I first met Steve Politi, during the throes of the Fred Hill era, at a bookstore in Montclair. He and I were there supporting a crime writer you should check out. (Ahem, you should also check out my books too.)
As one of those Rutgers fans who loves Steve’s writing, I had to approach him and introduce myself. We started small talk, and I got up the nerve to utter the following words:
“I’m a Rutgers basketball fan.”
Steve’s head snapped up from browsing the copies of the book and looked at me. I could tell he was waiting for the other shoe to drop and for me to ask why he hated Rutgers. I didn’t though—I was a fan of his writing. We chatted about how he thought Hill wasn’t going to succeed while I was adamant he would.
Uh, Steve was right, and I helped him talk about Hill a few months later. This all happened before I wrote for this site.
Anyway, Steve is one of those guys who’s been around a while and has covered Rutgers as much as nearly anyone else. He has a unique take and I thought it would be fun to ask him about all things Rutgers. Kind of like our very own #AskPoliti.
OTB: You’ve been around Rutgers for some time now. Last time, Sarge told the Terry Shea’s dog story. What’s your favorite Rutgers story you’ve experienced over the years?
Steve Politi: I don’t have anything remotely as interesting as the dog poop story. Not even close. That dog should be inducted in the Rutgers Hall of Fame. It’ll probably beat Carli Lloyd there. (Hey-oh! And we’re off!)
Anyway, let me go with a long answer to this one. I moved back to The Star-Ledger in 1998 as a sports enterprise reporter. Rutgers wasn’t in our top 10 priorities back then. No exaggeration. We covered the Knicks more closely than Rutgers, something I always try to tell people who complain about our coverage now. So I didn’t see much of the Terry Shea Era, and even when Greg Schiano took over, the team was always overshadowed by the Yankees in October and the NFL after that. I became columnist in 2005, and it was only in 2006 that the Scarlet Knights became a big deal for us.
So I really covered the winning before the losing. Nothing compares to that Louisville game, which still is one of the four or five best things I’ve covered in my career. I’ll never forget that night: We were under incredible deadline pressure and my column was running on the front page, so I was rushing from the press box to the field to get to the locker room – and I couldn’t get through. Too many people. Too much craziness. Ultimately, that scene became my column that night. I hope I’ll cover something as cool from the Scarlet Knights before I croak.
OTB: Pat Hobbs is coming up on 2 and half years as AD here on the banks. How do you rate his job so far? What’s his biggest accomplishment?
SP: Are we judging him on a curve based on the previous administration? If so, it’s like that daydream sequence in Christmas Story where the teacher just adding plusses at the end of his A – Google it, kids! – but if not, I’d go with a solid B-plus. His biggest accomplishment is getting steel in the ground outside the RAC. No more feasibility studies, no more feet dragging, Hobbs went after big goals at a place that had settled for less for too long. He can’t get an A until his two big hires prove they can build winning programs.
OTB: Rutgers has had ADs who look like they’re on the right track before in Bob Mulcahy and Tim Pernetti--those ended in weird fashion... is it different this time? Why so... or why not?
SP: Well, it’s hard to predict that. I would never have imagined how things ended for Pernetti. Who could? He was the guy who got Rutgers into the Big Ten. I thought he’d be on a lifelong victory tour, but then Mike Rice happened. Mulcahy was a bit different. He moved Rutgers into the 20th Century – not a typo – when it came to athletics and hired Schiano, but I think Rutgers was ready for a leadership change at the end. Hobbs has done plenty in a short time, but ultimately, he will succeed if Ash and Pikiell succeed.
OTB: You attended 3 Rutgers basketball games this year. Rutgers went 3-0 in those games. Steve Pikiell has been here for 2 years. Is he the right guy for this program? What will it take for him to get over the hump when other coaches haven’t? And when?
SP: I like Pikiell. I think he’s building a culture at Rutgers. I like his work ethic, I like his staff, I like his attitude, and I think he can really coach, too. But can he recruit at a Big Ten level at Rutgers? I don’t think we have the answer to that one yet. Much of what he accomplished last season was the direct result of players that Eddie Jordan – much maligned, and rightly so – had brought to Piscataway.
FWIW, I hated the level of celebration surrounding Rutgers’ performance in the Big Ten Tournament. This team beat an awful Minnesota team, a mediocre Indiana team and played well against a very good Purdue team. It was good to finish the season on a high note, but it didn’t erase the fact that, by and large, this program didn’t take much of a step forward in year two and might have to take a step back in year three.
