It’s been about a month and a half since the winter and spring seasons came to an abrupt end across college sports due to the global pandemic COVID-19. As has been the case around the entire sports world, the focus has been on flattening the curve in regard to the spread of what has been a deadly disease across the globe. In the short term, following social distancing restrictions remains the priority, in particular the northeast in New York and New Jersey, which are the two states that have been hit the hardest in America. For fans, pondering the return of professional sports and college athletics has become a great unknown.
For Rutgers, the cold reality of how the shutdown has impacted the school hit home last week when President Dr. Barchi announced the university was expected to fall short of nearly $200 million in revenue this year. A tuition freeze and pay cuts for senior leaders across Rutgers university were part of the plan announced to help combat what Barchi called “perhaps the greatest academic and operation challenge in its history.”
Included in those pay cuts were Rutgers athletic director Pat Hobbs and his three highest paid coaches, Greg Schiano, Steve Pikiell and C. Vivian Stringer. The impact that COVID-19 has had on every industry across the nation is certainly concerning for the future of Rutgers athletics, as the department has experienced financial shortcomings for years while the wait for a full share of the Big Ten revenues continues.
I was fortunate to speak at length with Hobbs this week to discuss the current situation his department finds itself in, what his plans are to navigate through this uncertain time, and what he thinks the future holds for Rutgers athletics as a whole.
“As with everyone, it’s an extraordinary time. It’s been a surreal experience in so many ways,” Hobbs said. “Of course, at Rutgers we had the announcement last Friday. A number of us volunteered to take pay cuts. Great credit goes to Greg, Steve and Vivian. They immediately stepped up on that. My senior staff all agreed to take 5% cuts, which was voluntary as well. I’m proud of them for doing that.”
Hobbs made it clear that’s just the beginning. “One of the things we are doing is I’ve asked all of our head coaches to take a deep dive into their budgets and see if there are ways to save money. Clearly we are going to be challenged in the next year from a revenue standpoint. No matter what, there is going to be revenue challenges as we go forward.” He continued, “I think we are all trying to step up as much as possible and do what we can, so in case we have to engage in more drastic cutting down the road, we will have already done a lot.”
As far as the short term outlook for Rutgers and New Jersey as a whole, Hobbs explained, “we are taking a look at everything and our hope is all of the efforts that are happening on the public side help to continue to flatten the curve. Governor Murphy gave a list of six requirements that would need to take place in order for us to get back to some semblance of normal and relaxing the social distancing rules. Incoming Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway is going to sit on the committee/task force recently formed by the Governor, so Rutgers will have a voice at the table.”
Adding to an unusual period with the COVID-19 shutdown is the transition of leadership at Rutgers. Holloway officially takes over for Dr. Barchi on July 1st after previously serving as Provost at Northwestern and Dean of Yale College. While having an impeccable academic background, Holloway also played football at Stanford during his undergraduate career. His unique understanding of the place athletics has in the college experience is something that Hobbs hopes can be an asset for his department.
“We have had a chance to talk and everyone is very excited about him coming on board.” Hobbs did praise Dr. Barchi as well, stating that he “did a terrific job after being brought in to complete the largest merger in higher education history with adding the medical schools to Rutgers. In regard to Jonathan Holloway’s background, Hobbs made it clear that “he has great respect for student athletes and understands what they have to do to be successful studying and competing at the collegiate level. I think it’s a wonderful thing for our student athletes to have a President who understands what the demands are on their time and how they carry a special responsibility as public representatives of our university.”
One point that Hobbs and Holloway agree on is the importance that academics with student-athletes. “In our conversations, clearly he cares very deeply about the academic success of our student athletes. That absolutely resonated with me with my background as a former Law school dean and been a faculty member. That’s something I’ve paid particular attention to. Our coaches do as well,” said Hobbs. He continued, “we’ve had success as far as our academic performance, but we want to improve on it. I know one of the things that we will be working together on is making sure that where we can improve the academic experience for our student athletes we will do that.”
While Rutgers athletics has come under criticism over the years, including Hobbs’ financial management of the department by the university’s faculty, Holloway appears to be a much needed ally. “He sees the value of athletics to a big university. The expression is that it’s the front porch of a university. It’s also rallies alumni around an institution.” Hobbs explained, “Holloway certainly hopes for us to have success on the field, but you have to win the right way. Doing things with integrity will be very important to him, as it is to me. I think we will be very much in alignment as we go forward at a difficult time. I certainly feel bad that he has to arrive during what is hopefully his most difficult year ever as President at Rutgers. It’s a unique time but he is well prepared for the task ahead.”
