectionaly remember. I look back fondly on the Doug Graber era and he went 29-36-1 during the first half of the nineties. Fans aren’t asking for Big Ten East titles, just respectability. That modest goal is miles away from being met.
It wasn’t fair to expect Ash to come to New Jersey with little connections and recruit the state better than any Rutgers coach ever had, even Greg Schiano. While none of his recruiting classes have been ranked in the top 40 nationally, they haven’t been far behind the middle of the pack programs in the Big Ten.
This team is extremely young and has just 14 seniors, but this is far from the least talented team in Rutgers history. Ash can’t say this team has less talent than in 2016 when he took over the program from Kyle Flood. If they really do have less talent on this current team, he has no one to blame but himself. However, I think this year’s team has more talent than two years ago, but they have been less competitive, which is a scary thought.
What this team is lacking is toughness, both mental and physical. It's missing strong leadership from the coaching staff and from veteran players, resulting in a lack of togetherness and purpose on the field. At least that is what it looks like after each defeat occurs.
Ash more or less coaches by the book and while I do think he is a bright defensive mind when it comes to x’s and o’s, his knowledge isn’t producing results with lesser talented and more inexperienced players than he is used to coaching.
In the past month, Rutgers has lost to Kansas, Buffalo, and Illinois by the combined score of 135-44. Absorb that stat for a minute. It’s clear that Rutgers lacks enough talent to compete with the best of the Big Ten. However, it’s hard to fathom that this program can have significantly less talent than the former worst power five team of the past decade, a good MAC team that lost to Army by four touchdowns, and formerly the worst team in the Big Ten in recent years. No, a major issue with this program is it’s lack of unity and passion, at least from what it looks like on the field on Saturdays.
The head coach of any good team is a unifier. Any great leader connects with his people in a way that gets the best out of them in order to make them successful. That’s the great differentiator for a group or team that overachieves despite lacking natural talent. Motivation and fostering a strong belief in one another is a powerful coaching tool.
After seeing this team bottom out with a 1-5 start to the season and putting up just a mild fight against its opponent on Saturday in Illinois, it’s clear this team isn’t an inspired one. I’m sorry, but a team having a true sense of pride produces better results than playing one good quarter in what was a three game sweep at the hands of Buffalo, Indiana and Illinois. This team has mostly 3-star recruits on the roster and while that’s not close to matching the best teams in the Big Ten, this is not a movie quality underdog outfit.
I understand 16 scholarship players are missing from the two-deep. I also know some of those players are off the team for getting arrested for credit card fraud in varying degrees. They are all players that Ash himself brought into the program. If he inherited them from Flood, I still wouldn’t like hearing it multiple times, but I’d understand his frustration. However, Ash brought them to Rutgers. I know it’s impossible to keep all 100+ players out of trouble all of the time, but this incident has had more of a negative effect on this season than originally feared. The missing depth on defense, particularly with the injuries that have occurred, has been a real killer.
Even so, something more is missing with this team. The defense still fields the majority of starters from last season when it was a competent unit. Whatever the reasons are, as it’s rarely one thing with a team in turmoil, there seems to be a lack of belief in something.
I think an example of the issues with the Ash Era can be summed up to a partial degree with the call he made late in the fourth quarter to kick a field goal down 17 points on the Illinois 3 yard line. Ash cut off reporter Keith Sargeant when he asked about the decision in the postgame press conference:
Yes, I’m the one who got blown up by Ash after this question ... pic.twitter.com/E4f2goFKP5— Keith Sargeant (@KSargeantNJ) October 6, 2018
Ash is obviously correct in saying you need three scores no matter what, so you take the points in that situation to give your team a chance to convert an onside kick. However, the reality was Rutgers was down 31-14 with just over 5 minutes to play. They hadn’t scored more than 17 points in a game since the season opener against Texas State. At that point, isn’t the idea of going down swinging the type of call that might resonate more so with the players, for an offense that desperately needed a spark? Doesn’t the motto of Jersey Strong apply here? Sometimes you have to put percentages aside and go for it in an effort to build confidence and belief you can beat the odds. After a failed attempt to recover the onside kick, the defense folded for good by allowing a 41 yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage.
The head coach has to motivate and inspire his players, otherwise the team is less likely to make up for any shortcomings talent wise. Rutgers has been through a lot of adversity this season, but that hasn’t galvanized the team to fight through it. Instead they’ve gotten embarrassed multiple times this season. As Pink Floyd sings, “United we stand, divided we fall.” The team doesn’t have a winning mentality and that can’t just be blamed on youth and inexperience. It’s depressing to watch.
There isn’t a lot of hope remaining for Rutgers football, both for the rest of this season and for the immediate future of the program. With the buyout figure for Chris Ash being almost 10 million dollars, the odds are he will return as head coach in 2019, even if this team finishes 1-11, which feels inevitable at this point. Rutgers fans can dream otherwise. Perhaps some of the top boosters rally together for change or a first time, big pocketed donor shows up out of nowhere. Bith scenarios seem highly unlikely.
The other dream scenario is that the Big Ten gets so sick of Rutgers dragging down the reputation of the conference, they help the school financially so they can make a move after the season. With Rutgers set to gain a full share of the conference revenue split in 2021, perhaps the Big Ten would advance some of that money now to help pay for Ash’s buyout. Remember that Rutgers’ lack of success is a stain on commissioner Jim Delany’s legacy, one in which has been impactful overall in a positive way for the Big Ten during his tenure. Maybe hoping for a lifeboat from Delany is wishful thinking and fool’s good to even ponder it, but there aren’t a lot of things to hope for around Rutgers football these days.
What is realistic is the fact that this program has fallen to a lower point than anyone feared it ever would. This team has some promising younger players, but it doesn’t seem there are enough of them. Overall, the production on the field has taken a major step back from last season. Chris Ash is to blame for it and the bottom line is his culture hasn’t produced close to a winner or a team that fans have any hope in. The latter point is actually more disturbing for longtime Rutgers supporters.
The blackout loss to Illinois served as a funeral of sorts. It’s likely it was more so in regard for this season versus the Ash Era overall, which will likely extend past this miserable third campaign under his direction. Either way, hope is in short supply. Whether you’ve been a Rutgers fan for decades or just a few years, it’s time to accept the fact this program is in a dark place right now and it may take a very long time to repair.