5:16 pm Feb. 1, 20121
Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that the head coach of Rutgers football since 2000, Greg Schiano, chose to leave to become the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
After all, despite taking part in college football's very first game, a 6-4 victory over Princeton in 1869, the Scarlet Knights have spent very little time among the sport's elite. When Schiano took over in 2000, Rutgers had posted a winless season more recently than a winning one.
This was confounding to anyone who took merely a cursory look at the Rutgers program. They play their football in the heart of fertile New Jersey recruiting territory, surrounded by players who went on to populate Big East, SEC, ACC and Big Ten rosters. They play within hailing distance of a New York media market untapped by any other college football power. Their conference, the Big East, had access to Bowl Championship Series bids. All the program seemed to need was solid funding by the university and a head man who could bring in the necessary talent, and national title contention would follow.
Schiano, who had been the defensive coordinator at University of Miami before going to Piscataway, collected consistently strong recruiting classes buoyed by New Jersey-area talent, and he built a pipeline for players from Florida that became fodder for a billboard on I-4 in Tampa.
Led by Schiano, it appeared that Rutgers finally was ready to do what it took to join the Ohio States, Michigans and Floridas. They got off to a slow start: Schiano's Scarlet Knights went 2-9 in 2001 and 1-11 in 2002, losing to Villanova and Buffalo to start the season. He didn't post a winning mark until 2005, when Rutgers managed to reach 7-4, with a 4-3 record in the Big East—a winning conference mark for the first time since 1992—and made the Insight Bowl.
Then came 2006, the year that Rutgers had been waiting for seemingly since the Princeton contest ended 137 years before. They rolled out to a 9-0 start, won convincingly at Pittburgh, and capped the start with a 28-25 victory on national television against a Louisville team ranked in the top five. The Scarlet Knights, ranked sixth in the country, had a legitimate chance to play for the national title with just three more victories.
Instead, Rutgers came out flat against a solid but unspectacular Cincinnati team, losing 30-11. They finished 11-2, crushed Kansas State in the Texas Bowl for the program's first-ever bowl victory, and once Schiano shunted aside offers from Miami and Michigan, it appeared destiny would follow: the kid who grew up in Wyckoff, N.J. would be the one to lead Rutgers to a championship.
It didn't happen that way. Schiano's teams remained consistently strong—making and winning bowl games in four of the next five seasons, posting at least eight wins each time. But Rutgers didn't even challenge for a Big East title, let alone get another bite at national relevance.
So with Schiano now N.F.L.-bound, where does that leave Rutgers? A key tell is that Schiano himself decided to leave—a man who, by virtue of elevating the school's football program to places it had never been, could have been coach for life.
And when Rutgers sought to hire Mario Cristobal, currently a rising coaching star with Florida International, Cristobal elected to remain at F.I.U. The idea that a head coach in the Sun Belt would turn down a B.C.S.-affiliated coaching gig, particularly with a program that just won nine games, is a puzzling one.
Then again, that affiliation isn't nearly as secure as it used to be. The Big East continues to be ravaged by raids from other conferences, and programs like Syracuse and Pittsburgh are headed out; replaced by programs like San Diego State and Navy.
Now Kyle Flood, a Schiano assistant without previous head coaching experience, has been asked to take over. His immediate task will be to try and convince the stellar group of recruits Schiano had ready to join Rutgers to stick with them for Signing Day on Wednesday.
Then he'll need to keep Rutgers at heights the program never experienced before, even as the school reevaluates just how much to emphasize football. The thought by some is that even with Schiano in charge, the stadium expanded and massive financial outlay from the athletic department, the program operated at a loss without even sniffing a championship game.
The odds are against Flood, in other words, even if the school doesn't decide to reallocate funding elsewhere, which will make the decline of Rutgers football a self-fulfilling prophecy.
They'll always have that 6-4 win over Princeton.