Rutgers gives state something to talk about

Local coaches, players chime in on progress of RU football program


Staff Writer

RUTGERS ATHLETICS Since taking over the Rutgers football program in 2000, Greg Schiano has been working toward establishing a winning tradition.RUTGERS ATHLETICS Since taking over the Rutgers football program in 2000, Greg Schiano has been working toward establishing a winning tradition. Why not Rutgers? That’s the question facing RU head coach Greg Schiano and his staff following the Scarlet Knights’ most successful season in 27 years.

Now that they’ve proved they can play with a Top 25 team on a big stage, why can’t this program get to the next level? And can the Rutgers football team eventually earn a place within the national championship picture?

In years past, such a notion would be laughed at, dismissed as a pipe dream. Suddenly, it appears that the Rutgers program is closer than most people thought it would ever be.

Baby steps

With the college football community still buzzing from one of the most exciting bowl seasons in recent memory, fans of New Jersey’s state university are thrilled to be able to say that their team was part of that excitement for once.

By now, we’ve all heard about how the Scarlet Knights earned their spot in the Bowl in Phoenix on Dec. 27, and immediately proved they belonged there with a hard-fought loss to a solid Arizona State team.

RUTGERS ATHLETICS Brian Leonard’s decision to return for his senior year is a further testament to the notion that the RU coaches and players expect more success in the future.RUTGERS ATHLETICS Brian Leonard’s decision to return for his senior year is a further testament to the notion that the RU coaches and players expect more success in the future. But the game itself was just part of the story. The reaction throughout the state took even those within the Rutgers program by surprise, as New Jersey football fans embraced the opportunity to show their support for a program that has long struggled for respectability. A strong contingent of Rutgers fans made the trip out west for the big game, while back home, the Rutgers football team enjoyed the rare spotlight that comes with a meaningful postseason contest.

“First of all, the initial reaction when we got down to Phoenix, at the pep rallies, and the before- and after-parties, was simply tremendous. We met with such a positive response,” said Bob Mulcahy, Rutgers’ longtime athletic director.

JEFFGRANIT staff Brick Memorial’s Mike Lepore thought Rutgers was an option for hm, until the Scarlet Knights seemed to back off while recruiting him.JEFFGRANIT staff Brick Memorial’s Mike Lepore thought Rutgers was an option for hm, until the Scarlet Knights seemed to back off while recruiting him. “Then getting back to New Jersey, all the positive things that have been said about the program on television and in the newspapers have had a tremendous impact on the university — and its ability to recruit in particular.”

Manalapan High School head football coach Ed Gurrieri believes that Rutgers turned the corner with its bowl appearance this year.

“From everyone I spoke to who watched it [the Bowl], they came away saying Rutgers played a big-time game on national television,” he said. “It was a win-win situation for Rutgers.”

In short, the Rutgers football program took a giant leap forward this season, and college football fans throughout the state certainly took notice.

And now they want more.

Immediately following the 45-40 loss to Arizona State, Schiano and his players began pointing toward next season, when the Scarlet Knights hope to prove that this season was much more than just a tease.

“We’re certainly going to miss our seniors,” Schiano said. “They are the young men who put Rutgers football back on the map and laid the foundation.

“This is not a one-year stint; they laid the foundation for our football program to move forward,” he added. “My biggest disappointment is for those [19] guys because I wanted them to complete the experience, to be a bowl champion, not just a bowl participant. It’s something that hasn’t been done around here for 27 years.”

Then came the promise that those in and around the Rutgers community hope Schiano can keep.

“We’ll be back,” he said.

His players certainly seem to believe him. Why else would Brian Leonard, Rutgers’ two-time first-team All-America fullback, and a player most scouts believe would have been drafted in either the first or second round had he decided to leave early, announce his intentions to come back next year, and take another shot at that elusive bowl win?

“I sat down with my parents and we discussed this for long hours at a time. I felt throughout my college career that I proved that I can play at the next level,” Leonard said. “But there’s one thing I haven’t proved, and that’s taking Rutgers to a BCS [bowl] game and winning a championship.

