Rutgers football program searching for answers



Pat Ralph

The past few weeks for the Rutgers football program have been a nightmare. 

Seven football players have been arrested for various criminal activities, while embattled Head Coach Kyle Flood has been suspended three games and fined $50,000 for attempting to influence a professor to change a player’s grades.  

Things are out of control in Piscataway these days. But to understand how Rutgers got to this point, we need to rewind back to 2006.    

The upstart Rutgers Scarlet Knights of the former Big East Conference were becoming one of the premier programs in college football after getting to their first bowl game since 1978. 

In an area of the country where college football is second to college basketball, and powerhouses like Penn State and Notre Dame control the recruiting landscape, the rise of Rutgers was refreshing for college football fans in New Jersey. The Garden State finally had a proud team to root for and call its own.

Because Rutgers was a break from the other national powerhouses, fans were easily drawn to support the program. They felt like they were supporting their local team, not one that sold out to the national spotlight. The stadium was modest in comparison to many others in college football at the time, and players on the team were from the area.

With popular Head Coach Greg Schiano leading the way, the Scarlet Knights had some of the best talent in college football. Running back Brian Leonard was a fan favorite at Rutgers, making the famous “Leonard Leap” a signature move of his at home games. Despite their off the field issues, running back Ray Rice and wide receiver Kenny Britt would go on to have solid NFL careers. As would the twin defensive back duo of Devin and Jason McCourty, to name a few. 

Rutgers had a dedicated fan base, good coaching, outstanding talent, and a huge nationally-televised home win over No. 3 ranked Louisville that officially launched the program onto the national map. 

And then with the snap of a finger, everything changed. The athletic department at Rutgers was done being the darling of the Northeast. It wanted to be a national powerhouse. Like many other programs that move from the local to the national spotlight, Rutgers began to lose its true identity as a university for the sake of athletic glory. This is a narrative we unfortunately see far too often in college athletics today, due in large part to the sums of money now available to these programs. 

Behind a taxpayer-subsidized project, the once small-scale Rutgers Stadium would now become a mammoth Highpoint Solutions Stadium in order to enhance the school’s national program status. Most notably, Rutgers made the revenue-motivated decision to join the Big Ten and has considerably struggled since joining the power conference. Rutgers football is no better than average in the Big Ten, finishing in eighth in its first year. After joining the Big Ten, Rutgers students were forced to pay over $100 for football season ticket packages. It’s just another way for the athletic department to bring in more revenue and help out its boosters. 

As Schiano’s popularity kept growing across the college and professional landscapes, the school had to pay more to keep him around. Not surprisingly, Schiano became more concerned with the money than with the program’s future. Before Rutgers knew it, the money was no longer good enough to keep Schiano around. 

After the 2011 season, Schiano bolted from Rutgers to become head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That job would only last two seasons. By the end of Schiano’s tenure, Rutgers’ fans were not sad to see him go. 

Speaking of struggling, the football team on the field never quite rekindled the success it had in 2006 when it finished ranked No. 12 in the nation. Since winning 11 games and tying for second in the conference in 2006, the most games Rutgers has won in a season are nine. Since winning the Texas Bowl, Rutgers would go on to win its next four bowl games. Yet, these wins would come in the International, Papa Johns, St. Petersburg and Pinstripe Bowls. In 2012 during Flood’s first year on the job, Rutgers tied for first in the Big East but failed to win its bowl game. These results aren’t good enough for a program with national championship aspirations.

Here in 2015, Rutgers football has become a laughingstock to college football fans in New Jersey and across the country. The fact that Flood still has a job is mind-boggling to most, yet it may not be that surprising.

Much of the football program’s problems today are reflective of the issues which stem from the university’s inept athletic department. This is the same athletic department that issued former head basketball coach Mike Rice only a three game suspension for verbally and physically abusing players during practice. Eventually, Rice and then-athletic director Tim Pernetti were fired after public pressure increased on university president Robert Barchi following the release of video footage showing Rice’s actions.

That wasn’t the end of stupid decisions made by the university over athletic matters. The newly-hired athletic director, Julie Hermann, has her own checkered past of controversy and lawsuits for discriminatory practice. Maybe the decision to keep Flood is just another idiotic decision by Rutgers’ athletic department.

The athletic department will propose many new projects to expand the program’s visibility on the national stage, including a state of the art, brand-new basketball arena. But it won’t help solve the deep institutional and disciplinary problems that exist at Rutgers. As the program continues to lose more money, students and faculty are forced to pay the price of a quality education for the athletic department’s poor decisions. That’s simply not fair, especially when the program’s teams are not competitive. 

Rutgers’ athletic department, especially its football program, needs an immediate cultural change. It’s time for Flood to go as head coach, and it might already be time to consider a change at the top of the athletic department. Rutgers will never become a true national powerhouse without a complete transformation of how it runs its athletic programs.