One area that Hobbs has received unified praise for during his five year tenure has been the drastic improvement of athletic facilities across the department. Holloway’s current school, Northwestern, recently upgraded its football and basketball facilities as well. Hobbs stated, “They’ve made a very large investment into their athletic facilities at Northwestern with spectacular results, so he has certainly seem that. However, all that has to be balanced with the needs of the university. Particularly now with what we are going through.”
As for how the future is impacted by the current state of things from a facilities standpoint, Hobbs explained, “we will continue to do the work to develop a facilities master plan. Obviously, we want to have a football operations building that competes at the Big Ten level will be important. All of that has to weighed against the near term challenges we have as a university. Holloway sees the investments we’ve made to date and those investments are already paying significant dividends. You look at the performance of both our basketball programs this year. Wrestling is on the rise. Gymnastics too under head coach Umme Salim-Beasley, who is doing a tremendous job there. Facilities matter, but they also have to be in the context of all the needs of the university.”
As for an update on the completion of the Gary and Barbara Rodkin Academic Success Center, Hobbs clarified that “it’s on schedule to be completed next December, so we hope to move folks into that facility in January and February of 2021. It’s going to house our soccer and lacrosse programs. The Spring term 2021 will be moving everyone in. Higher education construction projects have not been halted, so that’s one that is moving forward. It’s already a spectacular building and people can see it. It’s going to be a best in class academic center for our student athletes. I think it will be a great hub and bring an interaction with our student athletes that they’ve never had before.”
In regard to the immediate future for college athletics for the coming fall and the next academic year, Hobbs painted the picture for what the shutdown has meant for him on a daily basis. “In my case, it’s sitting at the dining room table with my computer open and doing webex calls for week’s on end. I basically begin every day with a call with all the Big Ten athletic directors to provide updates about what’s going across our departments. I sit on a group that was just formed called the Big Ten Cost Containment Strike Force. There are four AD’s on it, myself, Josh Wittman (Illinois), Mark Coyle (Minnesota) and Sandy Barbour (Penn State). Right now we are throwing out ideas to do things to reduce costs for all of our schools as we look at our budgets and the challenges going forward. Maybe you can adjust your non-conference schedule, so you don’t have the same travel costs and things like that. Everything we can look at and do, we are doing.”
As for the probability that the fall sports will compete within its normal August to November schedule, Hobbs conceded it’s impossible to predict. He said, “there are a lot of conversations taking place and they all begin with we are monitoring what the healthcare professionals tell us. What state and local authorities tell us as far as relaxation of social distancing rules. What social distancing may be required moving forward. It’s very early to know what fall will look like. We all hope it will be a regular fall and we’ll get back to play and have a comfort level so that in September, Greg Schiano leads our team out on the field against Monmouth. But there are so many unknowns about that right now. We continue to monitor the information that we have.”
Many are concerned regarding the impact the loss of fall sports could have financially for college athletic departments across the country, specifically with football. Hobbs admitted how important that sport is to overall health of the department. “Fortunately we have some time. Not a lot of time, but May and June will tell us a lot about what the fall may look like. You are right that football is the main driver of our revenue. Whether it’s media rights, sponsorship, tickets, football is the lion share of the revenues we bring in as a department. It’s incredibly important to our financial success and budget, so we have some time. We’ll make the appropriate plans and at some point we’ll get through this. We’ll continue to monitor and bring the best thinking we can of how we move forward.”
While Rutgers has prohibited activities on campus until August 14, Hobbs said that would not prevent student athletes from returning prior to that date if deemed appropriate. “There was a line in that announcement in terms of athletics and training camps, that the schedule would be determined by the Big Ten.” Hobbs continued, “those conversations continue to happen at the conference level about how many weeks programs would need before the start of the fall season. Typically we are back with a four week training camp. That’s certainly what we are looking to do and might want to get the student athletes back for physicals and other things earlier than that. We don’t know right now. The university recognizes we might bring back student athletes before that August 14 date and are referring to the best guidance we are receiving out of the Big Ten.”
Longtime Rutgers fans who care about Olympic sports might be worried that fall sports don’t take place as normal, it could be bad news once again. Six programs were cut by Rutgers in 2006, well before Hobbs was in charge, and it would be fair to be concerned that could happen again, especially if football revenues are significantly down in the coming year.
