Leap Year

New Jersey Monthly contributor, and Rutgers University professor Michael Aaron Rockland ruminates on how bigtime football, and a few other things, brought change to the campus—and the state.

I phoned the university bookstore to order texts for my spring courses. “Please hold,” a perfectly pleasant voice said.

That’s a first. When professors call, bookstore employees leap into action. I remained on hold until I couldn’t bear it. I hung up and redialed.

Same response, same reaction. Different attitude.

“This is Dr. Rockland,” I said, on my third attempt. “Don’t put me on hold. I want to order books. Now!”

“Sorry, Professor,” the woman said. “We’ve been so busy.”

“Busy with what?” I asked. “This is the bookstore, isn’t it? You do sell books in the bookstore, don’t you?” 

“Yes,” she said. “But it’s the gear. They’re bringing it in by the truckload; there’s a line by the cash register that goes out the door and down the street. We’re getting orders from California and even from overseas.”

It’s all Greg Schiano’s fault.

On November 9, 2006, Rutgers football fans were

preparing for a game that evening at Rutgers Stadium against the undefeated and third-ranked University of Louisville. The tailgaters had a joyous, confident vibe—fueled not just by parking-lot libations, but by the balmy temperatures, the presence of ESPN cameras and crew, and the fact that “nationally ranked Scarlet Knights’ football team” was no longer an oxymoron. Like Louisville, Rutgers was undefeated, and ranked fourteenth in the nation.

To this point, the university’s gridiron legacy may have reached its sports-lore zenith when it beat Princeton, 6-4, on November 6, 1869  in the nation’s first collegiate contest. The team had been breaking fans’ hearts in the 146 years since then. But Greg Schiano, the Wyckoff native five years into rebuilding the squad as head coach, was winning over Rutgers’ fans, a mix of alumni and diehard New Jerseyans who root unconditionally for a school that suffered one ignominious season after another. Adding insult to injury was perpetually losing many of the state’s blue-chip athletes to Penn State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Miami, USC, and other national powerhouses.

In many ways, the situation mirrored what academics and the chattering classes lament as the “brain drain”—the fact that roughly 50 percent of the Garden State’s college-bound high school graduates leave our borders, with the blessings of parents who likely did the same in their day. The late Governor Richard Hughes used to call New Jersey “the cuckoo state” because, like the bird, it placed its “eggs”—in effect, its young—in other birds’ nests.

In the world of athletics, it could be called “brawn gone.” Schiano himself played no small part in raiding the state’s best football players when he was as an assistant at Penn State and Miami. But when Coach Schiano came home, top players began to stay. And so did the students.

Nobel Prizes didn’t do it. Cancer research didn’t do it. The university’s world-renowned professors and our published works sure didn’t do it. Academic excellence didn’t light up the Turnpike with Go Rutgers signs on the day of the Louisville game. Nor was the Empire State Building illuminated in scarlet to give a shout-out to the faculty.

 The football team did that. At the press conference announcing his hiring in 2000, Schiano said that he was hired to build  the program (there was nothing to rebuild). He spoke of “The State of Rutgers” as if the fortunes of New Jersey and of its state university were one and the same. Football seemingly forged a whole new identity for the State University—so much so that the Star-Ledger would soon be printing full-page posters of Rutgers athletes and publishing a book, Rutgers: An Amazing Season.

People elsewhere in the country think Rutgers is an Ivy League School. When I’m at out-of-state conferences, fellow academics chat me up these days, seemingly hoping some of my Rutgers luster will rub off on them. When I lecture overseas I get even more attention. But in New Jersey? I used to be considered just another schoolteacher.

Now I go to family and neighborhood parties and people gather ’round, eager to hear any inside skinny on RU. They even seem more interested in reading my books. I enjoy a status in New Jersey I never had before because my university’s football team wins games. Should it be this way? No, but I must confess: I like it.

Before, my status reflected New Jersey’s historic inferiority complex. That began to change with Sinatra and Springsteen. Rutgers alumni Mario Batali and James Gandolfini’s added Jersey cachet (again, to people outside the state). Then came football. In the past Rutgers played away games and rival fans would chant, “What’s a Rutgers?” Now they know. They can also see Gandolfini at the games.

Louisville started the game with a touchdown drive. Before anyone in the raucous crowd could get too concerned, Rutgers tied the game. Then through a series of follies heretofore seen only in Pop Warner games, Louisville stormed ahead 25-7. Slumped in their seats, the shocked-into-silence fans, including Governor Jon Corzine, were praying Louisville wouldn’t score again before halftime. All the while, Schiano prowled the sidelines, slamming the edge of his right hand into the palm of his left. He wasn’t steamed, he was simply yelling, “Keep Chopping! Keep Chopping!” It was a reference to his masterfully simple mantra of focused attack.

