With Big Ten Media Days next week and training camp beginning less than a month from now, the 2019 Rutgers football season is almost upon us. Let’s cut to the chase. After a 1-11 campaign and head coach Chris Ash entering his fourth season with a 7-29 overall record, this fall is crucial for both him and the program.
Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports released his annual preseason hot seat rankings for every FBS college football coach and there should be little surprise that Ash was at the top of the list.
Despite Dodd making two factual errors in the article (including saying Rutgers hasn’t won a FBS game since 2016), his point remains clear. He pinned a 5 rating on Ash, which is defined as “win or be fired.” While that’s somewhat of a broad statement, let’s turn to athletic director Pat Hobbs for a bit more clarity.
It was at this time last year when Dodd posted his hot seat rankings, in which he gave Ash a 4 rating, which is classified as “start improving now.” We know how last season turned out, hence why Dodd ramped Ash’s rating up to a 5 for this season. Last year’s rating by Dodd triggered an interesting public response from Hobbs, who defended Ash on twitter with the below tweet:
Hey CBS Sports! You can take my guy off your list. Program building takes time and Chris Ash is doing a great job! https://t.co/eg09sDpsD3— Pat Hobbs (@PatHobbsRU) July 21, 2018
While some Rutgers fans applauded Hobbs for publicly supporting his coach, I thought it was a rare strategic mistake from the AD to directly address Dodd’s inclusion of Ash on his hot season rankings. The reality is what Dodd thinks is mostly irrelevant to the decision making process of retaining Ash other than the fact that there was a portion of the Rutgers fan base that agreed with him being considered on the hot seat. It only drew more attention to it and his assessment of Ash doing a great job was discredited once the season played out the way it did.
Fast forward to present day and there is shouldn’t be much debate that Ash is firmly on the hot seat entering this season. Hobbs himself subtly made that concession less than a hour after the season ending loss to Michigan State with the following statement confirming Ash would be back for this coming season:
“I so appreciate the effort of our young men these last few weeks. They never quit and that’s a testament to their character and the effort of our coaches. This has been a difficult and disappointing year for our football program. We must and will do better. We have a great core of young talent and will recruit hard in the offseason. We’ve made significant investments and will continue to do the things necessary to bring the desired success to the Scarlet Knight faithful. I expect that under Chris’ continued leadership we will see significant improvement next season and ask for everyone’s continued support.”
The key phrase was “significant improvement next season”, which we will address in a bit. Hobbs then sent an email to fans a few days later further explaining his decision to retain Ash and asking for continued support of him and the program. It seemed obvious Hobbs knew his decision to keep Ash did not make a significant portion of the fan base happy and was going out of his way to explain why he did.
In Keith Sargeant’s article from yesterday about Dodd’s latest hot seat rankings that included Ash, he included a quote from Hobbs from this past spring about the progress he has seen this offseason:
“I thought we had a very, very good offseason in terms of recruiting,’’ Hobbs said. “They’re not walking around our building like they were a 1-11 team. There’s great culture with the team. They are excited about the season. So we do see progress this year in football, and we’re really looking forward to the start of training camp so we can see if all the work that’s been happening in the offseason — and the new kids that are joining us – can combine to produce exciting entertainment for our fans.’’
Such an assessment from the AD who hired Ash and chose to retain him after the worst Rutgers football season in 16 years should not be a surprise. And while I have said from when he was hired that Ash deserved 5 years after the state of the program he inherited, taking such a significant step backwards in year 3 at a minimum ramps up the urgency for some level of success in year 4. At a maximum, not achieving major progress this season makes it fair to want a change made.
That leads us to the last line in Hobbs statement when he announced Ash would return for this coming season. How does Hobbs define “significant improvement” and how will that ultimately determine Ash’s fate at the end of the 2019 season?
We don’t know that answer and likely won’t find out until after the season. Hobbs isn’t going to draw a line in the sand to define what significant improvement means and I think it’s fair to say he shouldn’t. However, as fans, it’s also fair to voice opinions on what we define as significant improvement and what we think would mark time for a change as well.
I think it’s a fair declaration to state that if Ash led Rutgers to a 6-6 regular season campaign and a bowl berth, it would be universally accepted in and out of the Rutgers fan base that significant improvement was made. It also seems fair that two wins or less would make it clear that little to no improvement was made, or at least not enough, and it would be time for Hobbs to make a change. The real question is if Rutgers wins anywhere between three and five games, how will Hobbs determine whether significant improvement was made?
In my opinion, a 3-9 campaign would not be enough to justify significant improvement was made. I do think how competitive Rutgers is against the best of the Big Ten, even if those games result in defeats, is a variable that holds weight. But I don’t think that should compensate for a lack of winning.
A five win season should be considered a successful season in regard to context of coming off a 1-11 campaign that left Rutgers as the worst power five team in the country. I said in our year end podcast review of the athletic department that if that happened, it would probably be as celebrated as a 5-7 season can be by Rutgers fans simply for how much we’ve suffered the past 3-4 years.
It’s the true in-between victory margin that makes things hard to predict. Winning four games makes the decision more complicated and I think that’s the scenario where how competitive Rutgers was against the Big Ten blue bloods warrants the most significance. I’m not saying a 4-8 campaign should clearly justify Ash remaining as head coach, but I think it’s a worthy debate that should include other factors within the program. It would be the hardest decision for Hobbs if Rutgers did go 4-8. Who they actually beat, how many conference foes were defeated and where RU finishes in the Big Ten East would be major factors as well.
I do think within the context of last season’s 1-11 record, Ash has done a commendable job this offseason in reshaping the coaching staff and roster. There is reason for some optimism, but whether that translates into significant improvement this season remains to be seen. As Rutgers fans, we’ve weathered the storm before. More national media pessimism and taunts from other Big Ten fan bases will only grow leading up to the season opener. Remain steady. It’s fair to be skeptical that Ash will be able to lead Rutgers to major improvement in 2019, but I think wishing for anything other than him to succeed makes little sense.
In my opinion, a clear path to showing significant improvement is a 5-7 record. Anything less makes it debatable and ensures a portion of the fans will be unhappy. At the end of the day, how Rutgers football performs this season will lead to an important decision by Pat Hobbs about the program’s future: Will Chris Ash be the head coach in 2020?
Answer our poll below to give your opinion on what defines “significant improvement” to you.
What is the minimum success needed to define significant improvement this season?
This poll is closed
6-6 and bowl berth
5-7 and a better than last place finish in B1G East
4-8 while being more competitive against Big Ten powers
3-9 while being more competitive against Big Ten powers