“I see Rutgers as a powerhouse in the future, and I want to be a part of it. So, it was my heartfelt decision that I’ll be back for my senior year,” Leonard added.

Leonard’s decision to stay can only strengthen the notion that the Rutgers program has taken that next step, and is in fact one step closer to establishing itself as a perennial bowl contender.

Measuring progress

When Schiano, a Wyckoff native and Ramapo High School graduate, took over as the 27th head coach in Rutgers’ history on Dec. 1, 2000, he immediately described his “vision of excellence” for Rutgers football.

“This program will be built on a rock foundation,” he said at his introductory press conference. “It will take longer than building it on stilts, but when it’s built, it will be built forever. This is where I started; this is where I was striving to get back to. I’m thrilled to be here. It’s time.”

His arrival sparked a revival at Rutgers that has certainly had its share of speed bumps along the way, but has led to a measure of progress that has lifted the program out of the basement of the Big East Conference.

Mulcahy is understandably quick to praise the work Schiano and his staff have done in just five seasons.

“We had no progress before that,” he said. “The key to recruiting is twofold: one, you have to have that tradition of winning and going to bowl games; and two, you have to have the facilities. When [Schiano] came here, we had neither. Now he’s started to establish that winning tradition, and we’ve been able to raise the money and build the type of facilities that attract players.”

In fact, Rutgers now boasts one of the nation’s premier football complexes, highlighted by an expansive strength and conditioning facility, and a state-of-the-art training room. It all adds up to the type of progress Mulcahy envisioned when he hired Schiano.

“I’m very happy with where we are,” he said. “But what people need to understand is that this is just the first step. I liken building this program to that of rebuilding a bankrupt company. It’s a slippery slope, but the first step is to reopen the doors, and we’ve done that.

“When you look at Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia, they’ve all been to 15-20 bowl games over their programs’ histories,” Mulcahy added. “This was our first bowl game out of New Jersey. Do I think we have to go to 19 more bowls to get where they are? No. But we’re on our way”

The notion that Rutgers is a program on the rise is a common one among many of the people who matter most — prized recruits and the guys coaching them at the high school level.

“I think what they’ve done up there is outstanding,” said Steve Antonucci, head coach of the Middletown South football team that last month won its third consecutive state title and finished the season as the top-ranked team in the state for the second consecutive year. “They’ve created the type of atmosphere we think they deserve to have.”

Brian Russo, the head coach of Woodbridge’s football team and himself a former Division I player, agrees with Antonucci, adding that the reaction to Rutgers’ success has been noticeable on several levels.

“Everyone around here is thrilled to see the program grow like it has,” he said. “The atmosphere is really pumped up. I’ve gone to a couple of their practices, and Greg and his staff have really created a real Division I football environment. They’re doing a great job.

“I think Schiano has put himself and the program on the map. Kids are taking Rutgers seriously now.”

“I think this program is here to stay,” said Old Bridge head coach Bob DeMarco, who will be entering his 30th season as the Knights’ coach in the fall. “As Schiano said, he’s building a real solid foundation with an excellent group of kids, not just this year, but for the future.

“When he first got here, he brought in some top players, and that began to create the infrastructure for the program that has become appealing to a lot of kids. They have as nice a facility as there is in the country, and combined with the school’s excellent academic reputation, the program has a lot to offer now.

“Look at the recruiting magazines or Web sites. All the top kids are mentioning Rutgers now,” DeMarco said.

And therein lies the real measure of progress.

Homeward bound

When describing his plan for the Rutgers football program back in 2000, Schiano made it very clear what his primary objective was: Make Rutgers a magnet for New Jersey’s best players.

It’s no secret that many of the top collegiate programs in the nation are able to maintain their respective levels of excellence through their ability to recruit in their home states. Rutgers has never been able to do that.

Instead, New Jersey has long been a hotbed for recruiting, attracting top programs from throughout the nation that routinely plucked the Garden State’s elite players, while Rutgers was left sifting through the remains.

