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Rutgers Athletics Year In Review: The Good, The Bad, & Reasons For Long Term Optimism

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On the field results continue to lag behind academic performance

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Minnesota vs Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the 2017-2018 school year is complete, it’s time to take a look at how the Rutgers athletics department performed, both on and off the field. There is a gap between the two once again this year. While the entire athletic department continues to perform well in the classroom, results on the field remain well behind their Big Ten peers. However, I believe there are tangible reasons as to why and that there are signs better days for the athletic department as a whole are ahead.

Let’s start with the positives produced by the student-athletes. Eight different programs achieved APR recognition, which signifies an overall academic team score in the top 10 percent in its respective sport. The APR evaluates a team’s academic success each semester by tracking the academic progress of each student on scholarship. The APR includes stats for eligibility, retention and graduation that represents a true measure of each team’s academic performance. The APR multiyear rates just released were based on scores from the 2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic years.

The eight programs that achieved APR recognition were baseball, gymnastics, tennis, volleyball, men’s cross country, women’s cross country, women’s golf and women’s lacrosse. Having eight programs achieve this mark tied the all-time Rutgers record from last year and was third best in the Big Ten conference this year. That’s a significant accomplishment.

The average multiyear APR rate for Rutgers athletic programs improved to 991, which was eight points above the NCAA average score of 983. Seven different programs earned perfect scores over multiple years. In addition, four other programs set individual records, including men’s golf, men’s lacrosse, wrestling, and swimming & diving. Overall, twenty one programs posted scores equal or well above the national average in their individual sport. Every athletic program scored significantly better than the 930 benchmark required by the NCAA. Again, excellent overall academic results.

Individually, 39 student-athletes are enrolled in the Honors College or the general honors program at Rutgers. Last year, 72 student-athletes within 20 athletic programs at Rutgers were recognized by the Big Ten with the Distinguished Scholar Award. Student-athletes qualify by maintaining a minimum grade-point average of 3.7 or higher during the previous academic year.

From the Rutgers press release:

“I continue to be amazed by the young men and women who represent Rutgers University and our athletic department with such grace, class and dedication,” said Director of Athletics Pat Hobbs. “For the second-straight year, we have a school record eight programs receive public recognition from the NCAA and we are incredibly proud of the that accomplishment. Thank you to our student-athletes, coaches and staff for their relentless pursuit of excellence both in and out of competition.”

The bottom line is student-athletes at Rutgers are performing at a commendable level overall and that is something to be proud of.

On the field, Rutgers athletics as a whole has a long way to go. In the latest 2017-2018 Learfield Director’s Cup Standings, which ranks Division I athletic departments and their on-field success in a current academic school year, Rutgers is 93rd in the country and dead last in the Big Ten. They are 38 spots away from the second worst Big Ten school, which is Maryland. The only two programs from power five conferences ranked worse than Rutgers is Texas Tech (101st) and Boston College (118th). NJ Advance Media’s Keith Sargeant recently looked at every Rutgers athletic program’s four year record since joining the Big Ten and it’s not easy on the eyes. You can click on the link in the tweet below to see the results for yourself.

The bottom line is a four year overall win percentage of .422 and a Big Ten win percentage of .260 for all Rutgers sports is terrible. The past two years were worse than the first two and hopefully the old adage, “things will get worse before they get better” will ring true one day soon. NJ Advance Media’s Steve Politi wrote the below column about how far behind Rutgers is on the field in Big Ten play and he isn’t wrong, regardless of how you feel about him.

While the disparity in revenue share that Rutgers receives currently as a Big Ten member versus the rest of the conference is significantly less, Sargeant points out that the athletic department budget was over 90 million for the past year. That’s nothing to sneeze at. He used the examples of Purdue having a lesser budget but experienced far more success on the field, as did Maryland.

The biggest factor for poor results on the field the past four years is one the current administration is desperately trying to escape from...the past. It should not be surprising in the slightest that years of neglect and a lack of investment into most of the athletic programs at Rutgers by previous administrations has led to the current state of futility we’ve witnessed on the field. While a focus on football ultimately landed Rutgers in the Big Ten, the current performance of the department as a whole proves how woefully underprepared it was in order to actually compete at this level. Don’t get me wrong, Rutgers is probably the biggest winner in the conference realignment madness that’s taken place over the past decade. However, it might take another decade until the majority of the athletic programs actually compete for a spot in the top half of the Big Ten, let alone conference championships. That’s the brutal truth, in my opinion.

The good news is that things are certainly moving in the right direction from a big picture perspective. Athletic Director Pat Hobbs has aligned the department and strengthened its resources in ways we have never seen previously at Rutgers. Facilities have been or are being vastly improved already in his two and a half years on the banks. Fundraising does still have a long way to go in order to compete with other Big Ten schools, which is a major key to future success. However, Hobbs set forth a lofty 100 million dollar goal with the RFund’s Big Ten Build campaign and the current total is just over 92 million, something many critics never thought would happen.

Hobbs also is actually investing in Olympic programs, also known as non-revenue sports, in a way that at a minimum, hasn’t happened at Rutgers in a very long time. His hiring of new rowing and gymnastics coaches, as well as his current national search for a new softball coach, is proof he wants Rutgers to succeed in every sport and is backing it up with action. Justin Price showed immediate improvement in his first season leading the women’s crew program. New Gymnastics coach Umme Salim-Beasley has a lot of work to do, but has proven to be a legitimate program builder with her success at Temple. Hobbs beefing up the baseball staff last summer, including adding highly respected pitching coach Phil Cundari from Seton Hall, was another sign as well.

