After the loss to Boston College in which Rutgers committed 11 penalties for 100 yards and 2 turnovers, allowing a game in which they were positioned to take control of in the first half slip away and ultimately fall by two touchdowns, it was clear Chris Ash was not going to lead this team to significant improvement this season. Calling for his firing, as did other media outlets, made sense as the point of no return had been reached. However, despite signaling for his immediate dismissal, I never expected it to happen before the calendar turned to October.
That’s exactly what happened on Sunday, as Rutgers fired Ash and offensive coordinator John McNulty, making both moves a bit unexpected due to the timing. It was absolutely the right move, but it was so shocking because Rutgers was the school doing it.
It’s no secret that Rutgers entered the Big Ten in 2014 woefully unprepared to handle the major step up in competition from an athletics standpoint. Yes, football surprised everyone with a 8-5 debut season, but many of the department’s programs struggled right out of the gate. Football eventually crashed harder than them all. Facilities were way behind where they needed to be. With Rutgers taking a deal that gave it far less of a revenue share as its fellow Big Ten members for the first 7 years, which was still the right move, it created a steep hill for the school to climb from an athletics perspective.
When Rutgers hired Pat Hobbs as athletic director at the end of 2015, he brought vision and fundraising experience with him. Facilities have steadily improved under his direction. Renewed enthusiasm around Rutgers athletics occurred, spurred by sound marketing strategies that worked. Hobbs has also made all of the sports programs a priority and has methodically made coaching changes when contracts came up after their respective seasons. Men’s basketball was also given more support than in the past and seems close to a breakthrough.
Football, however, suffered to the point that many longtime supporters felt we were transported back in time to the Terry Shea era two decades ago. Head coach Chris Ash was given more resources for the program in Rutgers history, but on the field Rutgers became the unquestioned worst power five team in the country. This is a major problem for Hobbs’ strategic vision and “relentless pursuit of excellence” for the athletic department.
Something had to be done, but most doubted it would be dealt with during the season. Even those of us who felt there was no way Hobbs and the administration could let this go much longer, no one thought they would take action before October. And yet after the 52-0 embarrassment last Saturday at the Big House, a decision was made. Ash was fired the day after and became the first FBS head coach to lose his job this season. It felt strange not because it wasn’t the right thing to do, it was, but because Rutgers was the one doing it.
By firing Chris Ash after the fourth game of his fourth season, Rutgers made the statement that they are ready to operate the football program at a Big Ten level. It certainly hasn’t been playing like one, not even close. But part of that was due to the fact that Rutgers was hoping to cook a dinner with filet mignon utilizing a budget for roast chicken. Ash’s salary was the second lowest out of 14 Big Ten head coaches, only higher than Tom Allen of Indiana. Not that it excuses the futility that Ash produced, but highlights the risks of going low budget compared to your peers.
The key part now is that Rutgers follows through with the idea they are a Big Ten football program and make a significant investment into the next coaching staff. They have made one already by committing to a buyout of Ash at approximately 8.47 million dollars, per James Kratch of NJ Advance Media. It’s likely to be less once he finds another job, almost assuredly as an assistant. The university would also need to buyout the coaching staff with deals past this season, which is obviously a far less number. The most important aspect of this move is what comes next.
Whoever Rutgers ultimately does hire, they need to make a considerable financial investment into that coach and his staff. I know that statement might sound ridiculous to some by implying they didn’t already do that with Ash and his staff. To a degree they did, but not in respect to competing in football in the Big Ten. It’s a different level and one that Rutgers, some way and somehow have to figure out how to do. That’s what they signed up for when they gleefully joined the conference, whether the administration fully realized it or not.
Whether it is ultimately hiring Greg Schiano, who we weighed the pros and cons of that move here, or someone like Buffalo’s Lance Leipold, or even Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead, or someone else, Rutgers will need to pay them well. And also provide them with a salary pool to fill out their coaching staff with quality additions. You can’t do that without having the money to do that. Oh, and a new field house is on top of the facility wish list as well. Football facilities are much better than before Ash arrived, but they still have a long way to go, as the Hale Center is at the bottom of the Big Ten.
Hobbs has worked tirelessly at turning around the athletic department in his almost four years on the job. The department has operated in a major deficit for many years and is slowly moving in the right direction. However, even with the full share from the Big Ten revenues kicking in at 2021, Rutgers already borrowed against that full share and it will be several years later before they are actually getting the full amount. It won’t be easy, but Hobbs, whoever the new President becomes, the Board of Governors, the Trustees, and whoever else, all need to figure out a way to make things work financially. They can’t sacrifice other sports either, as that’s not operating in a Big Ten manner. Look at schools like Michigan that treat all of their sports in a first class way. Corners can’t be cut. The athletic department as a whole needs to be cared for in a way never before at Rutgers. Raising money has never been more important than now.
It’s obvious the football boosters were tired of the weekly blowouts and embarrassments. The powers that be, led by Hobbs, finally said enough is enough. It’s likely he has raised a large portion of money already behind the scenes. However, its going to cost a substantial amount more to get this program back on track. The positive is the investment is worth it in the long run, as the revenue generated from a football team that generates hope within the fan base will help the athletic department as a whole. It also helps bolster the entire image of the university and is proven to increase applications to the school when football is winning. With seasons tickets down to around 16,000, the business of football was weighing every other Rutgers sport down to a degree. If hope is restored by the new coach and fans believe in them, positive benefits of that will resonate quickly on the financial end.
Rutgers showed college football on Sunday that the state of the program is unacceptable and that they intend to one day compete in the Big Ten on a consistent basis. The decision makers have no choice but to figure it out, as football has hurt the entire perception of the university and overshadowed so many positive things taking place on the banks. Making football credible again and delivering some level of success will go a long way to bolster the long term health of Rutgers athletics. Making statements by firing people is the easy part. Investing in the right people and the future is the hard part. If Rutgers is ever going to make people believe they belong in the Big Ten, the opportunity to do so is now.