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May 24, 2007
Schiano builds Rutgers into true contender
One of the lowest points in a long history of low points for the Rutgers football program came in April 1996.
The '96 Scarlet Knights, a team that would go 2-9 that fall, managed to lose their spring game. That team lost 10-6 to a team of Rutgers alumni, whose starting quarterback hadn't thrown a pass in pads in 10 years.
Adding to the embarrassment, the alumni laughed and cracked jokes along the way and knocked one of Rutgers' starting defensive ends out for the season with a knee injury.
Contrast that with an April day in Piscataway in 2007.
A school-record 11,079 fans attended the Scarlet Knights' spring game on April 21 to watch Rutgers practice without injured Heisman Trophy contender Ray Rice, no less.
In that crowd was Rutgers' most famous fan, The Sopranos star James Gandolfini. His cameo at the Rutgers spring game was nice and all, but he can't play offensive line.
Lucky for the Scarlet Knights, Anthony Davis can.
The four-star offensive guard ranked the No. 68 player in his class could have gone to Ohio State's spring game. Or Notre Dame's. Or USC's. But the 6-foot-6, 350-pound lineman needed only to drive around the corner from Piscataway (N.J.) High for his college home.
The 2007 spring game was a day Greg Schiano hoped for since he returned to his home state in December 2000, to the school considered to be the birthplace of college football.
It was mostly downhill from 1869, though. From 1991-2004, Rutgers was 18-75-1 in the Big East, including a 25-game losing streak in the conference. Schiano was there for the final years of that stretch, going 3-20 in his first two years.
In the process, though, Schiano set the stage for the reclamation. He helped renew passion for the school, used an aggressive recruiting strategy and paired that with shrewd marketing and advertising.
Rutgers, which had made only one bowl game in its history before 2005, has played in the postseason the last two years. The Scarlet Knights earned their first bowl win in school history last year.
An 18-7 record over the last two years captured the attention of the nation. It was topped by Rutgers' 28-25 win over undefeated and No. 3 Louisville on Nov. 9 for a 9-0 start. The national television broadcast was the second most-viewed Thursday college football game in ESPN history with more than 4.6 million viewers.
"We knew we were turning it around," said fullback Brian Leonard, who spent five years at Rutgers before becoming a second-round pick in April's NFL Draft. "We worked so hard. Every win was tough to get. Every win felt better at a program like Rutgers."
Selling the program
For most top recruits, Schiano's sales pitch in 2001 and '02 would have been laughable. For Rutgers, though, it was the equivalent of promising the moon.
"I knew Rutgers was on the bottom of the Big East," said Leonard, who was recruited by several top programs out of Gouverneur, N.Y., in the class of 2002. "I knew they weren't very good. He told me, 'When you come here, we might not go to a bowl game in the first couple of years.' "
But Schiano also told Leonard and the rest of the class Rutgers would be in a bowl game before they left Piscataway, even though Rutgers' only bowl appearance to that point was a loss to Arizona State in the 1978 Garden State Bowl.
Leonard picked Rutgers in large part because of the loyalty it showed his brother Nate. After Nate Leonard tore his ACL in high school, most schools that were recruiting him backed off - but not Rutgers.
Also in one of those early classes was Pedro Sosa of Union City (N.J.) Union Hill. Sosa will begin his third season as Rutgers' starting left tackle in 2007.
"He sold him that, 'Do you want to go to a place that's established and be a spoke in a wheel, or do you want to be the rubber of the tire that touches the road?' " said Joe Rotundi, who coached Sosa in high school. "That's the way he made those early recruits feel. Almost, 'Are you man enough to take the challenge?' That intrigued Pedro. He wanted to be that guy that was there in the beginning."
Leonard, Sosa, linebacker Quintero Frierson and wide receivers Shawn Tucker and Willie Foster were all in that mold. They were recruits looking to make a mark at Rutgers despite offers from other, more established programs.
