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It’s Not Easy Being a Rutgers Football Fan

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A loss like Saturday’s can shake your faith, but that’s part of the deal.

Rutgers v Minnesota Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman...yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. - Thomas Paine, The Crisis

I am a fan of Rutgers football. I have been for a long time, though not as long as others. I will say that I became a real fan before the current crop of students at Rutgers University were “a gleam in their father’s eye” as my own Dad used to say. As a result, I have followed the travails of Rutgers as the school continued to move toward playing in the upper echelon of college football. It hasn’t been an easy and smooth road.

When I first began following the school, it was an “independent,” which meant it had no league affiliation. At that time, there were several big schools in the Eastern US that were in that situation, including Penn State, Syracuse, Boston College, Pitt, and others. When the Big East, a strictly basketball conference, decided to expand into football as well, Rutgers joined and made a commitment to play “bigger time” football.

RAY LUCAS RUTGERS
Ray Lucas as the Rutgers quarterback in the early years of the Big East.

And so, in those years, Rutgers was regularly hammered by the schools listed above who accompanied their move to the Big East. I was a season ticket holder by that time, and would watch the weekly seeming futility of the teams. My young daughters would come with me in those years. The older of the two was so used to Rutgers losing games, she thought it was normal to cheer loudly when the team gained a first down on a possession. (I’m not kidding, either. Years later, as a freshman student at Boston College, her friends were amazed when she cheered loudly over a BC first down, to which she replied, “Well, at Rutgers we used to cheer that because that’s all we had to cheer!”)

Throughout those years, funding commitments were made, and usually not followed through fully. I remember the season playing at Giants Stadium as the new stadium was built over the footprint of the old one. It was amazing to see, and the cost was enormous, even in today’s dollars. Even at the time, the New York Times had an article entitled, “Penn State to Test How Far Rutgers is From Big Time” about the 1993 edition of the Scarlet Knights. The final score 31-7, was also described by the Times in the subsequent article, “For Penn State 4-0; For Rutgers, Déjà Vu.

Why am I restating these old stories? To demonstrate that these problems are not new. In that time, we made a big step up, and were challenged, The move to the Big East happened in 1991, and Rutgers “breakthrough year” was 15 years later, in 2006. By 2006, however, three of the heavyweights had left the Big East (Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech) and so the wins that year seemed somewhat lessened, even though even in 2006, Rutgers didn’t win the conference (that did not occur until the last year of the Big East’s existence as a football conference, 2012).

When Rutgers was invited to join the Big Ten, it was hailed and assailed, all at the same time. Rutgers wasn’t big enough, strong enough to compete in the Big Ten, which most people readily admitted, and said it would take time to take yet another “step up” against the top competition in the country.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Rutgers Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Also, at the time, there was a financial consideration. Rutgers spent (and still spends) less than most of the programs in the Big Ten, and will for the next few years to come, until after Rutgers begins to receive a full share of Big Ten money in 2021. It was understood that until then, Rutgers would have to try to “keep up,” as it were, with fewer resources.

Now we are in the fifth year of that seven year stretch, and as expected, it really isn’t easy. Though the spending has increased, it still isn’t at as high a level as most of their new peers. To help, donors have stepped up to help, more than they ever have before (though again, not nearly as high a level as donors in the other Big Ten schools). Facilities are coming into place, and things are starting to look more like “Big Time.” But the football program still struggles.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Ohio State Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Growth isn’t a steady progression. It comes in pieces, and often has steps backward as you move forward. After reflecting on it, Saturday was one of those steps backward, and perhaps we will find out that 2018 was a step backward. Does that mean there will never be another step forward? Of course not. But when these steps backward happen, they shake the faith of fans.

If you follow fans online, they can be brutal. If you listen to them, the moment things get bad (and they are bad now, no kidding) suggestions include firing coaches, quit the Big Ten, go back to playing Lehigh and Colgate, drop football completely, and ‘I’m done.’ These are the common themes. None of them are viable, let’s look quickly at it.

