Labor day weekend. Commemorated as an unofficial summer's end and autumn's introduction, every school-child, college freshman, and every avid football fan, recognizes “LDW” as a benchmark for new beginnings. It’s the harbinger of crisp air, crumbling leaves, and the ambitious pursuit of new goals.
When the Scarlet Knights take the field to kick off labor day weekend 2021, on Thursday September 2nd, it will mean all of that and much more to the masses of Rutgers faithful expected to be in attendance for a game under the lights. These are the dedicated and diehard fans who have waited almost 2 years to catch a glimpse of what has been deemed by assistant coach Fran Brown as “Schiano 2.0”. These are the supporters who have missed smoky fall tailgates, “R! U!” chants, forced fumbles, blocked kicks, and the creation of a deafening thunder as one of the most mentally tough defenses in the nation prepares to make a 3rd down stand.
Those things also signify Rutgers football as they've come to know it under Coach Greg Schiano. But aside from an unexpectedly impressive conference-only run last season absent those fans, we have yet to experience what that brand of football looks like in person in the Big Ten.
At his introductory press conference, Schiano was clear: “...we need you on the scarlet walk, we need that packed. We need you in that stadium. We need that stadium packed because those kids lay it on the line, and we don’t need it — with all due respect, we don’t need it when we’re seventh in the country, fifth in the country, first in the country. We need it right now....”
Unfortunately, for several seasons leading up to that press conference, there hadn't been much for Rutgers fans to cheer for. While our student athletes have always deserved our support, and the most faithful amongst us weathered the storm, by and large the years between 2014 and 2020 were dire ones. Rutgers showed promise in 2014 going 8-5 overall, with a respectable 3-5 record in the Big Ten as a newcomer. That was the year Kyle Flood’s squad beat Washington State in a season-opening thriller, Michigan in a blacked-out night game for the ages, and then Indiana and Maryland en route to trouncing UNC in the Quick Lane Bowl to end Quarterback Gary Nova's career on a high note. That team, comprised of many Schiano-era recruits, still resembled the program that he had built.
But it was all downhill from there. Rutgers went a combined 13-47 over the next 5 years. Gone were the days from 2009-2014, when Rutgers led the nation in blocked kicks, and when turnovers seemed to be an every-quarter occurrence. Gone were the seasons when their defense and special teams always gave them a fighting chance. We'd almost forgotten that that brand of Rutgers football had ever existed. Stadium crowds dwindled. Spectators were even more sparse after halftime, and thundering, raucous masses had become a thing of the past.
But then came 2020. Then came the Michigan State game and the return of Schiano. In a delayed COVID-19 season, with weary fans relegated to a makeshift setup of tables and projection screens on George Street, Rutgers players and coaches delivered on the enthusiasm and promise the returning head coach had projected in his opening presser. Rutgers grabbed four turnovers in the first half alone. Special teams capitalized on a muffed punt. The offense complimented the defense by finishing drives and playing hard, limiting mistakes. Rutgers won that game 38-27. The 2020 season also saw them beat Purdue 37-30, Maryland 27-24, and take Michigan to a thrilling 3 overtimes before missing what would have been a game-clinching field goal, and losing on a touchdown.
Many college football observers across the country were both impressed and perplexed as to how Schiano could have presided over such a drastic improvement in such little time and one that was marred by the complications of COVID-19. But those who had been paying attention to subtleties and initial indicators had expected it all along. He immediately brought back proven coaching methods from both a schematic and cultural standpoint. The “CHOP” and “F.A.M.I.L.Y." mantras right away took center stage. It was also evident early, that the “2.0” iteration of Schiano was going to be a more mature, balanced, and efficient head football coach.
He spoke about how he would be different in that opening presser and said, “...players are the biggest focus, whereas the first time around, it was plays, it was schemes, it was techniques. I’ll hire really, really good coaches and they are going to be excellent at that, and I’ll help because I have 30 years of experience.”
This approach was key to the program getting off to such a fast start in his return. Schiano hired coaches who were already familiar with the culture, which allowed for a faster implementation of his core philosophies. Wide Receivers coach Tiquan Underwood was a former standout player under Schiano from ‘05-’08, Defensive Coordinator Robb Smith worked under Schiano at Rutgers from ‘09-’11 and served as his linebackers coach with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013. Secondary coach Fran Brown, originally from Camden, and Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach Sean Gleeson, originally from Glen Ridge and a former Princeton assistant coach, are both Jersey guys who were familiar with Schiano’s prior tenure and bought into his values.
Unlike his first stint at Rutgers, where despite his vast successes, he suffered criticism for mismanaging quarterbacks and offensive coordinators, Schiano last season seemed content to hand the reigns of the offense to Gleeson. Running a spread offense for the first time with him as head coach, Rutgers made vast strides on the offensive side of the football. As Patrick Mulranen of the Press of Atlantic City pointed out: “Rutgers scored 290 points [in 2020] against all Big Ten opponents. [In 2019], it scored only 51 points in nine conference games. Rutgers also averaged 300 yards per game and was the fifth-most improved offense in the nation, scoring an average of more than 13 points per game, compared to .”
On the Defensive side, Rutgers was back to its old equalizing bag of tricks, going from a -13 turnover ratio to a +5. Look for that improvement to continue this season, as Keith Sargeant of NJ Advanced Media has reported, players are walking around shouting “Ball is the Program” during training camp.
With Schiano having the ability to concentrate more on personalities, the big picture, and branding, while delegating more detailed responsibilities to his assistants, recruiting has surged. Rutgers’ 2022 class is currently ranked 17th nationally per 247 sports. The program has also been able to add key transfers. They’ve been able to reach those heights partially because Schiano has handed day-to-day recruiting duties to talented young coaches like Fran Brown and Augie Hoffman, while serving as one of the best recruiting closers in college football.
Neither recruits nor fans will miss a beat in witnessing the program that they saw take massive steps forward last season. Rutgers will return 20 of 22 starters and every assistant coach. Just to illustrate how important that is: this will be only the second time Rutgers has returned an offensive coordinator since Kirk Ciarrocca in 2009-’10. And, assuming Gleeson doesn't depart mid-year like John McNulty in 2019, it'll be the first time since Ciarrocca that Rutgers has had the same offensive coordinator for two successive seasons. That is huge for the team and for the continued development of the Quarterback room, vital to the success of any program.
So get ready for season 2 of “Schiano 2.0.” This year, there will be out of conference games and not just a relentless Big Ten schedule. This year, the rolling grassy fields around SHI Stadium will be abuzz with flags waiving scarlet, sizzling grills, and palpable enthusiasm. This year, that first ride of the knight across the field, that first emergence of the team out of the tunnel, that first ovation for a returning icon of the program, will be a moment of intensity for the ages. Whether you’ve got expectations high or reserved, whether the Knights end their bowl drought or just miss the postseason, nothing is going to take away from how special and important this season will be.
Fans have had to wait over a year to see in person, the vision that Coach Schiano had laid out so inspiringly at the Hale Center upon his return.
The wait is finally over.