Looming merger creates uncertainty for Rutgers-Camden recruiting

Rowan's teams, including the baseball squad with Jon Hydock, may get a lift from the proposed merger. The opposite appears true at Rutgers-Camden.
Rowan's teams, including the baseball squad with Jon Hydock, may get a lift from the proposed merger. The opposite appears true at Rutgers-Camden. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 09, 2012

There are many things Division III college coaches can't promise recruits: scholarship money, playing time, big crowds, and major media exposure.

John Wink, Jason Curbison, and the rest of the coaches at Rutgers-Camden understand that.

What's tricky for the Scarlet Raptors coaches these dizzying days is that they are trying to persuade high school athletes to play for Rutgers-Camden when there might not be a Rutgers-Camden.

"There's so much uncertainty," Wink, the school's baseball coach, said of the proposed merger between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan. "It's out there. It's on a lot of people's minds. But nobody can say for sure what's going to happen."

Gov. Christie announced a plan in January to merge Rutgers-Camden and Rowan to form a large, research-based institution under the Rowan name.

Details of the merger, including its impact on the athletic programs at the schools, have not been announced.

While there has been a storm of protest from the Rutgers-Camden campus - where signs that read "Bleed Scarlet Pride" and "Keep Rutgers in Camden" fill the windows of the athletic and fitness center off Third Street - coaches at both schools aren't sure what to tell potential recruits.

Rowan men's basketball coach Joe Cassidy said merger talk has been "a positive" for his program.

"If anything, people think the possible merger could make Rowan bigger and better," Cassidy said. "It's been a good thing for us."

The opposite seems to be true for Rutgers-Camden, although Wink, Curbison, and many other school officials believe that there's a strong chance the merger will not happen or that the nature of the alliance will allow the Camden school to maintain its identity - and its athletic program.

"It might have hurt us a little bit just because nobody seems to know what's going to happen," said Curbison, the men's basketball coach. "I've fielded a few questions: 'Is my son going to have that Rutgers degree?' "

Coaches on the Camden campus say there is one big reason for their ability to attract recruits to the small, urban campus in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge.

Rutgers-Camden is largely a commuter school, although more students have begun to live on or just-off campus in recent years. It's been the Rutgers' name and the value of a Rutgers' degree that has attracted recruits, according to the coaches.

"That's a huge part of it," Wink said. "For people who live in South Jersey, who have friends and family members from this area, they know the kind of education they will receive on this campus.

"There's no way to overstate what that degree does and can do for these young people in the next phase of their lives. It's a huge plus for us."

Rutgers-Camden freshman baseball pitcher Ed King, a graduate of Holy Cross High School in Delran, said the Rutgers name and reputation were what attracted him to the school.

"I wouldn't have come here if it was Rowan," King said. "I probably would have gone to West Chester. It's a tough situation because we're recruiting all these guys and Rowan is recruiting all these guys, and if the schools merge, what happens to all of them?"

Division III recruiting is different from the process at Division I or Division II programs, which can offer scholarship money. Coaches at Division III schools usually have to wait until athletes exhaust every opportunity to earn scholarship money from the bigger schools.

So it's not unusual for coaches at Rutgers-Camden, Rowan, and other Division III programs to be uncertain of their recruiting classes well into the spring, and even into the summer.

And that's under normal circumstances. With speculation of the merger hanging over both campuses, these are far from normal circumstances, especially in Camden.

"This is the business we're in," Curbison said. "There's always a lot of uncertainty. But the thing about this situation is that nobody seems to know anything for sure, so that really makes it tough."

Rutgers Camden-Rowan merger scenarios

Merger Scenarios

Gov. Christie in January announced plans to merge Rutgers-Camden and Rowan under the Rowan name.

While the merger is far from a done deal, there are three possible scenarios with regard to the athletic programs at Rutgers-Camden and Rowan:

The merger follows the blueprint laid out by Christie and Rowan's athletic program: Rowan absorbs Rutgers-Camden's athletic program. The Profs remain a Division III athletic program in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC).

The merger is the same, and Rowan's athletic program absorbs Rutgers-Camden's athletic program. But to raise the visibility of what officials hope will be an internationally known research university, Rowan embarks on a timely and costly process of moving up to the Division I (scholarship) level for sports.

The merger either doesn't happen or turns out to be a loose alliance, allowing Rutgers-Camden to maintain its identity as well as its athletic programs. Both the Scarlet Raptors and the Profs remain Division III programs in the NJAC.

- Phil Anastasia

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223, panastasia@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @philAnastasia. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports


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