When asked about that possibility, Hobbs stated, “right now there is no discussion of that. One thing I think some people don’t realize is that in some of our Olympic sports, there are very few scholarships. Many of those student athletes are either paying a partial tuition plus room and board, or full tuition with room and board. Our student athletes and department as a group, actually contribute pretty significantly to the tuition, room and board revenues at the university. There is not the savings one might think you’d have in those sports. They aren’t really there. It’s certainly something we would all want to avoid and there is no current conversation around that.”
As for the value that athletics have within a university, Hobbs had this to say when asked whether he felt critics of the department might change their tune with online learning having replaced campus life within the Rutgers community right now. “I know there are critics and sometimes they are given the highest platform to stand on, but what I’ve found overwhelmingly is that people appreciate what we are trying to do. They appreciate what athletics can bring to a university. I think this past men’s basketball season was a great illustration of the excitement that athletics can bring to a university.” He continued, “even if you aren’t the biggest sports fan, when you see your name being mentioned positively, as we were right on the verge of making the NCAA Tournament, there was tremendous excitement around our basketball program this year. The year before there was tremendous excitement around wrestling. I think the vast majority of people really see the value of an athletics program and what it can do for student athletes in providing them the opportunity to get an education. I look every year at commencement and see these young people, some of whom might not have been able to get to a university the stature of Rutgers and get a degree if it wasn’t for their athletic talent that gave them that opportunity.”
Hobbs went a step further and explained his understanding of the concerns those have about the financial strain the athletic department has placed on the university previously. “Obviously they want us to do better as as a program financially. I understand that resources are precious being someone that was on a faculty,” Hobbs said. He continued, “I know that and the challenges the faculty face everyday. You want to make sure they feel like we are contributing to the university. I think the best for Rutgers Athletics lies ahead and people will really enjoy the contribution we can make while we are also celebrating the great success of our academic institution.
As far as how athletics can help promote Rutgers as a whole, Hobbs stated, “It’s absolutely wonderful to see the credit being given to our scientists for the development of the saliva test. I think we in athletics have the opportunity to promote those successes. Whether it’s through public service announcements or on field recognition. Certainly as we get back into SHI stadium and the RAC, we are going to celebrate those academic and research achievements of our faculty. We’ll bring those folks out to center court or the 50 yard line and cheer on their tremendous talent.”
As for success within athletics, the men’s basketball team showed what is possible at Rutgers and Hobbs feels is just the beginning the for the entire department. “Steve is an exceptional coach and an exceptional person. I think what people have seen now is you find the right leadership in your program, you invest in that leadership, you provide them the resources they need in order to be able to compete and recruit.” He continued, “the coming of the RWJBarnabas health athletic performance center was a significant recruiting enhancement. It opened this past September and you already see the results that are happening on the recruiting trail for men’s basketball. You have a great coach, but you also have to give them the resources they need. For me, it’s a model for what we have to do across all of our programs. We need great leadership, and then you need to support that leadership. Now we can enjoy the fruits of that labor and dividends in the investment that we made.”
Hobbs expressed his excitement and optimism for both basketball programs specifically, stating, “Steve has this program poised for success for a very long time. This was not a blip year. I think our team will be even better next year with a great returning core that will be physically better. We are excited about them and our newcomers.”
He continued, “the same is true of what Vivian is doing. They had a very good year, were going to the NCAA Tournament again and they have a great recruiting class coming in. Those additional resources from a facilities standpoint has put her in a better position. You have two remarkably talented coaches and it was just exciting.”
As for how the season ended, he said “It was hard too, with the abrupt ending. I thought the men’s team was going to do very well in the Big Ten Tournament and expected them to win a couple of games in it. I actually thought we’d surprise some people and win a couple of games in the NCAA Tournament as well. Our kids were at the height of their confidence after late season wins at home against Maryland and on the road against Purdue. That’s when we were peaking as a team at that moment. Disappointing that it had to end while certainly understandable. The best of Rutgers basketball lies ahead.”
As for the challenges that all of the different programs at Rutgers have with the current situation, Hobbs explained the current focus across his department is geared towards their student athletes. “Our coaches are all working very hard with their current teams. This is an unusual experience for these young people. They are used to being around their team and go into the weight room being on campus. To not be able to do that is particularly challenging. It’s difficult but we are making sure we provide telemedicine and mental health resources. Our coaches play a big role in that, whether they are holding webex or zoom calls, that engagement has to happen. It’s happening in a more difficult way because it’s all remote.”