"It's a now, instant society," Schiano said. "We did a good job finding the right people for our program. They weren't 6-3, they might have been six-foot, but they loved the game."
The State of Rutgers
The area has produced USC wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett and Wisconsin linebacker Jonathan Casillas (New Brunswick), Penn State defensive linemen Tamba Hali (Teaneck) and Jay Alford (Orange), Miami tight end Greg Olsen (Wayne Hills) and Boston College linebacker Brian Toal (Wyckoff), among others, over the last few years.
From his time as an assistant at Hoboken, Rotondi - a 22-year coaching veteran in New Jersey - remembers a streak of eight Division I-A players who never considered Rutgers.
Rutgers would offer a scholarship, the recruit would say, "That's nice, thank you," and then go on to play at Penn State, Boston College, Syracuse or Notre Dame.
When Schiano arrived, he wanted to remind high school prospects that Rutgers was, in fact, the state university of New Jersey.
"Kids grow up in Alabama wanting to play for Alabama. Kids grow up in Texas wanting to play in Texas," Rotondi said. "I guess that culture has started to change in New Jersey. He started getting the high school football coaches and kids in the state to believe in their state university."
Schiano changed that because there was no bigger fan of football in New Jersey than Schiano. If his affinity for New Jersey wasn't enough, he surrounded himself with more Jersey guys.
Five members of his 12-man football staff are from New Jersey. Another three are from Pennsylvania. One is from New York.
"You really need to know the culture of New Jersey," Rutgers deputy athletic director Kevin MacConnell said. "Unless you live here, you don't really know Jersey. The theory was that we needed to find a Jersey guy. Greg Schiano is Jersey through and through."
In recruiting, Schiano started by unearthing sleeper recruits in New Jersey like tight end Clark Harris, linebacker Devraun Thompson and quarterback Mike Teel. But now, the top recruits are giving Rutgers a chance.
Four-star wide receiver Kenny Britt (Bayonne) and running back Kordell Young (West Deptford) signed in 2006, followed in the 2007 class by four-star lineman Davis (Piscataway), athlete Mason Robinson (Somerville) and linebacker Manny Abreu, who played for Rotondi at Union Hill.
But keeping recruits in New Jersey was only half of Schiano's recruiting plan.
He lifted a phrase from former Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger, who called his South Florida recruiting territory The State of Miami. Schiano dubbed his recruiting territory The State of Rutgers, which included New Jersey, metropolitan New York and South Florida.
"I kind of borrowed that because I really believed that we were going to be a regional recruiting school," Schiano said. "I believe we have enough very talented student-athletes in our region that we don't have to go all over the country. That's not where our strategy is."
Before joining Butch Davis' staff at Miami as defensive coordinator in 1998, Schiano had never recruited in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area.
When he arrived in Coral Gables, Schiano noticed not only the depth of talent in Florida, but also the passion and work ethic Florida players would bring to Piscataway.
When he left for Rutgers in December 2000, he kept his contacts in South Florida open by inviting high school coaches to coaching clinics at Rutgers and making regular visits to Miami and Fort Lauderdale. He also brought Miami graduate assistant Mario Cristobal with him as his offensive line coach.
Cristobal, a graduate of Columbus High in Miami and an All-Big East offensive tackle with the Hurricanes in 1992, became Schiano's lead recruiter in South Florida before he returned to Miami in 2004.
"Any time you go to a program you want to win your territory, but we knew South Florida had a ton of talent," said Cristobal, who is now the coach at Florida International. "When we were down they didn't know what Rutgers was or where Rutgers was."
As coach at Miami Central High, Anthony Saunders watched wide receivers Marcus Daniels and Willie Foster, lightly recruited by Florida's Big Three, go to Rutgers. Rutgers rarely went head-to-head with Miami, Florida and Florida State. Those schools would scoop up the superstars, while Schiano would go after their less-heralded teammates.