“New Jersey has so much talent,” Russo said. “You look at teams in the big bowls this year — Florida State, USC, Boston College — they all have some big-time players out of New Jersey. If Rutgers could keep them, they could eventually be in the same class.”

And now that Rutgers has established itself as a program on the rise following its Bowl performance, the question is, just how much effect will it have on future recruits?

Has Rutgers finally become an attractive option for the player that everyone wants? Russo thinks it has.

“When you see some of the kids who are visiting Rutgers now, you know they’re going in the right direction with the program,” he said. “Rutgers has never even been a thought for a lot of these kids in the past.”

“It’s difficult,” Antonucci added. “There has always been a lot of guys leaving the state, and they’re only doing what they feel they need to do. But it’s very important for Greg to keep some of those guys here. There are a lot of great kids in New Jersey. You look at Texas, Ohio State, Michigan — they always keep kids in their state. New Jersey kids should be going to Rutgers, too.”

That thought was echoed by Brick Memorial coach Fred Sprengle, who leads one of the state’s top Group IV programs.

“There are a lot of great players [in New Jersey], and if they want to do better [getting New Jersey recruits], they have to compete with the great national programs,” he said.

But Sprengle is not sure just how much this season’s success will impact that process.

“I don’t think [the bowl game] has that much impact [on recruiting],” he said. “People don’t understand that not everyone who lives in the state may want to go to a college in the state. The success they had may swing a kid or two more [than they normally would get in recruiting]. The kids who want to go away will [still] go away.”

Sprengle’s crosstown rival, Warren Wolf, who also happens to be the winningest coach in state history, disagrees.

“No doubt playing in a bowl game will be a major asset,” Wolf said. “There’s no doubt the state of New Jersey came alive with Rutgers football, not only because it’s a great school to attend but also because it moved into prominence of the state’s attention. A lot of people became involved with it as a major university, and now more people will support the program.

“Many quality athletes from the state have gone on to play for other universities for the opportunity to play in a bowl game, and now many of them will strongly consider going to Rutgers,” Wolf added. “New Jersey has always had highly qualified players who wanted to be in bowl games years ago, and now that the program is reaching a pinnacle, they’ll strongly consider going there.

“It’s nothing but a plus and they have to take advantage of it.”

The power of persuasion

Much of Schiano and his staff’s ability to take advantage of their recent success will depend on their recruiting practices.

In the past, Rutgers has often not pursued some of the elite players in and out of the state, instead directing its attention on what the staff considered more realistic candidates. Now, Schiano can focus his attention on players of any level, with his program’s progress and his growing reputation as one of the nation’s up-and-coming coaches as his leverage.

The question now is, how’s he doing?

The perception among local high school coaches is pretty similar, with most coaches interviewed agreeing that Rutgers has become more aggressive under Schiano, and has raised its expectations.

“Coach Schiano has a highly competent staff that works 13 months a year to bring athletes to the program, and now they can go to parents and say they have a highly accredited program academically, but also one that is likely to play in bowl games,” Wolf said.

Dominick Lepore, the head coach at Freehold Township for the past six years, credits Schiano with changing the focus of Rutgers football by making New Jersey athletes a must, and by reaching out to the state’s coaches.

“Most important, coach Schiano has put all of his assistant coaches through the doors of every school,” he said. “He takes a lot of pride that his assistant coaches are in the high schools. That was one of his goals, making the state a priority. The coaches previously didn’t really recruit the state that hard. I didn’t even know who the assistant coaches were.”

This hands-on approach, Lepore said, works with the kids.

“It tells the kids that they want to know about you,” he said. “They can develop a relationship when they visit kids at their home.”

Lepore added that he believes that it won’t be very long before Rutgers grabs one of New Jersey’s nationally ranked blue-chippers.

They’re certainly trying to do it this year.

“They recruited [Knowshon] Moreno and [Nick] Macaluso pretty hard,” Antonucci said. “I was very impressed with the way they came after those two guys. [Schiano] has been very professional.”

Gurrieri pointed out that Schiano and his staff have established a dialogue with the coaches in the Shore area.

“They’ve done a good job reaching out to everyone in the area,” he said. “Their doors are always open to coaches.

