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Former Rutgers Athletic Director Fred Gruninger leaves complicated legacy

Of the five inductees of the 2019 Hall of Fame class, he is undoubtedly the controversial choice

Cincinnati v Rutgers

Rutgers athletics announced its 2019 Hall of Fame class on Tuesday and there were several no brainer selections, starting with baseball player Todd Frazier. The 1919-1920 men’s basketball team who was the first to ever advance to postseason play, the 1981 men’s indoor two mile relay team that won a national championship and one of the best lacrosse players in program history in Greg Rinaldi all made perfect sense. However, there was one selection that made me pause, ponder and reflect on whether his induction made sense or not? I’m speaking of former athletic director Fred Gruninger, who served in that role for 25 years from the early seventies until the late nineties.

First of all, I want to make it perfectly clear that Gruninger is a loyal son, holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Rutgers, worked for the school for 40 years and is also an Army veteran, so he deserves a ton of respect. Being in charge of anything for 25 years makes it impossible to have a mistake free legacy, but I do think his time as the Rutgers AD that brought the school into the modern era of college sports is extremely interesting and worthy of further examination.

There were certainly many positives that Gruninger had at Rutgers. Without Fred’s vision and belief that the football program belonged in big time college football, Rutgers would not be in the Big Ten today. Granted, the success of Greg Schiano a decade after his departure and relationships former AD Tim Pernetti had ultimately secured the deal for Rutgers to join this elite conference, but it was Fred who created that goal long before it actually happened. He was the first defender of those who believed Rutgers belonged in the Patriot League.

Gruninger led the modernization of Rutgers Stadium and got Rutgers into the inaugural Big East football conference. Without those steps happening first, the end result of joining the Big Ten never happens.

Other significant contributions were building the RAC in the late seventies, as well as the football practice bubble, Yurcak Field for soccer and lacrosse, a new facility for track & field, as well as hiring three very successful basketball coaches. Gruninger hired two outstanding women’s coaches in Teresa Grentz and hall of famer C. Vivian Stringer. He also hired Tom Young for the men’s program, who took the team to heights never reached before or since.

All three coaches had varying success during the course of their tenures, with Stringer still going strong. All three led their programs to championship weekends within their respective sports.

During Gruninger’s tenure, Rutgers had an undefeated football season, a Final Four appearance in men’s basketball and a national championship in women’s basketball. Based on that sentence alone, Gruninger stands alone among every athletic director in Rutgers history. However, there is certainly a lot more to his body of work, including several negative occurrences that shifted the athletic department’s future for years to come.

There were plenty of negatives, with the most infamous act of turning down an offer to be a charter member of the Big East conference four decades ago. Its a decision that still permeates today.

It’s common knowledge that Penn State head coach Joe Paterno pushed for an All-Eastern football league in the late seventies and eighties. Gruninger believed that joining this conference was the option Rutgers should pursue and was all ears for Paterno. They ultimately formed the short lived Eastern 8 conference that ultimately became the Atlantic 10 conference where Rutgers played most sports in the eighties.

Around the same time this idea was born, Rutgers was invited to join the Big East and ESPN was used as a selling point regarding a dedicated sports network covering the league. Remember, this is the late seventies, so neither the Big East or ESPN was nothing compared to today. While hindsight is 20/20, Gruninger clearly prioritized football over all other sports.

At the time the invitation was made, Rutgers was a basketball power in the metro New York area. Joining the Big East as a charter member would have given the program an important boost in staying relevant in the decades to come. Instead, Gruninger said no and the Big East ultimately invited Seton Hall to join the conference, changing the local college basketball landscape forever. Not only did Rutgers Basketball suffer by missing out, Seton Hall made the national championship game a decade later and the program has been relevant ever since.

Rutgers men’s basketball took a big step back in the years to follow, as the new members of the Big East took a huge step forward, due to the television exposure of ESPN and added revenues generated from it. Recruiting suffered. Young, the winningest coach in Rutgers men’s basketball history, ultimately left for Old Dominion of all places and was replaced by arguably the worst hire in program history, Craig Littlepage. Just a decade removed from the Final Four, Rutgers basketball won just 23 games combined during Littlepage’s three year stint.

