Monday, December 6, 2010

Rutgers Football; They'll Be Back In 2011 After A Painful 2010


(Texas A&M.....Alabama....Miami)

Last night, before I watched a tough minded UCONN Husky football team beat South Florida 19-16 (without scoring a point on offense) to win the Big East championship and a berth in a BCS bowl- probably the Fiesta, against Big 12 champs Oklahoma, I sat down and wrote three pages freehand on a legal pad about "what happened?" to Rutgers football in the wake of a 4-8 season. Early in the year I stopped doing my weekly updates about the 2010 season; last year it was a fixture in this blog. There was a strange lack of continuity to the season, even before the six game losing streak to end 2010, when Rutgers started the year a respectable 4-2, though the two losses should have set off the alarms.....one was to a poor Tulane team at home, the second to a North Carolina squad beset with a dozen suspensions, also a loss in Piscataway.

But looking at what I wrote last night, I now have come to realize that any criticisms by me have already been said by hundreds on RU message boards and by dozens of print journalists. We know the the offensive line was probably the worst in the FBS with a ridiculous 61 sacks allowed (compared to 10 in 2007), and that poor run blocking and injuries at running back led to too much reliance on the "Wild Knight" formation to generate any semblance of a running game. The three and outs had the defense out on the field way too long game after game, and injuries to that unit and wear and tear caused it to collapse by the end of the year. And at quarterback, young freshman Chas Dodd took over for injured soph Tom Savage, and never relinquished the job....so who's team was it really, anyway?

And of course, there was the catastrophic injury to Eric LeGrand at the New Meadowlands Stadium in a win against Army that left the young defensive tackle paralyzed. It was Rutgers last win. They were 4-2, and then proceeded to drop the next six games in a row, culminating with yesterday's loss to West Virginia in Morgantown 35-14, Rutgers' 16th loss in a row to WVU.

The Army game on October 18, a 23-20 Rutgers win, followed by the tragic news that Eric LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down was the turning point of the season. It was as if a team that was already struggling for an identity was hit with a blow that it never really recovered from. The questions were asked then, "Will LeGrand's injury effect this team? How would they respond?". The answers were, yes it did effect the team. And I believe many of the players didn't know how to respond to such a terrible injury to a friend and teammate.

(Penn State....Tennessee....Nebraska)

Last year cornerback Jasper Howard of UCONN was murdered in an incident, stabbed to death. UCONN was able to turn it around what was a losing season and make it to a bowl game at the end of the year, defeating Steve Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks. So if UCONN could right the ship after the death of a player, then why couldn't Rutgers after LeGrand's serious injury?

In football terms I think Rutgers had much more serious issues on the offensive side of the ball then UCONN had last year. The Huskies had a stellar running game with two 1,000 yard rushers and massive O line. Rutgers running game in 2010 was based on "trickeration" and too many doses of the Wildcat.

But on the emotional side of the game, dealing with losses of Howard and LeGrand, we see a vast psychological difference. Because as tragic as the loss of life of any friend is, we always find a way to turn the page and go on. But when someone close to us is seriously injured, as in LeGrand's case, paralyzed, how do we go on?

How do we handle our grief for a person who survives, but is forever changed by catastrophic injury? Where is the guidebook to lead us out of that one? I'm a believer in psychologist Eisabeth Kubler-Ross's theory of The Five Stages of Grief- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I was present at the game when LeGrand was injured; I felt a sense of depression for days, and I had not even met the guy personally. A college football team is made up of young people, some of whom were only in high school a few short months ago.....a bunch of kids. Most have probably had to deal with the death of a loved one; probably very few (if any) had a friend who was ever carted off the field with the paralysis in his limbs and below his neck. For all we know he may never be able to button his shirt, feed himself, change the channel on a TV, or text message his friends ever again without assistance. And in the back of each of those kid's minds could be hidden the guilt of a survivor, either overtly or buried deeply in their subconscious.

Probably to some degree the entire Rutgers football team, and even Greg Schiano's coaching staff, may be stuck somewhere in those five stages of grief. The stages don't always follow the sequence as I've listed them. As described to me, and experienced by me, the stages of grief can be found in conditions other than a death or a serious illness- the end of a relationship or financial ruin can lead to the same feelings of loss, denial, and the other stages.

Of course, the injury to Eric LeGrand was NOT the only reason for RU's struggles on the field, but it probably did act as a catalyst to speed its collapse in the second half of the season.

(Michigan.....Notre Dame.....Texas)


OK....so what's with the colleges in parenthesis and italics that I posted every couple of paragraphs?

Those are all universities that have powerhouse football programs, national names that few could dispute help to define college football. They have won national championships, some have worn the national crown on multiple occasions.

And they have something else in common; all have had one or more losing seasons since 2003.

All have rebounded, or will return to prominence. And so will Rutgers to at the very least the level of success they have achieved in recent years, and hopefully RU football will move beyond those limits.

Greg Schiano came to Rutgers 10 years ago, and after a rough start he accomplished what no RU football coach had done since Frank Burns in 1978.....he got Rutgers to a bowl game 2005. His 11-2 team in 2006 captured the imagination of the nation and won Schiano the National Coach of the Year Award. And the Scarlet Knights won a bowl game that year, their first ever bowl win. And they went to- and won- a bowl game the next year, and the year after that, and for good measure the year after that. For the record, that was five consecutive bowl appearances, and four consecutive wins. And while accomplishing those successes on the field, Rutgers players excelled in the classroom; every year Rutgers can be found in the top five of the NCAA's Academic Progress Report (APR). This year Rutgers was number one in the FBS in the APR. They were winning games, graduating players, and sending unprecedented numbers of young men into the NFL.

Greg Schiano and his staff did it the right way. And I have no reason to believe that he will not get the ship righted.

This was a year when the program hit a speed bump that ended up causing damage....and it was a step back. But as mentioned before, it happens to "The Big Guys" from time to time as well.

What is mindboggling are those types who come out of the woodwork to trash this program in a down year, calling it a failure, and even now there are loonies who call for a return to the days of playing Lehigh, Bucknell, and Princeton in front of 10,000 people or less. Some of the print media don't help the perception either; last week one local paper showed a nearly empty Rutgers Stadium late in the fourth quarter (and on Black Friday) against Louisville. For the record, the official attendance for that game was 37,422, far from being a sellout in the 52,000 seat stadium, but not a ghost town either. The 10,000 students who are usually at every game were represented by a fraction, maybe 1,000; the student body was on Thanksgiving break. In addition, many ticketholders and regular fans were out of town for the Thanksgiving holiday. Also, the season average per game was 46,195, roughly 6,000 fans short of capacity but also about 4,000 more than the capacity of the stadium before the expansion project two years ago. A cause for concern, yes. But hardly a cause for alarm.

The cranks, the critics, and overzealous editorial boards will write pieces complaining about Rutgers football and the waste of money it is. But do a GOOGLE search for Rutgers, and click on to IMAGES.....the vast majority of the pictures are not of old buildings and famous alums (other than James Gandolfini).....

The largest number of  pictures you'll find in that search will be of Rutgers football, it's players, it's coach, and it's fans. Some may hate the fact, but the recent football success has given Rutgers greater visibility than the university has ever had before despite it's high academic standing.

Forty thousand plus people don't pay $50 a ticket to attend a chemistry class on Saturdays in the fall. And ESPN won't give RU a check for $100,000 to televise a symposium on Hamlet's Oedipus Complex.....that is, unless Hamlet played high stakes poker as well.

So critics, take your best shot.....because this team and it's coach will be back.

And I'm one fan who says "Thank God!" for that.

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