Throughout the year, people all over the university did keep chopping, for good and bad. The administration was desperate to save money. This was the toughest budgetary situation in my 38 years at Rutgers. We were $80 million in the red. University president Richard McCormick and athletic director Robert E. Mulcahy didn’t take raises. In my department, we rationed the use of the copy machine and got rid of the voicemail system. Six teams—men’s fencing, crew, swimming and diving, and tennis, and women’s fencing—were dropped to trim $1.5 million from the athletic department’s $35.5 million budget. The football team gets $13.5 million of that total.

Soon, 150 students—Division 1-A athletes just as skilled in their sports as the football players are at theirs, students who stayed home for school—had to consider transferring because their sports aren’t broadcast on ESPN and fans don’t have to pay to see their games. Last May, this magazine asked, “When students like these must leave New Jersey to develop their talents, can Rutgers really be considered the state university?” Having captained my college swimming team, I take that one personally. Are football and basketball more important than swimming?

William C. Dowling, a professor in our English Department, doesn’t think so. Dowling, the founder some years back of what came to be called “The Rutgers 1,000,” a group of professors critical of the athletic department, has just published a book, Confessions of a Spoilsport: My Life and Hard Times Fighting Sports Corruption at an Old Eastern University. Dowling says he isn’t against collegiate competition; he claims Rutgers has sold its academic soul to bigtime athletics. He quotes the late Milton Friedman, a Rutgers grad who won the Nobel Prize in Economics: “Universities exist to transmit understanding and ideals and values to students… not to provide entertainment for spectators or employment for athletes… When I entered a much smaller Rutgers 60 years ago, athletics were an important but strictly minor aspect of the Rutgers experience. I trust that today’s much bigger Rutgers will honor this tradition from which I benefited so much.”

Several years ago Dowling was a guest speaker in my “Sports in American Culture” class, where I try to represent all points of view about sports in America, and at Rutgers in particular. A student in the class, the star point guard of the Rutgers women’s basketball team, was angry with Dowling.

 “You’re against our having a good basketball team?” she asked.

“No, I’m against bigtime athletics at Rutgers,” Dowling replied.

“What are you, a Communist?” she asked.

There is much about Dowling’s point of view with which I disagree and I’m glad  Rutgers sports have placed the university in the limelight. Academics need not suffer to ensure success in sports. They don’t suffer at Duke; they don’t suffer at the University of Virginia; and they needn’t suffer here. Still, I was embarrassed that my student offered such a lame retort.

I’ve seen Greg Schiano with his team. I attend some closed-door team meetings. I am continually impressed by the sense of discipline and purpose in that room. When Schiano enters, a reverent hush falls over  the already-seated coaches and players. I wish I could inspire that same awe in my classes.

I wasn’t there for the halftime speech at the Louisville game, but the second half was a marvel. After 29 minutes and 43 seconds, the Scarlet Knights’ Jeremy Ito kicked a 33-yard field goal to take a 28-25 lead. It held up. With one second remaining, long-suffering fans laughed, cried, and carried on. Thousands rushed onto the field for a love-in with the team, which would go on to an 11-2 record and for the first time in Rutgers history win a bowl game. The university hasn’t been the same since.

Before the football team became national contenders, students here wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing Rutgers hats, T-shirts, or sweatshirts. Suddenly, there are a lot more Rutgers sweatshirts and bumper stickers being spotted off campus. Stores have big red R’s in their windows. As I write this, a banner that reads Welcome to Scarlet Knights City stretches across George Street, the main drag in New Brunswick.

Many years ago when Rutgers played Penn State, more than three-quarters of the stands—the Rutgers Stadium stands—were lousy with blue-and-white clad Nittany Lions fans, who had traveled substantial distances to support their team. Things will be different this year. Now it’s a tough—and expensive—ticket to get. Rutgers football has become a network and ESPN primetime regular. And almost fifty years after Rutgers, long a private institution, became the state university in name, it won over the state’s residents.

 Before last school year, campus guides used to usher 600 kids around each week. Shortly after the Louisville game, the weekly total soared to 3,200. Admissions officials report that applicaitons from New Jersey kids rose 5 percent; out-of-state applicants jumped 3.3 percent. More importantly, enrollment spiked 4.6 percent and 11.7 percent, respectively.

