Time is finally on the side of resurgent Rutgers squad

Greg Schiano's patience has paid off. But he needs more to finish the job.

Posted: August 03, 2007

Rutgers begins practicing today for what is likely the most anticipated football season since the Scarlet Knights strapped on leather helmets for the first time 138 years ago. But it's not long ago that Greg Schiano worried that by now he might not be the coach orchestrating matters.

Hired seven years ago to what was widely regarded as a thankless job, Schiano, a relentless optimist, conceded that he felt time might be running out on his assertion that Rutgers was fertile ground for a winner.

The depressing notion struck him after Rutgers kicked away a 27-7 fourth-quarter lead over Illinois and lost in overtime, 33-30, on opening day in 2005.

"It was such a devastating defeat," the 41-year-old coach said recently. "I was worried about our team. They'd had a great spring and great summer, and they totally believed in what we were doing. That was probably one of the only nights when I sat there and wondered if we were going to have enough time to get this done. Thank God we did."

Since then, Rutgers has won 18 of 24 games, including an 11-2 mark last season with the first bowl win in school history - by 37-10 over Kansas State in the Texas Bowl - and a final ranking of 12th in the Associated Press media poll.

The Jersey-born and Jersey-bred guy who worried that he was running out of time became one of the country's most celebrated college coaches. When Miami asked permission to interview Schiano for its head coaching position, Rutgers was concerned that its time with Schiano might be running out.

But Schiano declined the interview, in a bold statement that spoke to his belief that the success Rutgers had in 2006 could be sustained.

To most college football observers, the Scarlet Knights came out of nowhere last season, a moribund program suddenly awakening with a fury. Schiano said nothing could be further from the truth. This was no quick-fix situation.

"I told people it would take a long time for it to suddenly happen, and I'm not sure people knew what I meant by that," Schiano said. "When I came here, it just wasn't that we needed a few players. We had to first build an infrastructure, and we needed some time."

Slowly but surely, through 2-9 and 1-11 seasons his first two years; through humiliating losses of 61-0 to Miami, 50-0 to Virginia, and 80-7 to West Virginia; and through losses to Villanova and New Hampshire of Division I-AA, Schiano changed the culture of defeatism and got recruits to buy into his vision. He told New Jersey prospects that if they stayed home, he could build them into a national championship contender. Judging from his recent in-state recruiting successes, Schiano's message is getting through.

"The talent at the top in what I call the 'State of Rutgers' is exceptional," Schiano said. "If you can get seven out of 10 of those guys each year, the talent is as good as anywhere in the country. In New Jersey each year, you might get 50, 60 Division I signees, whereas in other states there might be 200. But the top 10, 15 are as good as any state in the country."

Speaking of other colleges that successfully lured away New Jersey's top high school players for years, Schiano said: "It's almost like they had a cooperative going on - you know, I'll take two, you take two, and so on. That was one of the things we knew we had to stop, and slowly but surely we're doing that. It's critical."

It's likely that New Jersey blue-chippers such as offensive tackle Anthony Davis of Piscataway, linebacker Manny Abreu of Union City, and running back Mason Robinson of Somerville would have been at Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame or Penn State before Schiano came along. Instead, they are among a group that may be the best freshman class in school history.

Through the bad times, Schiano stressed to his players that they simply work to be the best they can be and not worry how they're judged by others. He got each senior class to buy into that notion.

"Our thing has been, how close to our best are we getting?" he said. "We just knew that if we could make that our core value and keep that, once the talent got better, the results would start to change."

But Schiano realizes that this is a what-have-you-done-lately business.

"Last year was great, but it's over," he said. "We finished tied for second in an eight-team league" - the Big East - "so there's a lot of work to be done. And, God willing, we've got more time."

Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.

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