The worst part of Gruninger’s decision to pass on the Big East and make football the priority was that Paterno left him standing at the altar, as Penn State eventually joined the Big Ten. Too many of the eastern schools weren’t convinced Paterno’s plan would work, most notably Pitt who spurned the concept to become an initial member of the Big East.

While Rutgers ultimately joined the Big East around the same time that Penn State joined the Big Ten, the damage was done to the basketball program. While Gruninger’s hire of Bob Wenzel briefly re-energized the program and led to two NCAA Tournament berths in his first three years, he was unable to sustain that success and Rutgers was ill prepared to play in what had become a basketball powerhouse conference. In 19 seasons in the Big East, Rutgers never produced a winning season, haven’t had a winning campaign in 13 years and the NCAA Tournament drought stands at 28 years. Rutgers basketball is just getting it’s own practice facility this week, the last power five school to accomplish this feat. The failures of the men’s basketball program began and were exaserbated with Gruninger as athletic director.

Making football his priority far and above all else, along with a lack of fundraising and consistent support for all the other programs, including the Olympic Sports, set the athletic department as a whole back long term. There were some major successes along the way, but Rutgers struggled across the board to compete in the Big East. It wasn’t just Gruninger who failed to make the Olympic Sports a priority and his successor, Bob Mulcahy, ultimately eliminated several men’s programs and took his pro-football mentality even further. These actions or lack thereof in a balanced manner certainly have contributed to Rutgers also being ill prepared when they joined the Big Ten in 2014.

In addition to Littlepage, other awful hires for high profile sports made by Gruninger were Kevin Bannon, who’s shining star at the time blew up and began a series of scandals and failures around the men’s basketball program that spanned 15 years.

In addition, Gruninger listened to Paterno again by hiring a very successful defensive coordinator from a college football powerhouse (sound familiar) named Dick Anderson as head coach after dismissing Rutgers legend Frank Burns after the 1983 season. While Anderson went 7-3 in his debut season and had three winning campaigns in six years, he compiled an overall record of 21-30-5 his last five in charge, including two 2 win seasons.

The worst hire by far was Terry Shea, who led a decent football program directly into its darkest days, as Rutgers went 11-44 over his five years in charge. Rock bottom was achieved, although the current state of the football program certainly makes that debatable.

I remember the Shea era intimately, because I was a student at Rutgers for his first four seasons. It was a Thursday night home game during the 1997 season that the Scarlet Knights were about 30 point underdogs to Syracuse, who were just 3-3 at the time but had a couple players named Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison. I happened to bet on Rutgers and was one of a few thousand weary fans left at the end to watch the clock tick down as the Orange won 50-3, embarrassing the program on national television on a night it was the only game happening. (note: oh the irony that the game was shown on ESPN, that once little known network that became a giant.) Rutgers was off to it’s worst start, 0-6, since 1902.

The very next day, Gruninger announced his retirement for the end of that academic year. President Francis Lawrence said at the time that “without Fred’s guidance and leadership, we would be a lesser institution, and all who care about Rutgers should recognize that.″ Gruninger kept Rutgers free of any major scandals and made academics a priority across the athletic department, which he deserves credit for.

From my perspective, Gruninger certainly had some positive moments, but he also made decisions that helped put the basketball program down a path to nowhere and ended his tenure with his beloved football team an epic loser.

That being said at the end of the day, I think it’s fair to induct Gruninger into the Rutgers Athletics Hall of Fame. He had a long career at Rutgers, including being the golf coach for almost a decade and increased the school’s golf course from 9 holes to 18 holes. He dedicated his life to Rutgers, brought the athletic department into the modern era and I’m happy for him to receive this honor. Even so, his legacy is complicated and if you care more than just about football at Rutgers, you could argue it was more a failure than a success.