As Rutgers football prepares to take on Michigan this weekend, the differences between the two programs on the field are painfully obvious. The Wolverines have a legitimate shot at making the college football playoff and thus, a chance to win the national championship. After losing by a combined 91 points to Kansas, Buffalo and Illinois this season, Rutgers is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, now thought of as the worst power five team in college football. However, the differences between the two programs run deeper than wins and losses.
Michigan will bring to Piscataway its iconic helmet and famous fight song, not to mention the most wins in college football history. Obviously winning helps enrich tradition, but Rutgers has plenty of it’s own as well. We were reminded this week that Rutgers took part in the first college football game versus Princeton 149 years ago on November 6th, as the program launched its campaign for the 150 anniversary being celebrated next year. Keith Sargeant of NJ Advance Media asked Rutgers head coach Chris Ash about the significance of the school’s role in this historic event and how it resonates with recruits and current players. Ash responded:
Honestly, no,’’ Ash said. “In this day and age, I don’t know that the high school student athlete really understands the significance of that to be honest with you.’’
What about players on the team?
”You know, kind of the same thing,’’ he said. “We’ll mention it to them. It’s kind of cool that we’re here. But our focus is on trying to play Michigan right now.’’
Of course, fans want Ash and the team focused on the task ahead, especially one as daunting as facing a Michigan team that has arguably the best defense in the country. However, Ash’s response flared up my annoyance with how he has approached history and tradition with Rutgers football since his arrival.
Just a few months on the job in 2016, Ash announced he was eliminating the annual spring awards given to players. We criticized Ash for it here and wondered whether it was a temporary thing or permanent? The awards honored Frank Burns, former quarterback and the most successful coach in Rutgers history, as well as Mark Mills and Douglas A. Smith, two former players that died from brain conditions. While all three awards began between 30 and 40 years ago, they became part of Rutgers tradition. Ash cited not wanting to give awards so early in his tenure, which made some sense. However, those former players memories attached to those awards haven’t been reassigned, as well as the awards themselves, have not returned two and a half years later.
One issue that has bothered me all season is the fact that Rutgers has only worn white helmets, choosing not to wear the traditional red helmets. I’ve heard arguments that the players and recruits love the white helmets, so Rutgers wearing them makes sense. Let me be clear, it makes zero sense. The mascot for Rutgers is the SCARLET Knights for crying out loud. When is the last time that Rutgers football went an entire season, or even the majority of one, without wearing red helmets? I don’t know for sure, aside from times when the silver helmets were worn during the Flood era, which was also a mistake and we know how that era worked out. I’m confident in saying decades other than that period, perhaps back to the days that helmets were made out of leather.
James Kratch of NJ Advance Media asked Ash earlier this season about the change and he said this:
”I’m a traditionalist, I’m the one that wanted the red helmets for the past two years,” Ash said Thursday after practice. “We tried the white helmets against Michigan State at the end of 2017, and the players really liked it. They had asked if we could keep that look. That’s what they wanted, so I said sure.”
“We actually do have conversations each week about if this is a week to pull out a red helmet,” Ash said. “I’m not sure a red helmet is going to help us on Saturday versus a white helmet, but I get it. It’s kind of a traditional look, and I absolutely, 100 percent respect that. But I also respect the players’ desires a little bit, too. They asked to stay in the white helmets, so that’s what we’ve done. That doesn’t mean the red helmets will never come back.”
Appeasing the players on certain things makes sense. Letting their affinity for a different color helmet change tradition does not. This is why there are alternative uniforms. I love the blackout uniforms and concept, and I’m not against wearing the white helmets at times. Thankfully, the team wore the red helmets against Northwestern, but it should be that way most of the time moving forward. However, based on the elimination of the spring awards that seem unlikely to return to the program in the Ash era, it’s fair to wonder when will Ash bring the scarlet helmets back full-time? Similar to how Ash has to check with his offensive staff on personnel decisions, which is how he has answered in press conferences, I guess he has to check with his players to answer that question as well.
Rutgers doesn’t have a winning history the likes of college football blue blood Michigan, but there is plenty of history that the school, its fans and alumni are, and should be, proud of. Whether it’s the college you went to, a company you worked for, or organization you are a part of, it’s the connections you develop that generate a love and admiration that keep you tied to it, whether you are actively present anymore or not. History and people are what establishes those connections.
Rutgers football won the first ever college football game and with the 150th anniversary next season, they scheduled a bye. It’s fair to be puzzled by that decision. Hopefully, AD Pat Hobbs is able to come up with ways to rightfully celebrate this occasion. A failure to properly celebrate Rutgers history such as that event, despite the struggles of today, would be an inexcusable mistake.
The program is having its worst season in years and there are many football related reasons for it. The offense has been woefully inefficient yet again and the defense has trouble, well, defending. Sure the results have been better the past two games, but Rutgers is 1-8 overall with three Big Ten powers remaining on the schedule.
Rutgers fans have suffered plenty over the years and this season is right near the top of the worst ever. I’ve said before, despite it all, this is a proud fan base. Traditions and history matter, whether young kids nowadays appreciate it or not. But actually, hasn’t that excuse been made for generations? It’s up to the elders to remind them of its importance.
Here is an idea, it falls on the teachers, in this case the leader of the program, to impart the importance of that history and tradition of Rutgers to the players. When you come to Rutgers, it’s not just about a chance to represent your state and play in the Big Ten. It’s about representing the 8th oldest institution in America and the longest running program in college football. Something like not wearing the traditional red helmets this season might not seem like a big deal to some, but I think it speaks to a larger problem.
The air has been let out of this program by embarrassing losses this season and now it’s losing its historical identity too. It doesn’t matter that Chris Ash had no connection to Rutgers or New Jersey prior to his arrival. It does matter though, that during his tenure, it seems like he hasn’t established any connection to the program’s past history, nor has he appeared to have embraced it. If Ash has publicly stated his love for Rutgers, I haven’t heard it. Certainly he doesn’t speak about Rutgers the way another third year head coach does, which has endeared him with fans, despite back to back losing seasons.
Ash has emphasized building a new culture and incorporated ideas he has been apart of from other programs, most notably Ohio State. As longtime fans yearn for better days on the field, they also care that history and tradition are made a priority as well. The college football hall of fame, for one, has done so with Rutgers, which we highlighted in a recent visit here. As the 150th anniversary is now less than a year away and a historic team visits the birthplace of college football this weekend, here is to hoping Ash reevaluates his approach towards the history and tradition of his own program.