PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- The first thing he does is thank the fans.
There was nothing particularly loud about High Point Solutions Stadium on Saturday. That’s not to criticize anybody -- it was a noon game, a crowd of almost 50,000, a mediocre opponent. There’s no reason to expect it to sound like a night game at LSU, and crowd noise was far down the list of reasons Rutgers beat Syracuse 23-15.
But the first thing head coach Kyle Flood does when speaking to the media -- before talking about linebacker Khaseem Greene’s All-American day, before talking about a momentum-shifting blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, before talking about Rutgers’ rare 6-0 start -- is compliment the paying customers’ supposed influence on the result of the game.
“I can’t say enough good things about our student section,” Flood says. “I thought they did such a tremendous job. As you can see, three false starts by the other team. It makes a difference. It’s what hopefully your home-field advantage should yield for you as you go forward during the season.”
In a shifting college football landscape, no school has attempted to commodify football, to sell itself to the region and potential fans, more than The State University of New Jersey.
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“It’s frustrating to me sometimes to read about all the things that get said on the negative side about what’s going on at Rutgers …"
Athletic director Tim Pernetti is delivering a sales pitch to a small cluster of reporters circled around a table. It is Rutgers football media day in the Brown Football Recruiting Pavilion overlooking the stadium in August. Directly across the field, the stadium wall is brandished with “The Birthplace of College Football” in massive letters. Earlier, Flood referred to New Jersey as the “State of Rutgers” three times in an answer to one question. Branding is a theme.
“I’ve said this all along and I’ve said it from day one: This is a great place. There’s great stuff going on here. Do we have our challenges? Of course we have our challenges. Everybody’s got challenges. But we’re going to spend our time working on the challenges and also talking about all the great things going on at Rutgers, because I think sometimes in New Jersey people forget that there’s a lot of great things going on here. So I think that’s more about trying to make sure we put the positive stuff out front as much as possible.”
Across the room, display cases are prominently positioned between lounge chairs overlooking the south end zone. Sports teams like to put their championships and awards in full view for recruits in an effort to show how successful their programs have been. And, yes, Rutgers’ cases include bowl memorabilia -- championship rings from the PapaJohns.com Bowl and the St. Petersburg Bowl. The system allows 35 teams to call themselves “bowl champions,” something that can mean a team won the national championship in Pasadena, or beat Central Florida on Dec. 19 in a domed baseball stadium with discolored turf in a game now sponsored by Beef ‘O’ Brady’s.
Rutgers is a historic program that literally started college football, but it went to one bowl game in the 20th century, something up the road called the Garden State Bowl in 1978. It found life under Greg Schiano in the last decade, becoming competitive nationally, but 2006’s breakout season ended at the Texas Bowl against 7-5 Kansas State. The Scarlet Knights have won their last five bowl games, including the Texas, International, PapaJohns.com, St. Petersburg and Pinstripe Bowls, none of which existed before 2006. Schiano made Rutgers a competitor for Big East titles, but he never actually won one.
Pernetti, a former tight end and TV executive, doesn’t hide Rutgers’ motives. No school has better acted as a microcosm of the entire debate about the financial interests in big-time college sports. On the shoulders of Schiano’s on-the-field leadership, Rutgers made a commitment to joining college football’s arms race, and the program keeps chugging along with rhetoric familiar to any college football program, a few years after crashing and burning financially -- an era that ended in 2008 with the firing of former athletic director Bob Mulcahy “amid revelations of unchecked spending and secret deals,” in the words of The Star-Ledger.
Outside the stadium, next to a statue commemorating the first game in college football history, there’s a plaque thanking Mulcahy because, among other things, “As Athletic Director, his wisdom in hiring Coach Greg Schiano dramatically changed the culture, direction, and profile of the Athletic Department and the University.”
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As Syracuse left the field Saturday, it was doing so for the long haul. The Orange is leaving Rutgers and the Big East, joining Pitt in following the footsteps of Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College to the relative stability of the more powerful Atlantic Coast Conference. Throw in West Virginia’s departure for the Big 12 and Temple’s eight-year exile, and by next year Rutgers will be the only school to continuously have had football membership in the Big East since the start of the 21st century. The future Big East looks a lot like the old Conference USA, and while Rutgers’ product has moved forward significantly, its position in college football’s power structure is stuck in neutral, if not going in reverse.
In conference realignment debates, Rutgers’ name is frequently mentioned in relation to Big Ten expansion because of its position in the “New York market,” yet the real coup for the Big Ten was landing a prestigious Nebraska program located in … Nebraska. Population isn’t everything. New Jersey has the largest population of any state with exactly one FBS football team, but it’s a pro sports region, one with plenty of diehard fans but few broad ties to the Rutgers football program. Nebraska has spent decades successfully building its brand through long-term on-field success.
And there’s little indication that New York City cares about Rutgers football -- or Syracuse for that matter. Syracuse brands itself as “New York’s College Team,” but at “New York’s College Classic” against USC last month -- played in New Jersey, of course -- there were at least as many fans of the team from California as there were for the team from upstate New York. Syracuse may not have a strong foothold in the city, but it does have assets that Rutgers can’t match: a prestigious basketball program that adds to the ACC brand, and, despite mixed results, a football tradition that features a national championship, some prominent bowl games and Jim Brown and Ernie Davis. It has name recognition that Rutgers lacks.
There’s a reason Pernetti spends so much time discussing the stadium experience, describing improved concessions, making appeals to fans through the media. There’s a reason marketing consultant Guido D’Elia -- former football marketing guru at Penn State and adviser to Joe Paterno -- was a presence at media day.
“We haven’t captured even close to 50 percent of the market yet,” Pernetti said, “but we intend to go on a branding rampage here in the next 12 months to make sure we capture as much of it as possible.”
Rutgers has made a massive commitment to football. It can’t afford to be left behind.
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You may not have noticed, but Rutgers is undefeated this year. The Scarlet Knights have played a bizarre schedule -- they’re the only major conference team to play only one home game in September -- and a win at Arkansas doesn’t stick out like they thought it would. But they are talented. Not quite as good as the Ray Rice-Brian Leonard squad, but Jawan Jamison and Brandon Coleman are two of the Big East’s best offensive players, and the defense is outstanding. Look no further than Greene, who had 14 tackles, 1 ½ sacks, an interception and three forced fumbles against Syracuse.
The first BCS bid in program history is possible if the Knights can get past Louisville and Cincinnati, the other two undefeated teams in the conference. There’s no doubt that a trip to a game like the Orange Bowl would help boost Rutgers’ profile. But, in the long run? The branding rampage may be too late if Rutgers is stuck in the new Big East with Temple, Cincinnati, Louisville, Connecticut, Boise State, SMU, South Florida, Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, Navy and San Diego State.
While Syracuse will be playing Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and Florida State in football, Duke and North Carolina in basketball, in Piscataway, Rutgers will keep pushing forward, trying to increase its foothold.
“I think our assets are very strong,” Pernetti said, “so I’m trying to keep our environment here focused on what we have to do between New York and the academic profile and running the program the right away high on integrity. We feel great about the assets we have as our whole business continues to transition.”
Before Flood complimented the student section to the media, the group serenaded the Scarlet Knights with chants of “undefeated” after the game as the team gathered in the end zone. Moments earlier, in the closing minutes, a small segment of fans in the corner tried a chant with a different, mocking tone:
It didn’t catch on. When you’re in the Big East, you don’t chant the name of your own conference. You attempt to jeer the opponent by chanting the name of its greener pasture, a place that still hasn’t made room for the State of Rutgers.