COLUMN Schiano, Knights: men of their words

Santo Caruso

Everyone breaks vows. I don’t even need to point to the 50 percent divorce rate in the nation to make that statement; just consider how many times you have kept your New Year’s resolution in the last few years. I’ll tell you this much, my room is still a freaking mess.

But what if you made a vow that no one expected you to keep? You tell an officer you will never speed again, or you promised your girlfriend the moon and the stars.

(Bad example, some girls would take that literally and expect Rigel in a box the next day.)

What if you took the helm of a football team that has won a grand total of three games over the last two years, including an embarrassing loss to a Division I-AA team from the Main Line that goes by the name of the Villanova Wildcats and stated your goal to play for a national championship? Not to be better than .500, not to win the Big East; no, the whole enchilada, the crystal trophy. This isn’t some braggart player saying he deserves the Heisman; this is a coach deciding that nothing short of winning it all would be permittable, regardless of what their uniforms say.

And for Coach Greg Schiano, because those uniforms say “Rutgers” on the front, perfection is the only acceptable outcome.

Travel back in time with me to 2002. Fresh off a terrible, but not unexpected, 2-9 campaign, Rutgers opened the season against Villanova and proceeded to have its rear handed to it by the visiting lower division team. The season, Schiano’s second as a head coach, wouldn’t be a pleasant one, as the Scarlet Knights would finish 1-11. Meanwhile, the Miami Hurricanes, the team with whom he formerly served as defensive coordinator, went on to win a national championship.

Schiano worked his way up from an assistant coach at his old high school to coordinator of one of the nation’s best defenses, just to step back down to what is arguably the worst program in the country (well second worst, there is no argument against Temple’s ineptness) as his former group of players brought home the ‘ship. So, he did what any criminally insane person would do: he stated that Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, would play for a national championship.

In Spanish the word is “huevos.” In Yiddish, “chutzpah.” In New Jersey, “yous gots balls.”

For Schiano, this was the only satisfactory outcome. Born in New Jersey, he recognizes the bipolar nature of the state and the tearing effect New York and Philadelphia have on the athletes and fans alike. He wanted to bring back some pride to a state that defines itself by being a suburban mutt with urban spots. Schiano saw Rutgers as a way to give New Jersey an identity. Rutgers has campuses located in both the northern and southern major cities, Camden and Newark, and almost the dead-center of the state, in New Brunswick. There are no negative feelings from either area, but no positive ones either, and no real competition. Neither Philadelphia nor New York has one specific college football team for whom the whole metropolises supports. The perfect storm to end the New Jersey civil war was in place.

So, Schiano took the reigns of a struggling team, and when they continued to flounder, he grabbed for more power, becoming the defensive coordinator. Finally, progress. Exclaiming to his players, “chop wood,” meaning maintain focus and keep working, a repetitive task mimicked by delivering a karate blow to his open palm. His players might not be the most talented, but no longer would a team walk all over them. If you played the Knights, you felt it the next day.

Winning became more important than anything else. Top prospect Brian Leonard has all but given up running the ball, something he is good enough to do on Sundays, so that Ray Rice, a superstar in the making, can have a stud blocker out in front. Leonard even came back for a fifth year, forgoing millions in the National Football League, because he believed in the program. Rutgers has now achieved that type of status, program status. After the Scarlet Knights’ huge upset over No. 3 Louisville, the first thing Leonard did was go over and kiss the face of that program, Schiano. While the packed house in Piscataway streamed onto the field, Leonard cried and no longer questioned his decision to return.

Now, the program can tap into the rich talent pool of players in New Jersey, a resource not often given the credit it deserves because there is no big name school for the Garden State’s best to attend. The Wali Lundys (running back, Houston Texans, Holy Cross High School) and Albert Youngs (Iowa running back, Moorestown High School) can score touchdowns not far from home. And the Rashad Bakers (defensive back, New England Patriots, Woodrow Wilson High School) don’t have to go to Tennessee to play big-time football. Maybe Kareem McKenzie (tackle, New York Giants, Willingboro High School) and Tamba Hali (first-round defensive end, Kansas City, Teaneck High School) aren’t sucked up by Miami and Penn State. Already a top New Jersey high school prospect, Anthony Davis is listing Rutgers as one of his final three, along with Florida and Ohio State.

It’s not unreasonable to think that the winner of Ohio St./Michigan could run right into Schiano’s no-name defense. True, Rutgers needs to survive the rest of its schedule, which isn’t exactly Notre Dame-esque, as they will face a Cincinnati team that matches up well and a still highly-ranked West Virginia and Steve Slaton. And yes, it may require a Rube Goldberg-style series of events to knock out the other one-loss teams, but, for Schiano and his players, the hard part is over. They’ve put themselves in a position to end up in Arizona, and now they have their fingers crossed. Not because they are lying, but because, with a little luck, it looks like someone will keep his vow.

Don’t look now, but Rutgers has arrived.