Rutgers fans have been through a lot over the years. The Chris Ash era tested even the longest tenured and most loyal among us. Epic losing and joyless football will do that. Better days are here with even better ones on the horizon, but the scars are not completely healed.
A schism has formed within the fan base and it’s bothered me for awhile now. I think when pain and suffering occurs, people handle it in different ways. Let me point out that rooting for Rutgers athletics is not a life or death issue and there are greater problems in the world. However, being passionate about Rutgers is one aspect of life that helps define many of us. After a decade or respectability and more winning than losing, we all grieved differently when the state of the football program became an utter embarrassment in recent years, both on and off the field.
While the hiring and return of Greg Schiano as head coach brought a large portion of the fan base together in a way that put public pressure and helped force the administration’s will in a way never seen at Rutgers previously, it also created a divide.
Two factions were born — Those who were all in on Schiano and those who were not.
I said publicly on the On The Banks podcast the day that Ash was fired that Schiano was the right choice to take over for multiple reasons. Many Rutgers fans thought the same thing. A grassroots campaign that raised almost half a million dollars for him to be hired made that fact clear. However, there were some in the fan base that were leery of the possibility. Just because Schiano has erased any doubts that he was in fact the right choice, it doesn’t make those who had initial doubts wrong for having them.
Since Schiano’s hiring in December 2019, posts by fans on social media, message boards and on fan forums have been created with the sole purpose of shaming or calling out those who didn’t want him back, weren’t sure or wanted other candidates to be considered. Of course, these types of comments are made more commonly after one of last season’s three victories and more recently after a big win on the recruiting trail. Every step forward Schiano makes, some fans relish letting those who didn’t initially believe that they were wrong.
I understand the excitement of seeing Schiano thriving in his return less than two years into his tenure. It’s thrilling, actually. However, bragging you knew he would be a major success all along and doing so in a way to denigrate other Rutgers fans is divisive. It’s also the opposite of what Schiano wants you to do.
In his introductory press conference after being hired, he made an impassioned plea by stating “It’s really important now that we all come together. Collectively, here on campus; collectively in the State of New Jersey. New Jersey has always been a place, and I said this 19 years ago, it’s always been a place, north Jersey, south Jersey. You know what, we really had it cranking here. There was no division. There was no division in high school football and there was no division on what there was. New Jersey, look, they have got the Giants and the Jets, you’ve got the Eagles, right — I get it. You have two major cities that border our state. There’s one thing that’s all about just us, and that’s Rutgers, and it’s Rutgers University, Rutgers athletics and Rutgers Football. So we have a great opportunity to join everybody together, and that’s what we need to do.”
The biggest reason to drop the condescending and unnecessary quips and digs targeted at Scarlet Knights fans that weren’t sure about Schiano at the start is because it’s counterproductive to his mission in restoring Rutgers football. I’m not sure if he is a Pink Floyd fan or not, but I do know Schiano believes in their famous lyric, “together we stand, divided we fall.”
Another reason fans who weren’t all in should be given a break is because Schiano has gotten off to an almost flawless start back on the job. Hindsight is 20/20 and while there were obvious positives that made Schiano a natural fit for Rutgers, there were legitimate and fair reasons to wonder whether it was the best decision.
As monumental of a job Schiano did in building Rutgers into a consistent winner in his first tenure, things had plateaued. In the five seasons following the historic 2006 campaign when the Scarlet Knights went 11-2 and were no. 12 in the final AP poll, they went 38-26 with four bowl wins but without being ranked at the end of the year. The four winning seasons in that five year period were a pair of eight win and nine win campaigns. The momentum from 2006 was gone and while Schiano had created a sustainable winner, the best bowl game they had gone to was the Pinstripe Bowl. Amazing for Rutgers, solid at best for most other power programs. Wondering whether bringing him back was a form of settling was fair.
Had Schiano stayed for the 2012 season and not left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I think Rutgers would have had its best results since 2006. That team had arguably the best defense in school history, had seven players selected in that year’s NFL Draft, but only won 9 games and just missed winning the Big East outright and going to the Sugar Bowl. They were still one of the best Rutgers teams ever, but how they would have ultimately performed with Schiano, who reeled in the best recruiting class in program history that same year, remains one of the biggest what if’s in Rutgers history.
