The Rutgers men’s basketball program languished from a lack of support and commitment by the University and administration for decades. The results were obvious. Inadequate facilities, a lack of cohesion within the administration meant plenty of losing followed. Hope was not only absent, the idea of it was a cruel joke for fans who suffered in spite of it.
Over the previous three decades, Rutgers really only had two close calls to making the NCAA Tournament. In 1999, the Scarlet Knights were 17-7 but the bubble blew up in their face, losing the final four regular season games. The 2004 team that ultimately lost in the NIT Championship game was one play away from beating Virginia Tech on the road to putting themselves in the field. And really, that’s it.
I don’t need to rehash all of the scandals, missteps, close calls, transfers and failed coaching tenure after failed coaching tenure. If you are a Rutgers basketball fan, you know all too well. It wasn’t about getting so close and ultimately failing at the end. It was about witnessing destruction at the beginning and middle of the journey, only to be have to press the reset button time and time again.
What changed? It’s simple.
The hiring of Pat Hobbs as Athletic Director and Steve Pikiell as head coach. That is what changed and what has followed has become a dream scenario for Rutgers fans.
While there are many people who have helped the Rutgers men’s basketball team end a 30 year NCAA Tournament drought, it’s obvious it wouldn’t have ended anytime soon without these two integral figures leading the way.
In speaking with Pat Hobbs on Selection Sunday, he said, “When I hired Steve, I had no doubt we would get to this day. I didn’t know when this day would happen. He is that good of a coach. He is a program builder. There our guys that come in and can get you a couple of players and get you up there, but what Steve is building is sustainable. This is a program we will enjoy for many years to come.”
When it comes to Rutgers, nothing comes easy and making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three decades certainly did not. It’s been a process that took a lot of time, money, hard work and most importantly, leadership.
“Pat told me to do it the right way. Bring in great kids. I think that’s what we’ve done,” Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell said on Sunday after hearing his team’s name called as one of 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament. “We’ve climbed the gauntlet, this league is as tough as there is 1-14. We’ve been able to do some things that have helped our program a lot.”
While the RAC has become one of the best homecourt advantages in the country under Pikiell, it was never an ideal home for a program competing against the arms race that is commonplace within the Big Ten. Sharing the RAC with other programs and not having a dedicated area for the program was a huge problem that has finally been resolved. The completion of the RWJBarnabas Health Athletic Performance Center was a sign to longtime Rutgers fans that things were finally starting to change.
“Building a new practice facility the APC has helped us a tremendous amount. It wouldn’t have happened without Pat’s leadership,” said Pikiell. “Very thankful he has been by my side. I appreciate his vision. I appreciate that he appreciates the student-athletes that we’ve recruited. Everybody has graduated since I’ve been here. All of that is a tip of the hat to Pat. You can’t do these things, everyone talks about the coach, if the President and AD, you don’t win in a league as good as this without the commitment from everybody. I’m very thankful that we have that at Rutgers.”
The support that the men’s basketball team has gotten under the leadership of Hobbs has been unprecedented at Rutgers compared to previous athletic directors. That fact shouldn’t make the success the program is now experiencing a surprise but after years of epic failure, it was hard to truly believe this day would come.
“I have to credit all the Rutgers folks who contributed to the RWJBarnabas Health Athletic Performance Center,” Hobbs said. “I spoke with Barry Ostrowsky (CEO of RWJBarnabas) earlier today. I thanked him. ‘We don’t get here without you.’”
Hobbs continued in speaking about the commitment it takes to build a winning program, stating, “We don’t get here without all the other people that contributed to building that building. It’s part of what builds a program. It’s hard to do things if you don’t get your coach the assets that he needs to be successful. Steve and I talked about that when I was hiring him. I said ‘we are going to work our tails off to give you everything you need to be successful. This is a moment for everyone at Rutgers. The administration. Our donors. All the alums. Season ticket holders. The people who for 30 years have been waiting for this moment. This is their moment.”
