The Phanatic Magazine
**Over the next two weeks, Jared Trexler asks the critical questions facing area workers young and old. When is the best time to rebuild and start a new challenge? When is the perfect time to end life's work and begin retirement's chapter? There are never easy answers but those are some of the questions filtering deep in the thoughts of Rutgers' Greg Schiano, Villanova's Jay Wright and Penn State Joe's Paterno. Today, From the End of the Bench begins with Schiano, and the inevitable decision that he'll face when his former mentor and one of college football's prized programs eventually comes calling**
PISCATAWAY, NJ -- From Route 287, the sign reads as clear as a typical Shore day. "Welcome to Rutgers, Home of the RAC."
The Louis Brown Athletic Center, a 8,000-seat dungeon with odd angles and tight quarters, has played a part in many Big East basketball battles over the years.
An article by Michael Becker in a 2003 edition of the Daily Orange aptly describes the arena's full ambiance.
Back in medieval times, the rack was a device of torture, a chamber of pain that instilled fear in trespassers and other wrongdoers. Rutgers has its own version of the rack.At Rutgers, even if you manage to escape with your life, chances are, you won't escape with a win.The 8,000-seat Louis Brown Athletic Center, commonly known as the RAC, will host tomorrow night’s 7:30 game between the Scarlet Knights and Syracuse. The RAC, built in 1977, serves as a truly unique on-campus arena. This truncated pyramid of steel and concrete in Piscataway, N.J., is one of the nation’s loudest arenas. Its bizarre shape only adds to the allure.When plans for the RAC were made, they vaguely resembled what now stands as home to the 8-9 Scarlet Knights. That’s because at the time of construction, a nationwide steel strike was in effect. Rutgers was forced to make budget cuts, and the half-completed roof was capped off, giving the arena the look of a trapezoid. "It was a cost-saving way to build a building," said Bob Mulcahy, Rutgers’ director of athletics.That cost-effective design makes the RAC a difficult place for road teams. Because the concrete and steel don't absorb sound as much as other materials, the crowd noise continually bounces off the walls like a pinball.
But in its written pronouncement to the world, the Scarlet Knights signaled the clear-cut status of their football program -- somewhere between women's rugby and five straight nights of the following fun in the heart of college life: "Stuff Yer Face" right across from the Rail followed by a trip to the "Knight Club" at 164 Easton Avenue; the Rail for its famous karaoke competitions and $2.50 domestics; "The Olive Branch" extends drinks including Happy Hour Thursday of $1 drafts and $.50 slices; "Olde Queens" and "The Scarlet Pub" are weekend favorites.
Drinking, eating and rowing up and down the river (as per Rutgers' fight song) were all more popular activities than attending a football game in Rutgers Stadium -- a band box with little flavor other than a grass knoll and a cannon.
That was until Greg Schiano took over. The cannon, signaling game-changing plays and home team success, started firing regularly, and with it sprouted a football program ascending toward respectability and currently holding national recognition.
Schiano envisioned a rebuilding process of different proportions. For two years, the Scarlet Knights patched leaking holes with (un)able bodies, using the minimal talent on hand instead of grabbing at the tempting fruit of quick-fix junior college transfers.
The results were as expected: 3-20, 17 consecutive conference setbacks, drilled by Miami (Fl.), West Virginia and Virginia Tech by a combined score of 191-7. A mass exodus down the shoreline, out 195-W toward the Keystone State and north toward conference rivals Syracuse and Boston College hurt recruiting.
The Garden State's best players were usually bolting for Knoxville and Madison. The ones that devoted themselves as Jersey kids wanting to play at the state's premier public institution were told it wouldn't be easy. Success off the field was top priority, followed by lessons in the football classroom including extended hours in the weight and film rooms.
While losing continued, stability was fast on its heels.
"It's not easy to do when you're trying to build something and you know you don't have enough talent to beat the people you've got to play," Schiano said in November 2006. "Sometimes you just have to do what you know is right and hopefully that gets rewarded down the line."
Ratty and rundown, the patchwork log cabin was slowly chopped down. That's right -- chopped down by a collection of players who practiced what Schiano preached. In the end, they chopped wood to an historic 2006 season (11-2, 5-2 Big East) culminated by a victory over Kansas State in the Texas Bowl.
The honors and accolades -- and there were plenty, including six national Coach of the Year awards -- were nice, but the records told the story. The Scarlet Knights achieved their first Top 10 finish in 2006, won 11 games for the second time in school history and earned a second straight bowl invite for the first time.
“All along we have said the same thing,” said Schiano. “What we're doing here, we're just scratching the surface. The sky is the limit here at Rutgers and we're going to do great things. We've won 10 games and that's great, but the seniors have laid the foundation for really, really big things. We've recruited really great young guys in this program and this is home. This is my state; this is where I grew up. The same things I said at this podium the first time in this room that were true then are still true now. This state and the New York, Philadelphia metropolitan area has all started to come together here and that's only going to get better and it's something that's never been tapped, so to me, this is a great, great situation."
The great situation translated to the field and the athletic department's pocketbook as the school set attendance records of over 40,000 fans a game, including a record crowd of 44,111 fans for the thrilling 28-25 victory over then third-ranked Louisville on November 9.
And in turn the university made a commitment to Schiano after the former Miami Hurricanes defense coordinator turned home an overture to become head coach in South Florida. Schiano made $625,000 from private sources last season, and his current contract entering the 2006 campaign was set to max out at $350,000 if he stayed until its completion in 2012.
"Rutgers has made a commitment to me, I've made a commitment to Rutgers and I love it here," Schiano told the AP in November of '06. "Right now do we have the 85,000-seat stadium? No. Will we have it some day? Might. That's my goal. It's all going to come in steps."
But where does the next step lead? Many guess Schiano's disinterest in the prime Miami gig tells of a New Jersey man happily building a nationally contending program in his home. However, others quietly surmise Schiano's big decision is still several years away.
While it's true he holds ties to the Hurricanes program (D-coordinator in 1999-2000), Schiano's first full-time assistant collegiate job began in 1991 at Penn State, continuing until 1996 while amassing 58 total victories and six consecutive bowl appearances. More importantly, the young coach was given his true start by Joe Paterno, a coaching icon inevitably coming upon retirement (more on that in another installment).
Does Schiano leave his home state, the program he built for the greener pastures of Happy Valley? Can he say "no" if asked by Paterno, the man who gave him his start and is revered in coaching circles? Can he pass up the opportunity to coach in the granddaddy of all conferences (the Big 10) and in one of the largest venues in the sport (Beaver Stadium's capacity tops 110,000)?
All interesting questions with little indications at concrete answers. If asked, and then pressed, Schiano will contend he is focused "on the present" and is happy at "State of Rutgers."
And who wouldn't be? He is the king of his own castle, where at Penn State he'd have the large shadow of Paterno's legacy to contend with. A city guy, he's a quick drive to New York and Philadelphia, within comfortable distance of the Shore and can always grab a sandwich at "Stuff Yer Face."
But the pinnacle of his profession resides just past the small town of Bellefonte. A true college town that preaches football on Saturdays. A national recruiting scope with a mountain of prestige and power at its disposal.
Penn State doesn't need to be rebuilt, just maintained. And therein lies Schiano's ultimate dilemma. Does he want to be the architect or the caregiver? Only time will tell.
Perhaps in several years, I'll again make my way down Route 287, passing the exit for Piscataway on my right. The sign reading clearly as a typical Shore day: "Welcome to Rutgers, home of Greg Schiano."
Scarlet Knight fans can only hope.
Jared Trexler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org