A spring tradition is returning to Rutgers football. On Monday’s media call with head coach Greg Schiano, he confirmed that the annual spring awards that were discontinued in 2016 by former coach Chris Ash have been reinstated.
“We are going to have the spring awards. I always thought that was a nice thing for the guys to receive. It honored some guys that maybe otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity to be honored. We’ll bring those back.”
The spring awards were decades old before Ash got rid of them in his first offseason on the banks. They likely would have returned last year after Schiano returned to Rutgers, but spring practice was cancelled due to COVID-19.
There are three annual spring awards and are as follows:
The Frank R. Burns Award, which is given to the player who “displays extraordinary mental and physical toughness” during spring practice and is named after the former quarterback and legendary all-time winningest head coach in Rutgers history. It was first awarded in 1990 and past recipients include Ryan Neill, Kevin Malast, Pete Tverdov, Mason Robinson, KaLail Glaud and was last awarded to Nick Arcidiacono in 2015, the last with Kyle Flood as head coach.
The Mark Mills Second Effort Award is given to the Most Improved Offensive Player.
The Douglas A. Smith Award is given to the Most Improved Defensive Player.
Mills was a fullback and Smith was a defensive lineman in the early 80’s. Both players died from brain conditions after experiencing symptoms during spring practice just two years apart from each other.
These awards began in 1980 but were named after both players to honor their memories soon after their deaths.
Past offensive players to win the Mills Award include current players Bo and Max Melton’s father, Gary, as well as Terrell Willis, Marco Battaglia, Kevin Haslam, Kenny Britt, Tim Wright, Janarion Grant and most recently J.J. Denman.
Past defensive players to win the Smith Award include Harry Swayne, Jay Bellamy, Gary Brackett, Jason McCourty, Pete Tverdov, Khaseem Greene, Quentin Gause and lastly Saquan Hampton.
At the time in 2016, Ash explained his decision for discontinuing the tradition by stating, “There are a lot of changes that have gone on here. There are a lot of things that have been traditional here at Rutgers. It’s a new era,” Ash said. “I’m going to do things the way that I think they need to be done and the way that I want them to be done. I’ve said this several times to people: If it’s the same way that business has been done in the past and that’s the way that I want to do it, great. If it’s different, it’s different. I could apologize for it, but I’m not.”
Our reaction at On The Banks was to call the move the “biggest blunder of the Ash Era” at the time. Bob Cancro gave passionate reasoning for why the awards should be continued, including an argument that stripping program traditions was a questionable line to cross.
“Do I want to respect traditions of the past at Rutgers? Absolutely,” Ash said. “But if it’s not what fits me or fits what I want moving forward, then we are going to have a discussion moving forward on whether it’s worth doing or not. Right now, I just don’t feel it’s the right time to do that. We’re nowhere ready to give anybody an award for anything,” Ash said. “To give an award for most improved on offense or defense, I couldn’t even begin to tell you who that would be. And I don’t think anybody wants to get a fake award just because it’s something that’s going on.”
Ash did make the following proclamation at the time, stating, “As we move forward, if I think next spring it’s something that fits into our program than we will re-evaluate it,” Ash said.
Spoiler alert....the awards never came back until now, thanks to Schiano.
Now in his second tenure on the banks, traditions that began during his first run at Rutgers include the “Keep Chopping” mantra, carrying the axe out at the beginning of games, as well as the pregame ritual of the Scarlet Walk. He has also embraced traditions of the past, including postseason awards established in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s. Now he has brought back spring awards that were a tradition that meant a lot to people around the program and to those of us who have followed it for many years.
Restoring pride in Rutgers football was Schiano’s first objective in his return and he did that with a surprise 2020 campaign that tied a program best three Big Ten wins. By restoring the tradition of the spring awards that honor three significant figures in Rutgers history, he is reconnecting the program to its past, to former players and the fan base in a way that did not occur in recent years before his return. The calendar just turned to May, but Schiano already produced a big win for many this spring.