With the 2020 season upon us this Saturday after so many ups and downs, I wanted to take an opportunity to make a special commendation.
2019 was the second consecutive and third of four extremely difficult campaigns to suffer through for the Rutgers Football community. At the time, it felt mostly hopeless even as someone who covers AND roots for the team, I had basically zero confidence in the team winning a game after the Maryland blowout loss. I just wanted the season to be over so we could regroup and roll the dice again with a new Head Coach in 2020. Many fans can relate to the same feeling of hopelessness, not even factoring in what those who double as NFL fans have had to suffer through this year and already are looking forward to the draft.
Other fans though to their credit went into every game thinking the same thing as the players and coaching staff, “This is why they play the games.” You never know what can happen. The two people who were the face of the program for the latter half of 2019 deserve special recognition for their role ensuring the die hards would still tune in on gameday: 2019 interim Head Coach Nunzio Campanile and former starting quarterback Johnny Langan.
Campanile was the Rutgers tight ends coach, heavily focused on recruiting, when it came likely as a shock even to him that Athletic Director Pat Hobbs tabbed him as the team’s Head Coach following the firing of Chris Ash just four games into the season. Nunzio just a short time before was coaching at the high school level and all of a sudden was put in charge of the biggest sinking ship in Power Five college football as Head Coach AND Offensive Coordinator. Despite the terrible circumstances (relatively speaking of course compared to a worldwide pandemic), he brought a love of life, the game, and his players that had not been seen in a long time at Rutgers. Despite the lack of things to really say at press conferences, he always made his interviews entertaining without having to resort to gimmicks or ridiculous bulletin board material. Nunzio just seemed like an authentic, real guy and he acted just like most of us everyday people would have wanted to have acted ourselves if thrust into the same unenviable situation.
That situation got worse in a hurry as starting quarterback McLane Carter would not return from injury and backup Art Sitkowski elected to preserve his redshirt. So Campanile did the best thing he knew how to do; install his own playbook and who better to lead it than his former starter at Bergen Catholic, Johnny Langan?
The team was obliterated on the scoreboard in the next three games, but it wasn’t for a lack of fight as the team gave it their all for Nunzio and their “bulldozer” QB Langan as one OTB reader put it. The pass offense as a whole remained among the worst in the country as it had been since 2017, but at least you felt confident that RU could push ahead on the ground when not forced to pass. I’m so glad Johnny Langan wore number 17 (though he switched back to his high school #21 for this year) because for anyone old enough to remember or had ever seen the film, was a modern day Billy Kilmer.
In another, earlier era, things might have been different as Langan plowed into defenders, trying to will his team to first downs, points, and ultimately a victory over Liberty as the offense woke up in a 44-34 triumph. In that game, Langan rushed 21 times for 118 yards and a touchdown, the first time an RU QB topped the century mark since 1961. He also was efficient through the air, completing 15 of 21 passes for 192 yards and two scores.
I was happier for Campanile that day more than probably anyone else associated with Rutgers Football since probably Brian Leonard at the Texas Bowl. Nunzio deserved to get a win to his credit as a college football coach, even if he never returns in that role again. That victory did not end the Big Ten losing streak that now stands at the second longest in conference history, but every player and coach will look back at that day for the rest of their life (unless RU has an awesome season this year.)
Langan finished the season having thrown for 840 yards and four touchdowns. He also added 391 yards on the ground along with three more scores. Johnny remains a quarterback in 2020, albeit in a much deeper QB room, making his chances of regaining the starting role more challenging. At least he got a chance though as a quarterback, the reason he returned to the Garden State from Boston College in the first place.
Even before the world changed due to the pandemic, the likes we hadn’t seen dating back to the break in between College Football Hall of Famer Homer Hazel’s two stints on the banks 100 years ago, so much changed for Rutgers Football since the season finale at #10 Penn State. Even if Nunzio and Johnny never make another major ripple on a Saturday in Scarlet, those who were in the trenches with them and those of us who stuck it out as fans will always have a smile on our face thinking about what would have been football hell without them. With the pairing, at least I knew once a game an opposing player destined for the NFL would have to make a business decision as to whether or not he’d try to take on Langan head on in the middle of the field.
The depth chart was released Monday and Langan did not crack the two-deep, but I know he will be ready if his number is called at any point. Campanile returns to the role he began last year in, tight ends coach, while also being overshadowed by the flashier names on the recruiting trail. But before we completely forget about 2019 and gear up for a return to as much “normalcy” as can be expected for the rest of our lives, on behalf of the Rutgers Fan community, I want to say Thank You to Nunzio Campanile and Johnny Langan. We survived until game week 2020. I hope you both build your legacy on since there’s no reason for it to end now, and once it’s time, off the banks.