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The potential Greg Schiano sequel hangs over Rutgers football coaching search

It’s been a fascinating couple of weeks and promises to get even more interesting in the coming days

Louisville Cardinals v Rutgers Scarlet Knights Photo by Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Rutgers athletic director Pat Hobbs dismissed head coach Chris Ash and offensive coordinator John McNulty two and half weeks ago. The 17 days that have passed since have been whirlwind of speculation, debate, and even anger among the Rutgers fan base surrounding the current state of the football program and the coaching search underway. The reality is the search is literally just beginning, as Rutgers announced a deal with search firm Ventura Partners just two days ago.

The one constant so far since Hobbs fired Ash has been the steady beat of the drum by a vocal portion of the fan base to hire back the best coach the program has had in modern times, Greg Schiano. Our own David Anderson wrote a comprehensive article reviewing the pros and cons of Schiano’s candidacy hours after the job was officially open. The potential for his return is firmly hanging over this entire search and Hobbs has entered a new phase of his tenure as athletic director.

As the days go by, patience is already dwindling among those fans who view Schiano as the only logical choice to be the next head coach of Rutgers football. On message boards and social media, anger is being directed at Hobbs in a way it hasn’t previously. There have even been a steady stream of calls for his firing. So much that one of the most respected and successful coaches at Rutgers, Scott Goodale, got into a back and forth on Twitter with a fan. He defended Hobbs and stated calling for his job was ridiculous. Keith Sargeant of NJ Advance Media detailed the entire incident and situation here.

Things are getting ugly and we likely have another six weeks, if not more, to go until this search is complete. I understand fans being upset about the state of this football program. I’m upset too. Hobbs is fully culpable with the fact that Rutgers football has become a national laughingstock and is clearly the worst power five program in the country. In fact, it would take a miracle for this team to not become the worst in Big Ten history from a statistical standpoint. The 1981 Northwestern team was outscored 425-75 en route to a 0-9 Big Ten record, which included four shutouts. Overall, they went 0-11 and were shutout five times. Rutgers has been outscored 165-7 in four Big Ten contests so far with five still to play. They’ve already been shutout three times. I can’t fathom the possibility they’ll even come close to matching Northwestern’s Big Ten all-time worst 75 points in league play. Rutgers has now lost 16 straight Big Ten games with no end reasonably in sight.

A major reason this is the reality we are in is because Hobbs hired Chris Ash. Hindsight is 20/20, as people forget that Ash was considered a top candidate one year removed from a national championship and anointed the next rising coordinator to become a successful head coach. He was fully endorsed to Rutgers by Barry Alvarez and Urban Meyer, two college football legends. That was enough for Greg Brown, the CEO of Motorola, Board of Governor’s member and chair of the athletic committee, who personally spoke with Alvarez about Ash. So he has blood on his hands too, despite his tremendous support of Rutgers athletics, most recently the $4 million donation to build the football program a new locker room.

Hobbs also was one week on the job when he hired Ash. It was a chaotic time at Rutgers with the many scandals and missteps of Julie Hermann and Kyle Flood. In retrospect, the rush to replace Flood so quickly was a mistake, but we don’t know if Hobbs had a mandate to do so or if that was his decision. We also don’t know what legitimate candidates would have been willing to take the job at Rutgers with NCAA sanctions looming.

Now I’ve never understood Hobbs’ assertion that Ash was the best interview he ever conducted in his career. Ash exhibited very little personality with the media and fans. His failure to connect with his players was a key reason for his demise at Rutgers. As I’ve written and said before, you can study all of the notes in the world, as Ash bragged about all of the folders of experience he gathered up until taking the Rutgers job that he said so well prepared him to be a head coach, but if you can’t inspire people and develop them with leadership skills, none of that matters.

The point is this: Hobbs inherited a mess with the football program and while some culture issues have improved because of him and Ash, on the field this team is far worse since Hobbs was hired. Despite all the good he has done, between the fundraising, direction of the entire athletic department, ability to connect with students, and what so far looks like a strong track record of hiring good coaches in sports other than football, he has essentially become boxed into a corner.

I don’t agree with those that think Hobbs should be fired now and selective memory is a convenient thing to push agendas. Hobbs has in many ways built the best resume of any modern athletic director Rutgers has ever had and it’s not really even close compared to Fred Gruninger, who is being inducted this weekend into the Rutgers hall of fame. I wrote about Gruninger’s complicated legacy and it ended in a similar situation that Hobbs now faces: the football program in shambles. Now Hobbs has a chance to fix it, but there is no easy answer as to how he can do that.

That leads us back to the Schiano dilemma. Those in favor of his return seem to think of Schiano as a savior type, remembering his great accomplishment and forgetting his failures. Those against his return are doing the complete opposite, harping on the negatives of his past tenure, but not taking into account the positives he would inject immediately upon his return. The biggest issue is whether Hobbs even wants Schiano at all. Steve Politi of NJ Advance Media wrote about the complexity of their potential partnership and why it’s important both sides come together for the greater good of Rutgers football.