Fire Everyone

Firing coaches will cost millions, a dumb way to throw away about $10-12M. Keep a coach that a month ago was fine for almost everyone, and see where it goes. If it doesn’t change after Chris Ash had a full chance, OK. But anyone who knows college football knows it takes a minimum of 3-4 years to put your imprint on a program, so let it ride for now, and see what Mr. Ash and Company can accomplish.

Quit the Big Ten

Doing that will cut off millions annually in funding, and Rutgers will immediately become not only an independent, but a pariah. What conference would take a school that would walk away from one of the biggest and best conferences in the country? UMass walked away from the Mid America Conference because they didn’t want to compete in all sports there, and everyone has turned up their nose when they have approached other conferences. As opposed to the years when Rutgers was an independent, there are only SIX independents left in FBS football. UMass’ 2018 schedule is exactly what Rutgers schedule would resemble.

Go Back to Playing Lehigh and Colgate/Drop Football

It’s a ridiculous concept based upon the type and size of the schools. Lehigh and Colgate have student populations of 5,000 and 2,800, respectively. Rutgers in 2018 has over 50,000 students at the three campuses. Do you see a little difference? No other school of Rutgers’ size plays anything other than FBS football. Also, no other state university near it’s size does not have a team. As for the cost, the most recent information I could find was this. I know there is a report stating that football lost money in 2016. That occurred because NO Big Ten revenue was included in the football budget that year. It was a result of an accounting change, not because of a huge change in revenue. Read the NJ.com article here. Another major reason was the cost of the firing of previous coaches. See above for that one, OK?

Quit Being a Fan/It Costs Too Much

That is something you can do. If you’re a fan, you always have that right. But if you are really a fan of a team, you don’t become a fan because they’re winning or losing. They are your team, and you support them no matter what. You may grouse and complain, but you stick with them. That’s when you really see who are fans, and who are just looking to see wins. Anyone in the Philadelphia and New York area knows all about that. Ask the fans of the Mets, Jets, Phillies, Eagles and Giants if they know about teams losing. Do they quit because they have bad stretches? Some do, but what are known as “die-hard” fans (called that for a reason) don’t leave because the team is losing. Paul Carty, one of those die-hard fans said online, “I wouldn’t want to get in a foxhole with most RU fans. When the going gets tough, they abandon you.” I don’t think that’s true of most fans, but it gives you a picture of how strongly people feel about it.

Cost? I can’t argue that, except to say that the cost hasn’t risen tremendously for season tickets since I first began attending. I got season tickets at a discount since I had just graduated, and even with the discount (good for my first five years after graduating) it was $100 a ticket back in 1994. The regular cost of those season tickets were about $250. Fast forward 25 years, and those same seats cost $400 a season. That is a little less than the $422 my $250 seats would cost adjusted for inflation over the period 1994-2018. Check it out here.

Nebraska v Rutgers Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Conclusion

If you’re still reading this, you’re probably a true fan. You are also probably looking at how much it costs to be a fan that goes to games, possibly tailgates, and buys gear, and says “Is this worth it?” Well, if you’re doing it to see wins, this year is probably not. If you’re going because you support Rutgers football, enjoy watching the games, and still are enthralled by the traditions I have spoken about here before, then it is still worth it. Remember, anything worth accomplishing doesn’t happen easily, and this won’t either.

Poll

How do you feel about Rutgers football?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    I don’t care, I’m a fan no matter what
    (45 votes)
  • 73%
    I’m frustrated, but I’m still a fan no matter what
    (524 votes)
  • 6%
    I’m frustrated, and want to leave the Big Ten
    (48 votes)
  • 6%
    I’m going to have to think about whether I stay as a fan
    (44 votes)
  • 7%
    I’m done with Rutgers football
    (50 votes)
711 votes total Vote Now