That support has only been elevated with new Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway entering the fold.
“President Holloway and Pat Hobbs, you are only as good as your bosses,” said Pikiell. “They both share the same vision. The President wants to win but wants student-athletes to have a great experience. He wants good student-athletes academically. Great kids that win in basketball. Represent the school the right way.”
The fact that Rutgers overcame last year’s unthinkable ending of having the NCAA Tournament cancelled just as the program was finally in a position to earn an at-large berth makes this season’s accomplishment even more impressive. That fact is not lost on Hobbs.
“It does (feel more special). Not only did we beat 30 years of history, but we beat a pandemic too,” said Hobbs. “To have to hold your breath for almost a year while you are trying to get back to this moment, it makes it even more special there is no question about it. I think we are one of the few programs in the country that didn’t have miss a football game and didn’t miss a basketball game due to Covid. That’s a credit to everyone. Not just for what they’re doing on the court, but for all the care and vigilance they’ve exercised off the court.”
“For two years now, this has been a journey,’’ Pikiell said. “Last year never ended. The season just stopped. So not being able to play last year just carried over to this year. And this year was challenging in so many ways but this team kept plugging away. This league was daunting. You saw nine Big Ten teams get in, so every night was a challenge. But just happy for our guys. They did all the sacrificing. They did all the work. They made history. They were the one team that was able to do it. I know last year we did it but no one gives you credit for last year. These guys get the credit they deserve this year.’’
Hobbs heaped praise on everyone in the basketball program, stating, “Like I’m sure all of the Rutgers faithful did as well, I woke up today early with a smile on my face. I’ll be smiling all day. Just a great appreciation for the moment and what it means to Rutgers nation and all the people who have worked so hard to get here through the years. I can’t say enough about Steve, his coaching staff, the trainers, our strength coaches and of course our student athletes.”
As for the reaction that Hobbs has received, he said, “It’s wonderful. Obviously both our phones are blowing up. it’s all good stuff which is great. People are super excited. You can feel the electricity in the air even with our program. We were right there last year and that moment gets snatched away. There is a little part of you that says, will we get back? There is a little part of you that says, of course we will get back. But it’s a year of pressure. The pressure that’s been on these young guys and Steve is not just that it’s one year, you are carrying the hopes and aspirations and dreams of a lot of people who have been waiting 30 years for this moment. So enormous pressure this year which is even more of a credit to the job Steve Pikiell has done. The kids have been great. We have a great culture within our team. They love and support each other. Couldn’t be happier for this day. Can’t wait to hear Rutgers name being announced and feeling the joy of 500,000 living alums”
Hobbs insists that this moment for Rutgers basketball is one of many to come in the future, but also signals the beginning of something special for the entire athletic department.
“One of the things I say all the time is, we are in the process of writing the greatest chapter in Rutgers athletics history. This is the beginning of that chapter. Look at what the other sports are doing. If you look at all of our programs right now, they are a little bit behind Steve but they’re coming up. There is excitement. This is going to be a decade of a lot of fun for Rutgers folks. They’ve been waiting a long time for it, so I’m happy for this moment. But this is the beginning. This is not ‘hey let’s just enjoy this one year’. We are not a one and done program, I’ll tell you that.”
As for the role he has played in turning around Rutgers basketball, Hobbs appreciates how far the program has come but also has a focus on keeping things moving forward.
“To be part of this build has been very special. I’ve always looked at Rutgers and said ‘why not Rutgers?’ To be able to part of that is very special for me,” said Hobbs. “It’s something I will always treasure. I just want it to keep going. That’s why I credit all of those folks because we are going to need their help. This build isn’t done. We need to keep building and investing in our programs. Then you get this joy. That’s how you get a Selection Sunday where you get to have that euphoria. I just feel great for everybody and the smile will not come off my face today.”
Rutgers fans hope to keep that smile for years to come and with Hobbs and Pikiell leading the way, it’s easy to believe it will.