For those that were too young, not involved or unaware to remember this or have context of Schiano’s first run on the banks, it’s hard to blame them for not seeing the clear positives with his candidacy. I still remember the Sports Illustrated article from 20 years ago questioning whether Rutgers should even continue its pursuit of big time college football. I hated it but also worried whether they would ever take real steps forward. Schiano changed perception and made real progress a reality. For those of us who lived through it, we will never forget the miracle of sorts that he pulled off. For those that didn’t, the legacy left is still positive but harder to understand the details of the success achieved.
Reunions with head coaches also fail more than they succeed and I know there were some Rutgers fans who still had a bad taste in their mouths in the manner Schiano left right before signing day, fair or not. While athletic director Tim Pernetti saved the best recruiting class in program history at the time by hiring Kyle Flood, it ultimately put Rutgers on a path of steep decline. Schiano took the best coaches and personnel the program had at the time and left it in the not so capable hands of Kyle Flood. You can’t blame people for not wanting to get back together with their ex-partner after a breakup contributed to long term damage for the side left to deal with the aftermath of it.
Another reason to not blame the doubters is that Schiano has proven quickly in his return that he is simply a better version than he was in his initial tenure. It’s obvious the experience he has gained from his NFL stint, as defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Ohio State, spending time with Bill Belichick and taking time to gain perspective, Schiano has not just hit the ground running in his return to Rutgers. He’s been chopping his program up the Big Ten ladder since the day he arrived in way that would have been unfair to expect early on. He has hired arguably the best coaching staff in program history and added legitimate talent to the roster quickly. He is projected to sign the best recruiting class in Rutgers history next winter, topping that 2012 class. Success in all areas was expected over time, but his start has been sensational and hard to predict that it was even possible right away. Especially during a pandemic.
Schiano has won over internal critics and reaffirmed believers that he is the best option to make Rutgers a consistent winner once again. Aside from unifying the fan base in believing in what he is doing, Schiano is also changing perception in the Big Ten.
After winning three league games last season, Schiano attended his first Media Day last week and PennLive’s David Jones, who has covered the conference for year, ranked him no. 1 of all league coaches for his press conference performance. Jones wrote “As purely a public speaker, I’ve seen few peers in college athletics. He has a cadence and emphasis on key words and a focused countenance that makes people want to hear what he says. Lots of successful politicians aren’t as good at it. That’s partly why I think RU is going to eventually be big trouble in Schiano’s new realm, not the Big East but the B1G East.”
I will add that due to my own career, I have worked rooms with past Presidents, other prominent politicians, A-list actors, musicians and other celebrities. Schiano’s presence and command of a room is equal with the best I’ve ever encountered in person. He’s got the “It Factor” in abundance and knows how to harness it even more now. He is giving hope of being a potentially unstoppable force in charge of the program. Schiano has a confidence and comfort with how he is rebuilding the program that is next level from his first go around.
It’s easy to look back and say I told you so. At the end of the day, Rutgers fans span a diverse group with different timelines, experiences and context. It’s time to end the nose rubbing and name calling among us. Whether you wanted Schiano back as coach or not, we are all Rutgers fans. We’ve all dealt with enough heartbreak and pain rooting for our beloved teams for a lifetime of fandom. There is no need to inflict more pain upon our own, especially when the doubters concede they were wrong and things are finally turning around for all of us.
The fact that Schiano has won pretty much everyone over before he has even had a winning season only reaffirms that he is the best person to be leading Rutgers. The fan base as a whole now believes in him. It doesn’t matter if it took some longer than others to feel this way. He has already changed the perception of the program from a laughingstock to one chopping toward respectability within the Big Ten. With his current approach and strong foundation in place, true and continued success in the future is very possible.
Let’s enjoy the ride together as a fan base rather than be one split with some calling shotgun because they were first in the car. There is room for everybody. The bigger and stronger the fan base is, the greater impact it will have in representing the school, the program and the entire athletic department across the Big Ten. The bigger the brand, the more it will help Rutgers in the long term. Remember, Schiano told you so.