Women’s basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer was angry. She thought her squad was underachieving midway through the 2006-07 season. She told them, in so many words, that they needed to start chopping wood. A couple months later, they played for the national championship, losing to women’s-hoops juggernaut Tennessee. A Cinderella football team followed by a Cinderella basketball team. Again the Empire State Building glowed Scarlet. Again the Turnpike signs flashed Go Rutgers. If our young women weren’t already heroines, the day after the April 3 NCAA title game, Don Imus turned them into everyone’s sweethearts. His racist/sexist/stupid remark doesn’t need to be repeated for the 146,000th time. At a large rally held at Rutgers on April 11, many sported Ignore Imus T-shirts. Hours later, Governor Corzine was gravely injured in a motor vehicle accident rushing back to the governor’s mansion to preside over a meeting between the team and Imus. It was as if Corzine considered the insult to a celebrated Rutgers’ team a state matter around which all New Jerseyans, beginning with their state’s leader, must rally.

The nation also rallied around New Jersey. The elitist New York Times, which in the past has rarely crossed the Hudson to cover anything collegiate unless it was at Princeton, seemed to be permanently camped on Rutgers’ doorstep, calling the level-headed and gracious Rutgers women’s basketball team in an editorial “a class act.” Brian Williams, NBC Nightly News anchor, came to New Brunswick to interview Stringer. CNN did a series of specials on the team. There was Larry King Live. There was Oprah. Time did a cover story on the Imus fracas. Hilary Clinton spoke at Rutgers on April 20 and said, “Although the women’s basketball team did not win the NCAA championship, it won the minds and hearts of the American people.”

 “Awareness of Rutgers is Rising Across U.S.” a survey announced. And Star-Ledger columnist Mark D’Ionno, wrote, “The success of football and women’s basketball and Imus’ big mouth have given Rutgers the most continuing positive press since Alexander Hamilton beat back the British with a cannon fusillade during the Revolution.” The reference was to Hamilton’s covering George Washington’s retreat across the Raritan by firing over the Americans’ heads at the British army on the north bank. Hamilton’s batteries were positioned on the hill on which Old Queens—the president’s office, the symbol of Rutgers—stands.

Should a state’s highest-paid official be the state university’s football coach instead of its governor or university president? Is there something wrong when a university’s football team, above all else, is what gives it a strong identity? Is something awry when the great majority of Rutgers students know the name of our football coach and not the name of our president? I recently had both of them as guest speakers in a large class of mine called “Jerseyana.” President Richard McCormick was greeted with respect. Coach Greg Schiano was greeted like a rock star.

For his part, Schiano handles the hoopla with simple dignity. Shortly after the season, he dismissed an offer to take over as Miami’s head coach, saying, “This is where I want to be.” Of course, getting a raise for himself and his coaches helped persuade him. Still, he’s earning less that half what he could have gotten in South Florida.

Last fall, freshman running back Ray Rice emerged as one of the nation’s best. Then Anthony Davis, a Piscataway offensive lineman, announced on national television that he’d be attending Rutgers. His other choice was Ohio State. Running back/fullback, the kid credited as Schiano’s first big recruit, Brian Leonard, and an Academic All-American, was drafted by the St. Louis Rams.As summer practice started last month, Schiano deflected mention of undefeated seasons and pre-season expectations. “Our fans have high hopes and that’s exciting,” he said. “But this is still college football and anything can happen.” The summer news includes being ranked sixteenth in the USA Today preseason poll, Rice being mentioned as an All-American and Heisman trophy candidate, and rumors that the Big Ten might be considering adding the Scarlet Knights. Anything can happen indeed.

I asked McCormick whether we might be getting our priorities confused. “We made a commitment years ago to have a nationally competitive football team,” he said. “These days that costs a lot of money. We’re a reflection of America. Every newspaper in the country has a daily sports section. Does it have an education section? Miami would have given Coach Schiano $3 million. Some would say we’re getting a bargain.”

Mulcahy offers a frank view. “Look, Michael,” he said, “there’s the way it ought to be, which is that universities are supposed to be about education and that competing in tennis, fencing,  swimming, and crew is just as important as football. But there’s also the way it is. Having a fine football team is the way it is. It gets the public’s attention. As A.D., that’s part of my job: to get the citizens of this state to care about their state university.”

I asked Mulcahy whether Rutgers’ emphasis on football would lower academic standards. “Theoretically,” he said. “But it’s probably going to have the opposite effect. Now the best students in the state want to go to Rutgers. Maybe not for the right reasons, but it’s already clear that the quality of our student body is going up. Kids want to go to a fun school.”

 A fine student of mine was promised an academic scholarship at Yale, but took the scholarship at Rutgers. Why? “I love big-time football,” he said. ‘I wanted to be part of what’s going on here.” Yale as the safety school? That’s pretty cool.

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