There were tremors in the Northeast this morning. They were not caused by seismic waves from the shifting of subterranean plates, but they could be felt all along Cameron’s Fault Line from northern New Jersey, through the borough of New York, and up here into Connecticut. They were caused by thousands of college football fans tweeting and texting in frenzy on emerging rumors of Rutgers University head football coach Greg Schiano’s departure for the NFL.
What started in similar fashion to the reports last Sunday night of Chip Kelly leaving the University of Oregon to take the helm of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ended in a much different manner: with validity.
The move was surprising mainly due to the timing: less than one week from National Signing Day, Feb. 1st, when high school recruits may formally accept offers to play collegiate football. Rutgers arguably had one of, if not the best, recruiting class in the Big East Conference, but also one of the best classes in school history. The departure of the head coach only days away from that all-important commitment date raised questions and even panic about the program’s future.
After considering as many as 10 candidates, Tampa Bay has its man. Can Schiano be blamed for leaving? Sure, but why waste energy on criticism? He has raised the program in stature during his 11-year tenure and had an opportunity to join an elite fraternity of just 32 members that have charge over NFL teams. It remains to be seen whether Tampa made a good selection, but who can fault Schiano for making the jump.
In the meantime, Rutgers has to focus.
Priority No. 1 – Minimize Collateral Damage
As much as coaching changes are an everyday event in athletics, when it comes to college football players – and prospective college football players – stability is essential. In a demanding and complex game, players like to rely on coaches and systems for steadiness. College programs all around the Northeast are scanning the roster of Rutgers recruits to see who may be persuaded to change direction before national signing day. Schools who recruit against Rutgers include Syracuse, Connecticut, and Penn State primarily, but sudden coaching moves like this catch competing program’s attention.
Priority No. 2 – Shore-up the Coaching Staff
Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti moved quickly to name offensive line coach Kyle Flood as interim head coach. This was a wise move on several counts. First, Flood has been on staff for seven years and is well known to administration, alumni, players and may of the recruits. Several of the team’s to prospects are offensive linemen. Giving their position coach the reigns of the program helps to reestablish confidence in its stability.
Pernetti indicated he could have a new head coach in place before Wednesday’s letters of intent are signed. He’ll be working harder than the coaches to do it! Early names rumored to succeed Schiano include Rutgers offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti; Mario Cristobal, head coach at Florida International University and Temple’s Steve Addazio. Another logical consideration would be Tom Bradley, who guided Penn State through a tumultuous end of season. K.C. Keeler, head coach at (FCS) Delaware has also been mentioned, as has Harvard head coach Tim Murphy who was also rumored as a candidate at Penn State. Darren Rizzi who coached special teams at Rutgers under Schiano will also be in the mix. His position as special teams coordinator with the Miami Dolphins may be in question with a recent head coaching change there. No doubt Pernetti, if he’s prudent, has a short list of names to call.
These two tasks are demanding but not unachievable. If the Penn State scandal (and firing of Joe Paterno) scared off only a handful of players and recruits, it should be possible to maintain most of Rutgers recruits. Many of the position coaches are principle recruiters, so those important relationships will be merely changed but not ended.
As to finding a head coach, Rutgers is a program that is established and deep. It needs to be kept tuned and running rather than overhauled. It’s not ready to compete for a national title, but it was just a win away from a conference championship this season. Its recruiting class bears witness to the appeal the program has among local talent. And Mohamed Sanu soon will join Ray Rice, Kenny Britt, Devin McCourty, Nate Jones, Gary Brackett, Anthony Davis and Courtney Greene, among other Nfl players who were at Rutgers under Schiano.
Some will argue the Big East Conference is dying or in disarray. Logic dictates, however, that there is a place for its member programs in the college football universe. The changes and unprecedented coast-to-coast expansion that the conference has begun are a better outcome than many imagined several months ago. And the nature of the business is that coaches are always looking to step up to the next level, regardless of how long it may last. Rutgers has plenty of promise. A new coach, if not in place by next Wednesday, will create interest and curiosity by the very nature of change
The tremors will continue for another several days, until fans come to grips with the changes a new coach is in place. A recruit or two may change commitment, but there will be more things familiar than unfamiliar come opening day.
Pete Sonski is a College Football Zealots contributor and runs Taking A Knee: A Connecticut Football Blog.