"They knew how to recruit. They did their homework first," Saunders said. "The other kids that were on the bubble, those were the kids Rutgers went after - and they could play for anybody."
As a result, Rutgers' roster next year will include 20 players from 19 high schools in South Florida. Since 2002, Rutgers has signed at least four players from South Florida in each signing class.
A Garden State of mind
In New Jersey, that meant enlisting the help of Gandolfini in 2001. The actor joined Schiano in a commercial where a fan approaches the two at the Red Lion Café on the Rutgers campus. The fan asks for an autograph, to which Gandolfini agrees. However, the fan corrects The Sopranos star, saying he wants Schiano's autograph.
Gandolfini's picture also appeared on billboards in New Jersey to advertise the Rutgers program.
"When we first started, we had to get people talking about Rutgers for whatever reason," Schiano said. "So we had some ideas of using the billboards, some ideas of using famous alums. You have to get people talking about you."
Schiano also wanted to capture the attention of kids growing up in Jersey. When he arrived, he established programs targeted to specific age groups to spread the Rutgers name.
For kindergartners through fourth graders, Rutgers distributed coloring books - as well as a book called Hello Scarlet Knight - to about 1,700 school libraries. Fifth and sixth graders would receive Rutgers knapsacks or folders for good grades or good attendance.
Rutgers players from New Jersey returned to their middle schools to talk to seventh- and eighth-graders to help them prepare for high school. Every eighth grader received Rutgers T-shirts for middle school graduation.
On top of being in the school systems, Schiano pushed Rutgers to be more involved in Pop Warner football, distributing more than 15,000 T-shirts to youth football players.
"With everything we did, he wanted us to think how a high school athlete would react to it," said MacConnell, who has worked in the Rutgers athletic department for 21 years. "It was his idea to get them growing up Rutgers. All the kids now that are getting to high school somehow or someway have been touched by the things Coach did six years ago."
Schiano's reach extended beyond the Garden State, too.
Rutgers' billboards in South Florida didn't have the star power as the ones on the Jersey Turnpike, but their message was just as clear.
Each year, Schiano poses with players on his team from South Florida for billboards that dot I-95. The billboards thanked Miami and Fort Lauderdale for their contributions to Rutgers football.
In his first year at Rutgers, the school also arranged for Schiano's weekly coach's show to be broadcast on Sun Sports, an all-Florida sports television station. Aired in a late weeknight time slot and produced in a fast-paced style to attract high school viewers, Schiano's show remains on the air on Sun Sports. It is one of few out-of-state coach's shows on the network.
Those moves brought Rutgers much closer to the homes of high school recruits in Miami. Rutgers recently expanded its coach's show to the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas, where the Scarlet Knights landed two signees last year.
"The off-the-field things are huge, the marketing, and exposing the program," Schiano said. "(At Rutgers) you're not on ESPN every week. As a result, now we are."
The Texas Bowl matchup on Dec. 28 would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Rutgers, the latest reclamation project in college football, faced another of the sport's recent projects - Kansas State.
With Ray Rice (of New Rochelle, N.Y.) running for 170 yards and a touchdown and Tim Brown (of Miami) catching two touchdown passes, the Scarlet Knights wrapped up their second 11-win season in their 137-year history with a 37-10 rout of the Wildcats.
About 20 years earlier, Bill Snyder built Kansas State from laughingstock to contender, a feat Schiano looks to repeat under a new set of circumstances.
Schiano appears to be in it for the long haul. In the offseason, Schiano took his name out of the running for Miami's vacant head coaching position. He followed that by agreeing to a four-year contract extension that will run through 2016 and pay him $1.5 million per year. Rutgers is also in talks to expand its stadium.
After the bowl game, Schiano would tell his team he wanted to recruit in their image. That is, a group of players hungry to leave a mark.
"We wanted to build a program," Leonard said. "A lot of guys wanted to look back 20 years from now to say we did that. I had a chance to say that I won the first bowl game Rutgers ever won."
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.