OTB: You’ve also covered Seton Hall and Kevin Willard--who’s made 3 NCAA tournaments in a row. Pat hobbs hired both Pikiell and Willard. Compare the two coaches.
SP: Eh, I understand the instinct to make these comparisons, but I’m not sure there’s a good one here. It was easier when the coaches always seemed to be hired at the same time – Bannon/Amaker, Waters/Orr, Hill/Gonzo. Willard has built Seton Hall into a reliable tournament presence, although there are questions about how that happened (hello FBI!). Pikiell is years behind him in the process.
OTB: What would do more for Rutgers profile? Finishing 9-3 and going to a bowl or being knocked out on a Friday in the first round of the NCAAs?
SP: Great question. Certainly, ending the NCAA Tournament drought would bring a lot of attention – not quite the level that Northwestern received a couple years ago, but it would be a national story. But, alas, 68 teams make the field and the first game flameout would end the buzz in a hurry. I think 9-3 and the bowl would be a far bigger story, though. That record means that the Scarlet Knights would have pulled an upset against somebody, be it Penn State or Michigan or Michigan State or – gasp – Ohio State. They would go to a very good bowl, the fan base would be out of its mind, and the whole “sleeping giant” narrative would be in full force.
OTB: Chris Ash took over a job in arguably the toughest division in college football. How do you rate his progress? Will they be bowl bound soon? What does Ash need to do to get over the top?
SP: You only need to read the off-the-field news to understand where Ash has made the most progress. The leftover ugliness from the Kyle Flood Era continues to haunt this program with every headline about a former player like Nadir Barnwell getting in trouble with the law. Rutgers fans should not discount the importance of clearing up the culture around this program. I give Ash a ton of credit for that.
I also think the team took a nice step forward from Year 1 to Year 2. This team has a hot mess in 2016. To beat three Big Ten teams a year later was significant. I think the players bought in completely to what Ash is doing. So where is he lacking? I’m disappointed that this program still doesn’t have anything close to an offensive identity, and I’m not convinced that he’s done enough as a recruiter to truly elevate this team. Next year will be telling. Is this team better on offense? Will it close the gap against the “power” teams? Will Rutgers start winning some of these recruiting battles against programs like Nebraska and others? We shall see.
OTB: What’s your favorite thing about covering a Rutgers football game?
SP: Sitting next to Sarge. He completes me.
OTB: You’ve always had back and forth with Rutgers fans on Twitter. How do RU fans compare to other fans of the pro teams you cover?
SP: I enjoy engaging with Rutgers fans and, at this point, consider several of them – HI DAVE! – to be friends. What bugs me are the Rutgers fans on Twitter who wait for the random snarky comment to pounce and scream bloody murder. Don’t take everything so damn seriously, folks! I do like the fact that the interaction with Rutgers fans feels much more real, so to speak. Write a negative Giants column, and there will be a ton of trolls who I’ve never encountered in my life. Rutgers fans, at this point, have at least already found me – love me or hate me! Ha ha ha you love me.
OTB: You’ve been a vocal critic of Carli Lloyd’s attitude toward Rutgers. In your opinion, what is the biggest hurdle for Rutgers and Lloyd to clear in order to have her be a friend of the school again?
SP: Was I really a “vocal critic?” I think it’s amazing that she hasn’t been officially inducted into the Hall of Fame – she is, without question, one of the five greatest athletes in school history. I asked her about it in 2016, and she said he relationship with the school was “not really existent.” That’s a newsworthy quote. I do think the previous leadership cough cough Julie Herman cough cough helped poison that relationship. I think Hobbs has largely smoothed that over and, now that Carli’s career is winding down, she’ll be happily inducted into the hall of fame and everything will be hunky-dory. Maybe she’ll even unblock me on Twitter!
OTB: Give us a great New Jersey restaurant recommendation. And then best restaurant in the Big Ten travelogue?
SP: I could eat three meals a day at Raymond’s in downtown Montclair, but for breakfast, that’s my go-to spot – get the French Toast and the huevos rancheros. I haven’t been through the Big Ten enough to have a go-to “road meal,” but you really can’t go wrong in Ann Arbor. I’ve eaten at Zingerman’s a couple of times and now order their bacon online for the holidays. Hey, there’s a good tip: Give people good bacon for Christmas. They get enough useless crap. Make that your headline, Dave. “Politi: Give the gift of bacon.”
So, there you have it. The world of Rutgers according to Steve Politi. Check in in the comments with your thoughts. Thanks for stopping by, Steve!