If you have followed Rutgers sports for decades like I have, and there are many alumni and fans who have done so for much longer than I, you know the answer to which athletics program was the most successful of any from the late eighties to the mid-nineties. It wasn’t football, who had wins over Penn State and Michigan State during this time period and won the first Big East game ever played. It wasn’t men’s basketball, which made the NCAA Tournament twice and were both Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament champions once. Women’s basketball made the NCAA Tournament every single season during this time period, including a Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight appearance, but was only the second most successful program on the banks at this time. The top program during this period was without a doubt, the men’s soccer program. For those like me that love the beautiful game, it was a special time to be a Rutgers fan.
Former head coach Bob Reasso came to Rutgers in 1981 and turned the program into the most consistent winner there was on the Banks for a better part of two decades. He produced winning seasons in his first 21 years on the job and didn’t have a losing campaign until 2004, his 24th season. However, it was a run beginning in 1989 that elevated Rutgers men’s soccer into national prominence and established the program as a legitimate powerhouse of the sport for several years.
The Scarlet Knights went to three Final Fours in six years (1989, 1990, 1994) and Reasso was named national coach of the year in 1990 after RU upset the undefeated and top team in the country, Evansville, in the national semifinals. Rutgers ended up losing the national championship game in heartbreaking fashion, falling to UCLA in a shootout 4-3 after 150 minutes of play on the pitch.
I went to see Rutgers play often during those years growing up as a kid playing soccer and it was like watching rock stars in cleats back in those days. They drew large crowds and it led to Yurcak Field being built, which opened in 1994.
Reasso wasn’t able to lead the Scarlet Knights back to an elite level in the 2000’s, finishing his tenure with three consecutive losing seasons, with his best years that decade having been when they made it to the NCAA Third Round in 2001 and Second Round in 2003.
Dan Donigan was hired to replace Reasso in 2010 and while he led Rutgers to the 3rd Round of the NCAA Tournament in 2011, the Scarlet Knights only advanced to the NCAA’s one more time since. Donigan was fired in November after producing just a 55-96-16 record in nine seasons. The past three seasons Rutgers truly fell off a cliff, as Donigan’s teams combined for a miserable 9-40-4 record, including 2-20-2 in Big Ten play.
Finding the right coach to lead this program moving forward makes this a very important hire for athletic director Pat Hobbs. There are many different directions he could go with this search, as there are many qualified candidates with diverse backgrounds.
Hobbs could consider proven college head coaches and there are three locally that include Rutgers alum Dave Masur at St. John’s, Robert McCourt at Monmouth and Jim McElderry at Fordham. All have had success in the NCAA Tournament, but McElderry is the only one on a positive trajectory at the moment, having made the NCAA Quarterfinals in 2017 and having producing another winning campaign this past season.
A hot assistant linked to the job from day one has been UConn associate head coach Mike Miller, who is known as a ace recruiter after successful stints at Syracuse, Duke, and now the Huskies. He could take a chance on him to continue his success in his first opportunity as a head coach. Some school will eventually, whether its Rutgers or not.
Hobbs could also consider developmental coaches that are heavily linked to local soccer academies like Carlos Acquista, Tony Meola, Pedro Lopes (former RU star), and Richie Williams. Acquista is a hot name being mentioned due to his current work with the New York Red Bulls and previous head coaching experience at Adelphi.
Rutgers legend Alexi Lalas, who starred on the those great teams between 1989-1991, threw his two cents in about the search during a recent periscope chat, citing “Rutgers should be a successful program, should be a perennial power, given the talent that exists in your backyard”, while suggesting some of those developmental coaches with local ties makes sense to consider.
And no, just for the record, Lalas (TV analyst) and another former Rutgers great, Peter Vermes (MLS executive), are not candidates and are very successful in the soccer world in their own right.
Whoever does get the job will need to be able to make the most of the current roster for next season, which now is without last season’s Big Ten leading scorer, Jordan Hall, who recently transferred to UConn. Ironically, it was Mike Miller who was quoted in the UConn press release talking about what the addition of Hall means to that program. If he does become the next Rutgers head coach, he would have pilfered his best player away before taking the job.
How important Hobbs views connections to the garden state or even Rutgers remains to be seen, but I don’t think it should be a requirement at all. Either way, New Jersey is a hotbed for soccer between some very good high school programs, club soccer teams, and several soccer academies that have produced many top Division I players of late. Recruiting is so important and was a big reason former head coach Dan Donigan ultimately failed. Sounds like the same story with most sports for Rutgers, but it’s also true. Having the ability to capitalize in this area is certainly a major key to their future success.
The Rutgers soccer program achieved greatness over two decades ago and was one of the more successful teams within the athletic department for a very long time. Having followed this program for years, it’s been upsetting that they’ve been non-competitive for the past three seasons. While the new coach is already behind in recruiting the 2019 class, I think it’s a positive that Pat Hobbs is taking his time with the search process. There are a lot of intriguing candidates for this position and it’s crucial to the long term health of the program that he pick the right one.
While football is in a very dark place at the moment, and Hobbs deserves blame for that, the fall sports have two very big bright spots with women’s soccer and field hockey. They are both loaded with talent and coaches that bring stability and have established a winning culture. If Rutgers men’s soccer can find renewed success under its next coach, it will restore a once proud program to a level it should always be at and strengthen the fall sports portfolio overall.
Update: Rutgers and Hobbs announced Jim McElderry as the new head coach of Rutgers men’s soccer.