From 1990 to 1995, the Rutgers University football team had a head coach named Doug Graber, and he was one tough guy.
As a daily newspaper writer on one dark, drizzly night outside a house in North Jersey, I stood there watching him come very close to getting into a fist fight with a coach from another team who was recruiting the same player. Doug Graber was a good guy -- a former and future NFL assistant coach who would call you at home at two in the morning every now and then to get something into or out of a story.
Dick Anderson preceded Graber as RU coach from 1984 to 1989, and Terry Shea took over after Graber left, holding the post from 1986 to 2000. All three of them saw the potential for Rutgers to become THE Tri-state college football team to break into the big time. But, none of the three could make it happen.
You wanted big-time college football? You had to drive to Boston College. Or, worse yet, drive to Penn State -- a great college with a great football program, but located hours and hours from… anywhere. (At least in Boston you could have some New England Chowder, some Baked Beans and some Boston Cream Pie, not to mention some spaghetti and meatballs in the North End.)
Coach Anderson arrived in Piscataway the year RU made what was called “a new commitment to football” backed up by state grants for artificial turf, new practice fields, the practice “Bubble” and the Hale Center. Anderson was a very nice man with impeccable credentials, but he might have fit in better at Princeton. He dressed Ivy League and he spoke Ivy League. As the story goes, he turned away Passaic High’s Craig “Iron Head” Heyward -- a player who wanted to come to Rutgers -- because Coach didn’t like the way the kid talked or dressed or shuffled his feet when he walked. Of course, the kid went on to be an All-American at Pitt, before a nice little career in the NFL.
Coach Shea was no Ivy Leaguer, but he couldn’t get the best kids to come to Rutgers, either. He was an X’s and O’s kind of guy, somebody who might leave a stylish cocktail party with college bigwigs to go sit in a corner and diagram plays in a notebook. Like Coach Anderson, he was a nice man, a real gentleman and a stickler for the rulebook, but, again, he came up short at elevating RU football onto the national scene.
Anderson, Graber, Shea. Three good men, three good football coaches with excellent backgrounds, and each one of them had his share of big moments and helped nudge the program forward, but none could take RU to the promised land.
Then came Greg Schiano, who grew up in Wyckoff. I must admit that when I attended a press conference to welcome him as the new coach on December 1 of 2000, I said to myself (and wrote) “here we go again.”
So, how did he do what the others didn’t? Was it luck? Was it timing? Was it state funds? Was it gridiron genius? Was it his New Jersey roots? Was it his recruiting charms? Was it his boyish good looks? Who knows? But he most definitely succeeded where the others didn’t. Rutgers is now most definitely a college football program in the national conversation.
This is a bye week -- a week off -- for a Rutgers team that is currently 1-1 -- that’s one win, one loss for you non-sports types wandering in here.The Scarlet Knights’ next game is Saturday afternoon, Sept. 24, hosting Ohio.Rutgers opened the 2011 season by beating up on poor little Carolina Central, 48-0, then Schiano’s crew went on the road last Saturday and lost a 24-22 decision to a very good, nationally-prominent North Carolina Tarheels team.
Last weekend was a huge step up for the Scarlet Knights. With no offense intended to the undoubtedly-nice folks at Central University, last week was a whole new ballgame for Rutgers. NC Central was little league. North Carolina was the majors.Rutgers lost at Chapel Hill, but it was an admirable loss. A loss, but admirable… Admirable, but a loss.
A handful of plays, and Rutgers might have beaten North Carolina Saturday afternoon by maybe 28-7 or 35-14. Then again, a different handful of plays might have resulted in a 40-0 or a 43-16 Rutgers defeat. No long drives, no dominant themes. Just a handful of big plays.
Carolina fans will point to the Tar Heels’ five turnovers and argue that, without those five plays, the hosts might have run away with this one early. Rutgers fans will salute the Scarlet Knights for staying close against a national powerhouse, and will debate what was called a non-touchdown at the goal line, while lamenting a few self-inflicted dropsies.
Overall, in several blinks of the eye, it might have been a big-time victory that might have set the tone for a bowl-bound season… or it could have been a disastrous defeat that could have spelled doom and gloom in Piscataway. “Two or three plays is what makes or breaks your day. That’s what we need to understand,” Schiano said.
The Knights had so many chances to make a statement on the national stage, but big play after big play went against them. Then again, Carolina had chance after chance to build a big lead, but big play after big play went against the Tar Heels, as well. “We’ll clean up our little messes and get better,” Schiano said.
Can RU beat Ohio in Piscataway on Sept. 24? Ask Schiano and you’ll get a smirk. Hey, he’s a Jersey guy. You’re lucky you don’t get a shovel to the side of your head. Schiano’s already achieved so much in his 10 years on the banks of the Raritan that it’s easy to forget that what he’s accomplished was pretty much considered impossible before he left the University of Miami to come home.
Just like Anderson, Graber and Shea before him, Schiano is a good guy, a gentleman. But there are two big differences. One is in the Won-Loss column. The other is all attitude. This is a Jersey guy, smirk and all. Sarcastic? Yeah, maybe. You got a problem with that? Confident? Yea, maybe. What’s it to you? Gonna beat Ohio at home next Saturday? Hey, don’t be asking such stupid questions. You got that?
Carl Barbati has been a daily newspaper editor, writer and columnist for over 25 years in New Jersey and New York.
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