An Unhealthily Rabid Rutgers Fan’s Post-Mortem On The Greg Schiano Era
Rutgers football was less than a week away from signing the best recruiting class in program history. Here are the players committed now. That's not a bad class already. And since Rutgers was the favorite to land defensive end Darius Hamilton - Rivals' 11th-ranked player in the country - and quarterback Devin Fuller (Rivals' 37th-ranked player), that class stood to get a lot better in those last few days.
That class was going to get so good, in fact, that I took to joking with friends that for his signing day press conference this year, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano would get obnoxiously overconfident at signing the class that would finally get the program he built from nothing over the hump. He'd strut out to the podium wearing a smoking jacket (possibly a top hat as well) and puffing on a cigar. He'd tell reporters they were very welcome for the opportunity to be in his presence, instead of thanking them for being there. Instead of thanking his entire staff for their hard work, Schiano would simply say, "I'm very thankful for myself. This class was all me."
That's not going to happen. Well, okay, fine, it was never going to happen anyway, but we Rutgers fans figured that at least when the signing day presser came around, Schiano would be there. And then, it came out that he was, shockingly, the new head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And now everything's in flux. Fuller and Hamilton suddenly look like longshots. Some of the guys already committed look like longshots. Rutgers was so close. And that's fitting.
Because "so close" was the main problem with the Greg Schiano era. Before Rutgers was so close to closing the deal on an excellent 2012 recruiting class, they were one win away from finally grabbing a share of a Big East title last season. What happened? A 40-22 blowout loss to an inferior Connecticut team. In 2006, Rutgers was a win at West Virginia away from winning the conference outright and locking up a BCS bowl berth. The result that time? A soul-crushing 41-39 triple overtime defeat I can barely bring myself to think about even today. In 2007, having built up so much momentum and being so close to a big-time national breakthrough...the team backslid to an 8-5 record.
More than the record
Schiano drastically improved Rutgers but leaves without ever fully breaking through and winning a conference title. That's the thing about Schiano's tenure, though: that Rutgers football is even at a point where it makes sense to discuss conference titles speaks to just how much Schiano achieved. When he was hired, Rutgers was probably the worst Division I-A football program in the country. It's hard to put into words just how bad the program was, so I'll let the cold hard facts speak for me. This is the record of Schiano's predecessor, Terry Shea. Explore at your own risk.
Sure, Schiano finished with an overall mediocre-looking record (68-67) that he aided with some famously weak non-conference schedules. But I can tell you this: growing up a short distance from Rutgers' campus, in the years before Schiano got there, the awfulness of Rutgers football was practically an organizing principle of the universe. Every game against a decent team was an almost guaranteed blowout loss. That continued in Schiano's first couple seasons (thanks largely to the mess he inherited), but he eventually changed that perception, and he changed it for good.
Instead - and this especially comes into focus knowing he won't be around anymore - Schiano's presence itself became the organizing principle. And considering where the program was before he took it over, that wasn't such a bad thing. Sure, he was a stubborn control freak (this piece from Dan Levy, who's worked with Schiano directly, illustrates that control freakishness) who infuriated us sometimes with those qualities, but he was our stubborn control freak who occasionally drove us crazy, dammit. Schiano preached the motto F.A.M.I.L.Y. (Forget About Me, I Love You - corny, but oh well), and after long enough, he almost felt like family to fans.
It's personal, too
It's no wonder - 11 years in one place is a long time in modern college football - and why ultimately, it's hard to fault him for a lack of loyalty in leaving. Hell, I practically feel like I owe him a personal debt. As I've mentioned approximately 30,000 times on this site, I'm a Rutgers alum. As I haven't mentioned 30,000 times, I spent much of my undergraduate career - especially the first three years - not enjoying myself that much, not making friends, and generally being in a state where I identified with this piece a lot more than I wish I did.
The exception: Schiano's program. I even remember thinking going into my sophomore year - the last month or so of my freshman year was the roughest patch - how much it was going to suck if the football team, my main source of Rutgers-related entertainment, wasn't any good (this was before they'd started being reliably solid). The first semester of my sophomore year: fall 2006. This season. Yeah, it had the heartbreaking West Virginia loss I mentioned earlier. It also had 11 wins, a No. 12 national ranking, and the Louisville game. For all my "so close" talk, the Louisville game was not a "so close" situation. It was such a perfect night it still seems hard to believe it was even real.
Schiano made it all happen, and he stuck around long enough that the dark days of Shea are a distant memory. But as tough as that makes it to question his loyalty to the program - he turned down Miami and Michigan in consecutive years, for crying out loud - it's much easier to question how well-equipped he is to handle the NFL. Sure, he won some games. He produced NFL players in quantities unheard of for Rutgers. He ran a pro-style offense (except for a couple ill-fated seasons), and his ability to coach a defense is not in question.
But Schiano also took after (and coached for several years under) Joe Paterno, who stuck around the college game for just a while. Schiano also seemed to be one of the few coaches who paid more than lip service to academics. His terrific handling of the terrible, though later inspiring, Eric LeGrand situation spoke to a personal connection he'd built with his players and program that's next to impossible in the pros. And what definitely won't be possible in Tampa Bay, as Levy also touched on: the level of control over his team Schiano enjoyed in Piscataway.
OK, so maybe Schiano was unhappy about the conference raids, as the musical chairs game left the Big East in shambles and Rutgers (for now, at least) without a home in a more stable conference. He's still leaving a program with a promising future, and one he could - and did - bend to his will. Rutgers gave him everything it possibly could have - and arguably, much more than it should have. The school gave him a huge, long-term contract that, had Schiano's program ever gone into an irreversible downward spiral, it would have been nearly impossible to get out of. It improved facilities dramatically for him. It expanded the stadium for him. Schiano built his own little empire, with an autonomy he almost certainly won't find anywhere else.
So now all we can do is wait and see. Wait and see how Schiano does with the Bucs. (We're not terribly optimistic for him, but you never know.) Wait and see who Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti picks to replace Schiano and hopefully deliver on those promises of championships he couldn't keep: his goal is to get it done by signing day, a tall task. Three names getting play are Florida International head coach Mario Cristobal, Temple head coach Steve Addazio, and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. All three could potentially do very good jobs. None of the three are anywhere close to sure things.
Pretty, pretty, pretty good
And whoever gets the job will have a tough act to follow. In the final analysis, Gregory Edward Schiano's legacy in the Rutgers football program is a positive one, whether his departure breaks up his close-at-hand best class ever or not. The departure is indeed the cost of doing business in the college sports world.
And Rutgers is any kind of player in that world mostly thanks to one person. That last point hit me in a weird way yesterday, as I was watching one of the 25,000 SportsCenter updates in the Schiano-to-the-Bucs story, I thought, "You know, even given the circumstances, this is pretty cool to see Rutgers' name plastered all over the TV like this." In the area of receiving national recognition, at least, Rutgers is more than so close - it's already there. And just as I imagined Schiano saying about his hypothetical recruiting class...that's all him.
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