Greg Schiano ultimately returned to Rutgers behind the momentum generated by the fan base, as well overwhelming support from donors, high school coaches, former players and even the Governor of the great state of New Jersey. The one thing in common with all of those different groups of people is they all witnessed his success at Rutgers during his first tenure. However, it wasn’t just the fact that he established a winning program that went to bowl games in six of his last seven seasons, something that never happened at Rutgers previously or since. It was how he did it.
It was his work ethic, his creation of the “state of Rutgers”, his relentlessness, his ability to develop players on and off the field, and his ability to not only rebuild a program, but to build a community of support around it. He was a Jersey guy coming home and making the state university a perennial winner. Rutgers fans believed in him then and believe in him now once again.
So don’t get upset or even surprised when many people outside of the “state of Rutgers” don’t understand why the fan base is so strongly rejoicing upon his return. Several national media members have questioned why Rutgers would bring him back with a career 68-67 record or do so by making such a strong financial commitment to him. Big Ten fan bases don’t think he’ll make Rutgers much better in the conference. And Tennessee fans are complaining because Schiano took a shot at them after the press conference, answering a question about that failed hiring in 2017 by saying “Jersey people are a little sharper.” If it was possible for Rutgers fans to be even happier with the return of their coach, that line did just that.
Greg Schiano is the only coach in college football history who lost a job due to a fan revolt and got a job due to a fan revolt— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) December 1, 2019
None of those groups questioning the hire get it because they are outsiders.
One exception is longtime NFL reporter Peter King, who recently wrote this in his celebrated weekly Football Morning in America column:
“My view: the outside world will look at Schiano and say, All this for a coach who went 68-67 in his first run at Rutgers? Stupid. Maybe paying a sick sum to rebuild a football program is stupid—can’t argue with that. But if you’re going to play in the Big Ten, you’re going to have to suck it up and pay stupid money.”
“Re Schiano, he’s one of the most misunderstood coaches of our time. He’s demanding, and anal, and rubs a ton of people the wrong way. (And Nick Saban isn’t?) But I lived in New Jersey from 1985 to 2009. I saw how bad Rutgers was—for at least half that time, the worst team in major-college football. And Schiano changed it all, going 59-28 over his last six seasons. He was so highly regarded that the Rams secretly interviewed him for the coaching job in the midst of the turnaround. “If he wants it,” Scarlet Knight Devin McCourty told me a month or so ago, “he’s the best man for the job.” Ditto.”
While Peter King is by no means a Rutgers fan, having been a football guy who lived in New Jersey, he gained an appreciation for what Schiano did the first time. Those that didn’t see or remember how bad Rutgers was the first time he took over and how much progress he made are underestimating him once again. Good, let them.
The reason Schiano is so beloved by Rutgers fans, despite the fact that his first tenure had its fair share of frustrating moments, is because he became like a family member to longtime Rutgers football fans. He became “one of us”, so to speak, in a way no other coach that would have been hired could have become, nor how Schiano could have become for any other program and fan base. It’s the perfect fit for both, which is what’s most important.
Schiano built the program up by chopping his way through the darkness to the light on the other side. He’s the Andy Dufresne of Rutgers football, as he always kept hope alive. Most importantly, he backed up his salesmanship with results, even if the level of winning was just short of elevating the program to becoming elite long term. We now know that’s a far better situation to be in versus the reality of where the program is today. He is the only Rutgers coach in the last 60 years to not be fired for a reason.
Even so, Schiano’s legacy is on the line for round two at Rutgers. Win consistently again, this time in the Big Ten East, and he will go down as greatest Rutgers coach in program history. His reputation across all football circles would be restored. He’d be the guy who won at Rutgers not once, but twice, an almost unthinkable reality.. On the flip side, failure to elevate the program into a consistent winner shouldn’t tarnish his first tenure, but it would diminish the rock star status that he has currently reached within the fan base. However, I can’t ever imagine a scenario that he would leave without eternal respect.
No matter how the Schiano sequel at Rutgers ends, the key difference between him and any other coach that could have been hired is his built-in equity at the start of this rebuild. Not just because he won at Rutgers before, but because he understands the fan base and has earned their unwavering support. The fan base has his back. That was proven over the course of the past two weeks. If the negotiations hadn’t played out the way they did, that fact wouldn’t have been as evident and wouldn’t have unified the fan base as strongly as it has. Patience is now needed as the positive changes won’t happen overnight, but Schiano has earned that benefit of the doubt at Rutgers.
Even if Schiano doesn’t make Rutgers into a perennial winner once again, there should be a high level of confidence that he will establish a certain level of respectability that hasn’t been present since joining the Big Ten. Whatever the ceiling will ultimately be, it’s going to take time and Schiano emphasized how everyone has a role to play in helping the program get there and beyond. Judging by the countless references on social media of “wanting to run through a brick wall” for Schiano after Wednesday’s introductory press conference, I’d say he motivated the entire fan base, even his previous detractors. It’s why he is the perfect fit for this job right now.
Let the doubters preach, continue to embrace the hate that other fan bases spew, and remember to keep chopping. Greg Schiano is back and better days will soon follow. The only questions that remain are how soon and how much better?