“Joe Susan, who recruits the area, keeps in contact with us all the time,” Gurrieri added.

“They recruited Garrett Graham [now at Wisconsin] hard,” Sprengle said. “But they did not have much interest in [Brick Memorial senior wide receiver] Mike Lepore, which surprises me.

“I think they do an admirable job [recruiting]. They missed a guy here and there, but that can happen with any school. The school’s needs might not be there for that particular kid. Maybe he’s a quarterback and they don’t need a quarterback. There are a lot of reasons behind recruiting.”

As for Mike Lepore, he was somewhat disappointed in the way Rutgers treated him.

“I think I’m done with Rutgers,” he said. “I was pretty surprised, because they showed a lot of interest in the beginning, but the coach said he had to go back over it and brush up on his charts and tell me where I’m at. I thought I was on top of their charts, and now it seems they don’t need me.

“They try to recruit in Florida,” he added. “The bowl game will help them [recruiting]. I think people in New Jersey want to go there, so you would think they’d want to go after people in New Jersey.”

Freehold Township’s Matt Hardison, rated one of the top Division I prospects in the Shore Conference, was one of Schiano’s early successes this recruiting season, as Hardison verbally committed to Rutgers earlier this month.

“Guys I played against are coming up to me and congratulating me on going to Rutgers,” Hardison said. “People who know football know that Rutgers is an up-and-coming program.”

“I was pretty impressed,” Hardison added. “They’re going places.”

Cory Davies, the head man at Howell, believes Rutgers is ready to cash in on its potential.

“There’s tremendous potential there,” he said. “We’ve been hearing that for the last 10 years, but I think two factors will help. One is the exposure they got from the bowl, and two, the transformation of the Big East will help.

“They’re getting a different type of player,” he said.

“For the high school kids who had any doubts about the program, [those doubts] are gone,” Gurrieri added. “When you take everything into consideration, education, the facilities, the coaching staff, I don’t see how you can’t put them [Rutgers] up with anyone.”

Are we there yet?

With all the success on and off the field, the Rutgers football program is certainly dipping its toe in uncharted waters. The question is, where does this place the program in the pantheon of collegiate football, both in and out of the Big East?

With West Virginia University putting together a stellar season, topped with a thrilling Sugar Bowl win over Georgia and the No. 5 ranking in the country, they are the team to beat in the conference (and possibly the nation) next year. And with head coach Rich Rodriguez, much like Schiano, earning more recognition for his coaching abilities every day, WVU looks to be a program ready to cement itself as a national power.

Then there’s Louisville, a budding program led by another coach, Bobby Petrino, who is also one of the nation’s hot names. Add to the mix a Pittsburgh program that continues to attract blue-chip prospects, a South Florida program that has begun to assert itself as an up-and-coming force in the conference, and a Syracuse program that will always draw top players and should eventually return to the level of excellence it enjoyed before falling on its recent hard times, and it’s easy to see why becoming a Big East power remains the immediate challenge for the Scarlet Knights.

But are they already at that level? The verdict is still out on that one.

“You can mention them with those [top] teams now,” Russo said. “WVU had a phenomenal finish, and Louisville has emerged as a good team, but Schiano and company don’t appear to be afraid of anyone.”

Others are not quite believers just yet.

“They’re not there yet,” DeMarco said. “They have to string a few of these types of seasons together. And they need to get that next level of player more consistently. You could see watching them this year there were some areas where the kids did not match up with some of the better teams.”

That’s not to say that DeMarco doesn’t see RU getting to that level eventually.

“Look at Virginia Tech 10 years ago. They were not at the level they are now. I think RU is probably at the level they were 10 years ago, right now.”

What cannot be argued is the amount of support the RU program has already generated with the growing success under the Schiano regime.

The state’s collegiate football fans have long been yearning for a reason to adorn the scarlet and white, and for the first time in a long time, they feel their day may be coming.

“We will embrace it,” Antonucci said. “New Jersey needs something like that, a real top-notch football program to be proud of.”

— Tim Morris and Wayne Witkowski contributed to this story