There’s been enough bad publicity at Rutgers in the past year to fill an entire edition of the Newark-Star Ledger. Of course, that would upset athletic director Julie Hermann, who told a group of Rutgers journalism students it’d be “great” if the New Jersey newspaper went out of business.
But that was mild compared to other happenings in Piscataway – the Mike Rice incident; Hermann’s hiring; Eddie Jordan’s resume snafu; abuse allegations on the football team; inviting, uninviting and re-inviting Eric LeGrand to speak at graduation and quarterback Phillip Nelson’s assault and dismissal from the team.
Got all that?
That’s as much negative press as Ohio State, Miami and USC received during football-only scandals. Still, there’s a jolt of energy hovering over campus, as coaches, players and fans await the official arrival of Rutgers’ new Big Ten era.
“The fan base is definitely excited,” said Lauren Buckle, a Rutgers alum and season ticket-holder. “Everyone has their ‘R’ magnets on their cars, they have car flags waving, you see ‘R’s’ in everyone’s office all over the place. At least in our home state, everyone’s really excited. There’s a lot of buzz in the air.”
Head football coach Kyle Flood, who recently called the Big Ten and Rutgers “a perfect marriage,” is among the most giddy spectators, and he happens to have a front row seat. It will be an entirely new movie for the State University of New Jersey, with unknown actors and unfamiliar sights. Ohio State and Michigan, Columbus and Ann Arbor differ dramatically from Rutgers’ past landscape.
That’s not to say the Scarlet Knights have been deprived of big-time college football – Miami, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Rich Rodriguez’s West Virginia and Donovan McNabb’s Syracuse are past conference foes – but the weekly grind, super-sized stadiums and passionate fan bases is territory not yet traversed by Rutgers, which played in the first ever college football game – and that’s about where the history stops.
“I think this is going to be a historic year in the history of our university, not just the football program,” said Flood, as he was promoting Rutgers in New York City. “As I’ve said to the team, first impressions count. As a university and as a football program, we want to put the right foot forward immediately as we step into this conference. We understand the challenges, but we’re looking forward to them as well.”
The 2014 recruiting class reflected looming changes. Flood and staff signed 26 players, nine of which are offensive or defensive linemen, six from talent-rich Florida and five from Big Ten states (Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania).
Since Rutgers emerged from its 136-year hibernation in 2005, there have been eight bowl games in nine seasons. Flood took over after Greg Schiano departed for the Buccaneers, having served as his offensive line and assistant head coach. The blue-collar hard-working mentality remained.
The Scarlet Knights win in a fashion that’s still familiar to Ohio State fans – conservative, pro-style offense mixed with a smash-mouth defense. It’s called Tresselball in Buckeye parlance. Rutgers has continued that style – and going to bowl games – under Flood. Even though many would consider it to be a brand of Big Ten football, there’s no guarantee Rutgers will be competitive in the landmine-riddled eastern division.
Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State will be annual opponents on the field and on the recruiting trail. Flood has already taken to calling the Nittany Lions that “team from Pennsylvania.”
“We’re looking forward to [playing in the Big Ten]. I think our players are really looking forward to the challenge,” Flood said on WFAN. “Two years ago, we scheduled a home-and-home with Arkansas. I remember so many people that I ran in to were saying ‘If we could just be competitive.’ I knew we’d be much more than that. We beat them down there, and they came up here and we beat them up here, too. We try to schedule aggressively. We open the year at Washington State, which will be a tremendous challenge.
“As I look at our schedule, 10 of the 11 Division I [teams] on our schedule were bowl-eligible last year. We’re excited about it as a program. As a guy who grew up in the area, to finally have a Big Ten team we can call our own is something I dreamed about as a young person.”
So have fans. On this season’s home schedule are Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin. It’s an attractive slate for people used to watching Connecticut, Cincinnati and South Florida. Simply leaving the Artist Formerly Known as the Big East receives the largest applause.
Rutgers’ one-year stint in the American Athletic Conference didn’t create mass enthusiasm throughout New Jersey. When you start mentioning Big Ten and schools that carry significant national brand recognition, the hype meter rises significantly.
“It’s more moving on to bigger and better things. Just knowing that we’re going to be a part of the Big Ten,” Buckle said. “It’s an exciting opportunity for the university as a whole – academics and athletics. But for athletics, it’s a chance for Rutgers to be in the college football limelight next to these huge, powerful teams that we always hear about. Now, we get to share the field with them.
“From a recruiting standpoint, this is going to be great for encouraging talented high school kids to come play and be a Scarlet Knight. Our team is young now, but down the line, it’s going to help our team grow.”
In return, Rutgers will allow the Big Ten to grow. The conference’s footprint now expands from the Great Plains to the Northeast Corridor. Rutgers’ proximity to New York City – the No. 1 media market in the country – made its appeal resemble that of Kate Upton.
Time Warner Cable and Cablevision, two major cable providers in the New York area, recently agreed to terms with the Big Ten Network. Comcast is next in line, and media experts believe the cable titan and BTN will come to a deal before football season.
“It’s really exciting to be New York City’s Big Ten football team,” Flood said. “I think we’ve proven over the time that we are the college football team that moves the needle in New York City. That’s well-documented. I think that will only become greater with the schedule that we’ll have going forward.”
Aside from undesirable news stories, the biggest problem facing Rutgers’ football team is about reality, not perception. In recent seasons, a lack of consistency and late-season breakdowns has stunted the program’s growth. The Scarlet Knights were 7-0 and 9-1 in 2012 before stumbling to a 9-4 record. They lost six of their final eight games a year ago, a 6-7 record marking the first losing season since 2010.
Guess again, though, if you think it’s spoiled the good feelings surrounding Rutgers’ Big Ten rebirth. Season ticket renewals and purchases are at an all-time high and the Oct. 4 night game versus Michigan is being billed as arguably the most anticipated in school history.
Not even a few bad headlines could be a roadblock for this parade.
“The Rutgers community is so much stronger and so much above the poor p.r. choices that someone in an office that works for Rutgers makes,” Buckle said. “We, as fans, are definitely disappointed in the decisions that they’ve made. But it doesn’t make us less proud to be a Scarlet Knight.”