As far as how recruiting has changed with the current situation, Hobbs still feels confident that Rutgers has enough positives to highlight to prospects, even if it is being done remotely. “You also have to continue to recruit and do the things you need to do to build your program. Now in terms of the young people who are recruits that are coming up the ranks here in New Jersey, we think they are starting to see there is also the advantage of staying home. There is an advantage to being closer to home during difficult times. They are also seeing all of the investments that we’ve been making. Recruiting is different, of course, and would love to be able to bring kids on campus and show them what we are building. Our coaches are all working hard and there is uncertainty, but that exists in every industry and trade right now. We know at some point we will get past this and we will be well positioned for success going forward.”
One major change which Hobbs alluded to earlier in this interview is a renewed focus on scheduling non-conference opponents on a more local level. When asked specifically about his view on Rutgers making Princeton a priority across most sports when scheduling in the future, Hobbs explained that it was.
“The AD at Princeton, Mollie Marcoux Samaan, and I had a long call this week about doing just that. Are their ways we can schedule our programs more against each other?” While some programs at Rutgers have played Princeton in recent years, it hasn’t been on the scale that I think it should be. Hobbs seemed confident that would change, stating “they are local. Whether it’s basketball, field hockey, lacrosse, whatever it happens to be, it would be wonderful to play a local schedule. Particularly given the quality of play of so many Princeton teams. They are very strong and we’ve seen that playing them in the sports we have scheduled. We’d love to schedule more against Seton Hall as well and see a value in doing that.”
The benefits seem obvious, and Hobbs made them clear, stating “we can save some money and cut down in travel costs. They also build rivalries. Obviously, basketball fans have enjoyed our recent games against Seton hall now that we’ve improved. There is already a log of anticipation for next season’s game. That should be the same competing against Princeton across most sports. We are going to work together and are going to have conversations with our coaches about how we might keep more of our non-conference schedules local.”
As for what Rutgers fans can do right now to help the athletic department, Hobbs clearly stated “Number one, keep helping us to flatten the curve and follow all the social distancing rules that have been put in place. The only way we get back to doing what we love which is cheering on the Scarlet Knights, is getting to a point where we feel comfortable to do that. Let’s get back to our stadiums with whatever requirements that we need to follow. First and foremost, stay home, stay healthy and stay well. Those who are in a position to do so are contributing to relief funds. There will be opportunities to do that at Rutgers and support our student athletes, so we certainly will welcome that when the time comes.”
In regard to what Hobbs has accomplished so far in his five years at Rutgers, he reflected on the people who have helped push the athletic department forward and shaped what he thinks is a bright future ahead. “I’m proud of how hard everyone has worked and we have tremendous people within our deparment. We have an amazing group of coaches right now. Some relatively new, as well as the return of Greg Schiano. That’s enormously important for our football program moving forward. He’s already demonstrated success on the recruiting trail. The excitement he has generated already is tremendous.”
Hobbs wasn’t shy about his confidence on what lies ahead, despite the significant challenges currently underway. “I truly believe Rutgers Athletics is poised for its greatest chapter. The fans give great support and I think people see what’s coming. There has been a lot of hard work getting us to this point and there will be a lot to enjoy as we go forward. The passion around Rutgers athletics I don’t think has never been greater and it’s going to be rewarded. I appreciate everyone’s patience, as some of this takes time. It takes time to build facilities and do things to put coaches in a good position. I think we’ve never been better positioned for success as we go forward we are going to make a lot of noise across all of our programs in the future.”
As for his hope regarding his long term relationship with fans as athletic director, Hobbs was resolute in saying, “the two words I want to remove from the Rutgers vocabulary is “long suffering”. I thought we were just there with men’s basketball and now we have to wait one more year. I do think it will only be a one more year wait and I think there will be a lot of excitement with that program for a very long time. There is a return of excitement with our football program. We are going to go on a real fun run as a department for a long time. Fans deserve it and we are going to eliminate those two words.”
During turbulent times in our world and across the sports landscape, the leader of Rutgers athletics certainly is confident in what the future holds. For Rutgers fans, hope for better days ahead remains strong and there are many legitimate reasons for that optimism thanks to Hobbs, his staff and the coaches in place across the department.