While the long term success of football and men’s basketball is vital to the overall perception and viability of Rutgers athletics as a whole, the sooner that other programs can start improving, the better.

It seems clear that wrestling and women’s soccer are the healthiest programs at Rutgers right now.

Wrestling had it’s best ever finish at the NCAA Championships in March and Nick Suriano became the first national finalist in program history. We examined the future outlook for wrestling just the other day and spoiler alert, it looks bright with a strong 2019 recruiting class being built. The culture that head coach Scott Goodale has established is something all Rutgers programs should aim for.

Women’s soccer was the only Rutgers team to make the NCAA Tournament during the 2017-2018 school year and have now made it six years in a row and eight of the last ten. With Big Ten Freshman of the Year Amirah Ali set to lead a young and deep roster moving forward, women’s soccer seems poised to have continued success under the leadership of head coach Mike O’Neill.

Two programs that were pleasant surprises this past year were the field hockey team, as well as men’s track and field.

After a winless Big Ten campaign in 2015, Rutgers field hockey has shown solid growth the past two season’s under head coach Meredith Civico, who will enter her seventh season at the helm next year after back to back 9-9 campaigns. They achieved a national ranking multiple times last season and posted it’s best Big Ten record to date at 3-5 in a conference loaded with many of the nation’s best teams.

Men’s track and field sent ten athletes to the NCAA East Regional last weekend and five advanced to the NCAA Championships, which take place on June 6th-9th. With defending national champion Rudy Winkler opting to grad transfer to Rutgers this season, the program has a real shot for the national title in the Hammer Throw. With two freshman qualifying for the NCAA Championships in Taj Burgess (400m) and Boaz Madeus (400m hurdles), the program has young talent to build off of in the future.

Two higher profile programs that can really benefit Rutgers if they can show improvement next year is men’s soccer and women’s basketball.

Since men’s soccer suffered a second round defeat in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, the program has gone just 5-27-3 the past two seasons, including an awful 0-14-2 Big Ten record. While head coach Dan Donigan has done well recruiting local talent of late and also added UCLA transfer/US National U19 goalkeeper Kevin Silva, as well as St. John’s transfer Vincenzo Pugliese, he needs to show major improvement on the pitch in 2018. The men’s soccer program was the most successful Rutgers team at times in the 80’s and 90’s. If they could return to a top half Big Ten team and stabilize as an annual NCAA contender, it would be provide a positive boost for the athletic department overall.

While women’s basketball posted a much improved record of 20-12 last season, they finished the year losing 10 of its last 14 games and just missed making the NCAA Tournament. Turning down an NIT bid after initially accepting it, received a mixed reception at best and deservedly so. Hall of Fame head coach C. Vivian Stringer has taken the program to the NCAA Tournament just once in the past six seasons, after making it fourteen of the previous fifteen years. After experiencing staff turnover in recent years, having multiple transfer players come and go year over year and failing to meet expectations last season with one of the best players in program history in Tyler Scaife leading the roster, next season is crucial for women’s basketball avoid a step back. Stringer welcomes McDonald’s All-American Zippy Broughton and hopefully with All-Big Ten forward Stasha Carey returning, this program can at a minimum challenge again for an NCAA berth and another 20 win season. It will take some work for this program to once again become the jewel of women’s sports at Rutgers.

It’s no secret I believe Chris Ash and Steve Pikiell have the two highest profile programs at Rutgers headed in the right direction. Their preparation, organization, and grind it out mentalities have stood out during the tenure of both coaches, as well as their ability to tell terrible dad jokes.

Ash continues to adapt in his role and made several solid hires this offseason to upgrade his coaching staff. While making a bowl in year three could be difficult, the schedule is somewhat favorable with Kansas essentially replacing Washington on the non-conference schedule. Regardless, there is no question Ash has improved the program in his two plus years on the job. While the long term outlook for the program under Ash is still too early to know, there is more talent and a strong culture in place to give hope that football will continue to improve under his direction.

Pikiell continues to win over the fan base and recruits with his genuine caring and appreciative nature, as well as his emphasis on building a strong culture above all else. While next season’s roster is young and inexperienced, it’s also the most exciting in Pikiell’s tenure so far. After landing his top target in the 2019 class in point guard Paul Mulcahy, his vision for success becomes more clear by the day. The way his teams play defense and rebound will always keep Rutgers competitive against more talented teams, but hopefully the talent gap will be closed more so each season moving forward.

At the end of the day, the best programs at Rutgers simply need to do better by winning more often. That’s the quickest way to a path towards earning respect in the Big Ten. No Rutgers program has won a Big Ten title in four years. That’s a black eye that will remain until women’s soccer, wrestling, men’s lacrosse, who had three All-Americans but missed the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season, or another Rutgers team can finally break through. Football and both men’s and women’s basketball need to continue to be more successful and competitive year over year. Their success will help change the perception of Rutgers athletics as a whole. The Olympic sports that have had little success in the past four years need to start moving in the right direction.

Rutgers still has a long hill to climb on the field, but the current state of the athletic department is as healthy as its been in some time. Hobbs and Sarah Baumgartner are providing able leadership, new facilities are being constructed, and success in the classroom is consistent within all of the sports programs within the department. Rutgers is investing in quality coaches across multiple sports and even a new Chief Medical Officer as part of the new RJWBarnabas partnership, which could really benefit the athletic department over time. Whether Rutgers as a whole can ultimately recruit more talent to its programs remains to be seen. The next and ultimately, the biggest factor in judging Rutgers athletics over time, is how these teams perform on the field next season and beyond. The build continues....