How Rutgers Football Became Nationally Relevant

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How Rutgers Football Became Nationally Relevant
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
High Point Solutions Stadium on game night.

With so much excitement and expectations surrounding the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football program in 2012, it seems like a good time to review how Rutgers Football has evolved to national relevance.

In 2008, former Rutgers tight end Michael J. Pellowski wrote Rutgers Football: A Gridiron Tradition in Scarlet.  Pellowski delves into the history of Rutgers Football, starting with its establishment in 1869 and ending with its reestablishment as a nationally respected program in the mid-2000s. This book is still a great resource despite not covering the last half-decade. 

Perhaps Rutgers University’s most important contribution to the world is college football. Known as “The Birthplace of College Football,” Rutgers hosted what was called the College of New Jersey on November 6, 1869, where the two New Jersey schools played the first intercollegiate football game. The Queensmen (which was Rutgers’ nickname at the time) defeated the college know called Princeton, 6-4. 

In the 1910s, Paul Robeson became one of Rutgers’s first college football superstars. Robeson was also one of the best African-American players of his generation. Some people may know Robeson more for his exploits as an actor and singer, but his legend was born on the banks of the Raritan River.

Homer “Pop” Hazel was one of the nation’s premier fullbacks in the early 1920s. A jack-of-all-trades, Hazel received praise from such college football legends as Walter Camp. “The Father of College Football” once wrote:

“Hazel of Rutgers can out-pass and out-kick any of our other stars.”

Rutgers opened its new stadium, Rutgers Stadium, in 1938. The stadium has since undergone a name change to High Point Solutions Stadium, as well as many updates and expansions, but the location in Piscataway remains the same.

Frank Burns’s legend at Rutgers began in 1945 as a quarterback and as a linebacker. Pellowski wrote:

“He became one of Rutgers’ best football players ever. Later, he enjoyed a pro career and became an assistant coach and then the head football coach at Rutgers.”

A decade later, Rutgers became known as the Scarlet Knights. Bill Austin, a halfback and a quarterback, was the team’s first superstar after switching to the new mascot. Though a Rutgers player has never won the Heisman Trophy, Austin was the first player to have a legitimate shot, finishing 6th in voting for the 1958 Heisman. Pellowski wrote:

“Sports experts regarded Austin as one of college football’s elite players in 1958. His name was mentioned in the same breath as stars like Billy Cannon of LSU…”

In 1958, Rutgers lost only one game, and the Scarlet Knights lost that game by one point. Austin missed the game due to injury. Had Austin played, Rutgers could have gone undefeated for the first time in school history.

The Scarlet Knights indeed went undefeated three seasons later. Center Alex Kroll led the team in 1961 after transferring from Yale University the year before. Pellowski wrote:

“Kroll had been an All-Ivy League lineman as a sophomore at Yale. Unhappy with Ivy League life, Alex Kroll left Yale for Rutgers. He found Rutgers appealing both academically and athletically.”

Speaking of national relevance, Kroll’s decision to leave Yale for Rutgers shows the renown the university has maintained throughout its history.

Rutgers defeated Princeton 29-0 in the game that signified college football’s centennial anniversary in 1969. ABC televised the game, which was played at Rutgers Stadium.

The Scarlet Knights went undefeated again in 1976, under the leadership of former star player and now head coach Frank Burns. Though Rutgers did not lose that year, the college football world did not see the team as one of the nation’s best. Pellowski wrote:

“The Scarlet Knights ended up ranked number 17 in the final AP poll of 1976. Rutgers had a better record than every other team in the Top 20 excluding Pittsburgh, the only other undefeated team in the Top 20. Rutgers was invited to play in the new Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana. The team voted not to accept the bowl bid because the players felt they deserved to be invited to a more established bowl game.”

Rutgers, though, did not play the elite college football programs. The typical schedule during that time featured schools that currently play in the Ivy League and in the Patriot League, not in big-time college football.

In 1978, Rutgers played in its first bowl game. Arizona State University defeated the Scarlet Knights, 34-18, in the Garden State Bowl at the Meadowlands. Rutgers would not play in another bowl game for nearly 30 years.

Deron Cherry starred at defensive back and at punter for Rutgers. Cherry became one of the Kansas City Chiefsall-time great players in the 1980s.

Cherry’s final season at Rutgers in 1980 was significant for two reasons. First, it was the last season the Scarlet Knights played Princeton, which officially ended the nation’s first college football rivalry. Also, the University of Alabama, the No. 1 team in the nation, beat Rutgers at Giants Stadium by only four points, 17-13.

Thanks to facility improvements, Rutgers began playing big-time college football by the 1990s. Marco Battaglia was perhaps the best player during the early 1990s. The Cincinnati Bengals selected him in the 2nd round of the 1995 NFL Draft. The tight end won First Team All-American honors from various media outlets in 1995.

The latter half of the decade saw some future NFL players in scarlet, such as Shaun O’Hara, Mike McMahon, L.J. Smith, and Gary Brackett.

These special players and moments kept Rutgers Football relevant in the 20th century. Possibly the biggest name in Rutgers program history, though, arrived in the 21st century: Greg Schiano.

Schiano coached Rutgers from 2001 to 2011. During his tenure, many Scarlet Knights players went on to succeed in the National Football League. The New Jersey native led Rutgers to its first bowl game since 1978, when the Scarlet Knights lost the 2005 Insight Bowl against the same opponent, Arizona State University. Schiano would win five bowl games as head coach.

2006 was Rutgers’s best season under Schiano. The Scarlet Knights finished the season ranked 12th in the country.  Schiano won National Coach of the Year by many media outlets. Perhaps the best backfield in the country played in Piscataway that year.

Brian Leonard, the fullback, was considered a Heisman candidate in the preseason. 2006, though, became Ray Rice’s coming out party.  He finished 7th in voting for the Heisman. Rice left after the 2007 season as the school’s all-time leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. The Baltimore Ravens selected him in the 2nd round of the 2008 NFL Draft. Leonard was also drafted, going in the 2nd round of the 2007 NFL Draft to the St. Louis Rams.

Today, Rutgers Football’s biggest story comes from Eric LeGrand, a former defensive tackle who was paralyzed in a game against Army in 2010 at the New Meadowlands Stadium. LeGrand cannot walk yet, but his efforts to one day walk again have provided the college football world with inspiration. Despite his limitations, LeGrand has kept a positive attitude. The country has taken notice of LeGrand, as readers of Sports Illustrated voted his entry into High Point Solutions Stadium amongst his teammates as the Best Moment of 2011. LeGrand was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated carrying an axe—which symbolizes Schiano’s motto to “Keep Chopping”—wearing a number 52 black Rutgers uniform.

Schiano took the head coaching job of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the offseason. He signed LeGrand to a contract with the team.

This season, former offensive line coach Kyle Flood takes over as head coach. The only other holdover from Rutgers’s 2011 coaching staff is former special teams coordinator—and now defensive coordinator—Robb Smith. Flood and his staff will need to maintain the level of success Schiano brought to Piscataway.  Rutgers brought in its best-ever recruiting class this offseason, which is a good start towards building a bright future. 

Continuing to attract the best high school football players from New Jersey, and across the country, will help Rutgers Football to stay in the national spotlight.

It is often said the first one is the best one. That has not been the case in college football, but Rutgers has undergone many changes through its history in an effort to live up to this adage. Even in the program’s darkest days, Rutgers remained relevant, because college football started there.

 

*All content not hyperlinked was collected from Rutgers Football: A Gridiron Tradition in Scarlet, by Michael J. Pellowski.

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