College Football media days snuck up on me last week when on the MARTA train in Atlanta. The normal late night working crowd was supplemented by a plethora of white-collar SEC (mostly Georgia and Auburn) faithful. Perhaps one day there will be women in their 50s debating tooth and nail with guys in their 20s on NJ Transit about who Rutgers’s third string running back should be, too.
Moving to the matter at hand, on Monday in Chicago coaches and players from all schools in the Big Ten have congregated for the Big Ten’s annual installment of media days. Monday featured press conferences from seven of the B1G head coaches, including Chris Ash. Aaron’s detailed preview here of the events and several storylines heading into the two-day symposium.
NOTE: Ash was scheduled to begin at 2:15 pm EDT and came to the podium slightly earlier than that, so you may have missed it.
Here’s my five biggest takeaways from listening to the press conference. Watch the full Chris Ash segment here.
- “John McNulty is a true quarterbacks coach.”
James Kratch asked generally about the new coaches and what impact they have had to lead off the Q & A for Coach Ash. Kratch specifically inquired about what John McNulty’s impact has been. Ash responded with a discussion of McNulty’s track record, ties to Rutgers successful past including relationships, and NFL experience. In a follow up question, no timetable on naming the starting quarterback was given, which should not be considered news.
Dave’s take: The way Ash answered this question was particularly interesting. Of course a coach has to say that they are excited about new members of their staff because if they don’t, the head man looks like an idiot for making the hire. The whole NFL tie in is nice, and it is definitely a good idea to have some members of a coaching staff that can be used to market that idea, but it was the line I put in bold that was the key.
Look, I like Jerry Kill, he’s a great motivator and understands how a football program should be run, but he is not a true quarterbacks coach like Ralph Friedgen was. With the game evolving, Chris Ash finally realized he needed a true quarterbacks coach to help elevate the level of play in the room. So this is not a knock on the previous eight coordinators in eight years, but it does seem that Rutgers is as successful as their quarterbacks are and in the seasons when a “quarterback specialist” let’s call it was running the offense, the Scarlet Knights at least have had a chance. John McNulty is quarterback focused and hopefully that has a trickle down effect.
2. “We came in with a three year plan.”
During his opening statement, Ash rehashed his three-year plan. First year was to implement, second to be more competitive, and third is to do what it takes to reach postseason play.
Dave’s take: This was music to my ears as a fan because Ash is being transparent with what the staff considers successful in each year of their rebuild. What peeved the fan base about Kyle Flood was that we never knew if the team was accomplishing their goals in his eyes because the goal was always to go 1-0, which they weren’t doing enough in 2015. So it will be interesting to see how the staff handles the program if they don’t go bowling in 2018 or conversely if they do then what’s the next realistic goal? I don’t think Chris Ash should be on the hot seat, but the first person to realistically think that will probably be Ash himself. That is exactly the type of leader that can get his organization to buy in and trust in something that is hard to see.
3. “It’s not only the players, it’s the coaches and support staff.”
A great question was directed at Ash about gambling, particularly how the Scarlet Knights are impacted being in New Jersey: how has Rutgers examined the new gambling situation and plans to educate players? Ash pivoted away from just “players” discussed communication on the issues that can come up, how to report them, and how to avoid them. Ash also brought up a good point about injuries, a topic P.J. Fleck gave his thoughts on the podium about right before Ash did.
Dave’s take: Upon the question initially, I was thinking players just as the media member asking the question did, but the impact to the program as a whole is really where this gets wild. Let’s take the Michigan matchup last year. Michigan squeaked by Indiana in overtime and was walloped by Penn State heading into their matchup with Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights on the other hand pummeled Illinois and then squeaked by Purdue, so they entered the contest with the Wolverines on a modest two-game win streak. Despite being tied in the standings at 2-2, Michigan was favored by 23.5 points.
With a spread this large it was definitely a situation where everyone and their mother-in-law would be asking about the status of Rutgers players. If Janarion Grant was to be ruled out against Michigan like he was in the Nebraska game (another example I could have cited here), the money on Michigan even at a spread of 23.5 would have skyrocketed. So you can expect a chain reaction of people casually asking those in the know at Rutgers, who subsequently ask even closer to the center of the circle. Wanting to know about injuries just to feel like the team will win or not is one thing, but when there is money on the line it could get even wilder. What about the Wake Forest situation last year? Are we more likely to see Tanya Harding type behavior? The implications spiral out of control quickly even when a blowout is expected. Remember the successful bettors are smart to bet when they think the odds will shift, so they can they bet the other direction and be guaranteed to not lose. Regardless of whether you agree with sports betting, this is another example where 18-22 year old men have to grow up in a hurry, hopefully aided by actions from a strong coaching staff when possible. This is going to be much tougher than anyone could have thought.
4. “Everything we do is compete.” “Our players have embraced it and players expect that.”
As a logical next step from Ash’s comments on his three year plan, a question came on what the staff has done to try and get the team to a bowl game. Ash gave a lot of usual coach speak about always getting better, removing the little things that cause you to lose games like penalties in crucial situations, and ensuring max effort.
Dave’s take: At first listen this was more blah blah blah. But the more I thought about it, this is exactly what we want to hear. Art Sitkowski even if he does have the lead in the quarterback race needs to prove it every single day. No one on this team is so good that his position should be guaranteed, there’s no Brian Leonard in this group. Hell, even Tom Brady battled for reps at Michigan! So to truly have competition, the best thing to do is input a little of it everywhere, not just on the field. In an era where participation trophies are a topic of intense scrutiny, gamification of seemingly everything is effective because human beings evolved as competitive creatures for their survival and crave challenges. This is not a silver bullet that no other program is loading into their guns also, but Rutgers more than anywhere else in the Big Ten should be able to use competition’s advantages to their own. It started with win the press conference, remember?
5. Ash was done with questions in less than 10 minutes.
Rutgers was picked to finish last, again. Perhaps buoyed by the fact that the question on many of the media’s minds is regarding the ongoing credit card investigation and its potential impact to the program in so many ways, Ash simply did not need to field many questions. This was reminiscent of 2017.
Dave’s take: Like Rodney Dangerfield, Rutgers gets almost “no respect.” Despite winning three Big Ten games a year ago, no sane person at this point in time could project Rutgers ahead of Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, or Penn State. So that means you are looking for reasons as to why the Scarlet Knights could reach 5th place in the Big Ten East this fall which is hindered by crossover matchups with Wisconsin and Northwestern, likely the two best the Big Ten West has to offer. As a result the only way to generate interest from those media members looking for content that will draw readers or viewers is to win. Win more, win big once in a while, win games people don’t expect regardless of the odds. At this point, that’s all there’s left to do. Hopefully the lack of respect can be used to motivate a team, ever see the ESPN documentary on the 1995 Northwestern Huskies?
Look for more coverage as there will be more time with the Rutgers players (Blessuan Austin, Tariq Cole, Deonte Roberts) and coaches this afternoon. Tuesday features the remaining seven coaches.
Let us know your thoughts on these takeaways or anything you think should have been in the top five.