The other thing in all of this is that not a lot of people have outwardly considered is whether Schiano even wants to come back to Rutgers. The pleas that demand to know why he hasn’t been hired yet place all the blame on Hobbs, but no one wonders aloud whether Schiano has any interest. They are also forgetting why Schiano is currently unemployed in the first place. After being hired as defensive coordinator of the New England Patriots earlier this year, he abruptly resigned in March and issued the following statement, which is from this article:

“I have informed Mr. Kraft and Coach Belichick that I am stepping down from my position at the Patriots,” the de facto defensive coordinator said in a statement released by the team. “This is not the result of any one event, but rather a realization that I need to spend more time on my faith and family. I don’t want to look back years from now and wish I had done things differently. Therefore, I am taking time away from the game to recalibrate my priorities.”

Now some have jumped on the idea that the sentiment in Schiano’s statement was simply a ruse to make himself available for when the Rutgers job opened. A media outlet even reported this to be true the day Ash was fired. I’ve been told by multiple people this notion is completely false. Sometimes conspiracy theories, which I admit I am a fan of, are just that. They can be theories that aren’t necessarily based in facts.

Here is a fact that would support Schiano’s statement. His twin sons are sophomores playing college football at Amherst. Isn’t it fair to assume after a 30+ year career that is highly demanding of his time, that perhaps Schiano really does want to spend more time with his family and wants to watch firsthand his sons play college football? I think it is.

Here is another possibility that Rutgers fans will have a hard time accepting, perhaps Schiano doesn’t want this job and is holding out for a different job. Some of the same people who claim Schiano is a slam dunk to be a success a second time at Rutgers also scoff that he won’t get a better opportunity anywhere else. Well, what if a certain power five job opens closer to his sons and Schiano won’t have to compete against his own legacy at the same school? While he wouldn’t have to completely start over at Rutgers like he did back in 2001, as facilities and support is far better today, it would still be a tough pill to swallow in some respects to rebuild something a second time.

The whole circle of events the past few weeks and the increasing loud push for Schiano’s return highlights how in our country we are obsessed with sequels and reboots. Look at all the remakes of popular movies and TV shows from the past today and it’s obvious. Original ideas are under attack. Nothing is off limits anymore and I for one refuse to embrace this phenomenon. The new Point Break movie is a perfect example. It’s not even one of my all-time favorites, but I respect the original so much, I refuse to believe a new version could come close to a movie that had Patrick Swayze, Keanu Reeves, Gary Busey, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in it.

The point is Schiano is not the messiah and doesn’t guarantee success if he does return to Rutgers. He would certainly make an instant impact on the recruiting trail and generate excitement among the fan base. Season tickets would be sold, interest would be kick started. Former players would be more involved with the program and boosters will be more likely to reinvest. Hope would be alive once again. However, important questions would remain about Schiano. His ability to co-exist with Hobbs and the new power structure at Rutgers, what his offensive plan and philosophy would be, and whether he had learned to be less rigid and abrasive in some areas regarding the way he ran the program the first time are key among them.

I think Schiano has to be a serious candidate for Hobbs to consider and he offers a lot of positives. If Rutgers hires him, my immediate thought is the search could have produced a lot worse options. I also think while Schiano would raise the basement of where the program will be long term, it’s also fair to question how high the ceiling would ever be raised during is second tenure? Schiano would remove the label “laughingstock” from the vocabulary of college football fans when speaking of Rutgers, but whether he could ever add “legitimate contender” is a major uncertainty. With the current state of things, does that even matter? Probably not, but I believe there are plenty of other coaches who could do the same as Schiano. Respectability is the goal, at least right now, and that’s much easier to achieve than winning championships. The bigger question is who can Rutgers get to do that job and which side does Schiano sit regarding it?

Does he really want to return and finish what he started to achieve a storybook movie ending? Has he learned from the past and become even better the second time around? Can Hobbs and Schiano make it work together and thus enhance both of their legacies long term? Are there other internal rifts with key Rutgers people that Schiano created with his abrupt exit in 2012 and can they be repaired? Is Hobbs dead set on going in another direction and not even seriously consider Schiano? There are so many questions that remain and for now, truly no real answers. We have to let this thing play out and there is only one thing we know for sure is that “the waiting is the hardest part” as the great Tom Petty sings.

Hobbs has done a lot of good at Rutgers, but the failure of football is a black cloud over his legacy that ensures no easy solution and could eventually lead to his demise on the banks. Fans are rightfully angry. The obvious answer to many is hiring Greg Schiano, but for him to succeed at Rutgers a second time, it’s far more complicated than people seem to understand or at least acknowledge. There is no perfect hire. Is Schiano the best option? He very well could be, but I think that’s debatable because we don’t even know if Schiano is willing to adapt and if he truly wants to take on the great task of turning around Rutgers football a second time. And if Hobbs hires someone else, they will not only be facing an uphill battle to rebuild the program on and off the field, but with a large portion of the fan base as well. That shouldn’t be a factor in Hobbs decision though, finding the best candidate should, whoever he decides that is.

How the search for the next head coach ultimately unfolds has already been fascinating to watch. The next six to eight weeks will be a roller coaster no matter who is ultimately chosen to rebuild Rutgers football. That’s the only thing we know for certain right now. Whoever does get hired, Rutgers fans need to support them completely and part of doing that is having true patience in giving them time to restore the program to respectability. For now, supporting Hobbs as the AD to be the lead person in making that decision is important as well. While a lot of fans hope for Schiano to get a second chance at Rutgers, giving Hobbs a second chance to get it right should be everyone’s mindset too.