Progress for Rutgers athletics can be measured in several ways, but on the field results is clearly the most important. To that point, the final Division I Learfield IMG Directors’ Cup standings were released last Friday, which ranks the on the field performance of every athletic department over the past school year. There was good news and bad news for Rutgers athletics. Let’s start with the bad news.
As has been the case since joining the Big Ten five years ago, Rutgers finished behind the other 13 conference members by a significant margin. The Scarlet Knights amassed 259 total points between the fall, winter, and spring seasons. However, they finished over 200 points behind 13th place Purdue and the two schools were the only Big Ten members to finish outside of the Top 50 in Division I. The gap between the rest of the conference and Rutgers remains far apart from an overall view.
The good news is that Rutgers produced it’s best overall performance in over a decade and improved 25 spots versus last year, finishing 82nd in Division I. It was their best finish since the 2006-2007 school year per James Kratch of NJ Advance Media. The Scarlet Knights finished ahead of four other power five programs, two of whom are former Big East rivals that are now ACC members: Boston College (87), Washington State (88), Kansas State (94) and Pittsburgh (137).
The takeaway is this: Rutgers athletics, which has taken a major step forward off the field under Pat Hobbs regarding facilities, fundraising, support and continuity, has also improved on the field as well. However, there is a lot of progress that still needs to be made before Rutgers becomes a legitimate factor in many of the Big Ten sports and across the national landscape.
This year was highlighted by several women’s sports teams, including Field Hockey and Rowing, who respectively made their first NCAA Tournament or Championship appearance in decades. Women’s Basketball produced its best ever Big Ten regular season result, finishing in third place and returning to the NCAA’s for the first time in four years. Women’s track & field saw freshman Reanda Richards emerge as a legitimate national title contender. And of course, the women’s soccer program remains the most consistent within all of Rutgers athletics, becoming just the second team to finish the Big Ten regular season in second place (men’s lacrosse did so in 2016) and made the NCAA Tournament for the seventh consecutive year.
The men’s side was led by the wrestling program, which continues a stunning climb up the national ranks under longtime head coach Scott Goodale. After inheriting a program that was irrelevant and in danger of not continuing over a decade ago, Goodale saw the two best wrestlers of his tenure, Anthony Ashnault and Nick Suriano, win national championships this past spring. There was also a ninth place finish for the team at the NCAA Championships, a program best. While men’s basketball improved, programs such as men’s soccer, men’s lacrosse and baseball all disappointed.
The biggest reason for hope regarding continued improvement moving forward for Rutgers athletics as a whole is that Pat Hobbs continues to prioritize success within all sports. He made coaching changes within men’s soccer, women’s lacrosse, baseball and track & field this year. His new hires in rowing, gymnastics, swimming & diving, and softball have all paid dividends to varying degrees this past year. Steve Pikiell also continues to build the men’s basketball program upward, with next season bringing real expectations for the first time in a long time. Of course, football is in need of making major improvement this coming fall and remains Hobbs the only questionable hire of his tenure so far in Chris Ash, who enters his fourth season with just a 7-29 record.
The bottom line is Hobbs has helped engineer more positives within Rutgers athletics in years and the foundation for future success across many sports exists. Here are a few superlatives for teams from this past school year.
Most Improved Team - Rowing
In just his second year at the helm, head coach Justin Price led the program to its highest national ranking ever, best Big Ten Championship performance and first NCAA appearance in almost two decades.
Most Hope Produced Despite Losing Season - Men’s Basketball
We’ve written plenty about this program, but with the young core in place and key additions to the roster such as Akwasi Yeboah, Jacob Young, and Paul Mulcahy, expectations continue to rise at the RAC for next season.
Most Disappointing Season - Men’s Lacrosse & Football (Tie)
Football slid from a 4 win season and 5th place finish in the Big Ten East to the worst power five program. Men’s lacrosse finished with a losing record and lost several late leads against top ten opponents, despite having three All-Americans.
Best Program Breakthrough - Field Hockey
In her seventh season, head coach Meredith Civico saw her program take a major step forward, making the NCAA tournament for the first time in 34 years and beating five ranked opponents, including the highest ever in no. 6 Princeton.
Best Season Accomplishment - Wrestling national champs 2X
This was easy. Nothing could top Ashnault’s perfect season and Suriano’s revenge tour, avenging every loss suffered during the regular season, as both became national champions.
Best Performance Through Adversity - Women’s Basketball
It was quite an accomplishment for this program to achieve what they did. Head coach C. Vivian Stringer took a medical leave of absence in February, two key contributors were dismissed late in the season and starting point guard KK Sanders missed the entire campaign due to injury. Despite it all, this team, under interim head coach Tim Eatman, produced it’s best season in several years and was atop the Big Ten standings for much of the regular season.
Best Improvement In Big Ten Play - Softball
Head coach Kristen Butler turned the program around very quickly, producing a program best sixth place regular season finish in Big Ten play in just her first season. Two key freshman give reason for better days ahead in pitcher Corah Price and star catcher Katie Wingert.
Best Big Ten Regular Season Performance - Women’s Soccer
Head coach Mike O’Neill has produced the most consistent program on the banks and was one result away from producing the first Big Ten regular season title for any Rutgers team since joining the conference.
To listen to our end of the year podcast review on Rutgers athletics, click here.