It has been a strange and challenging year to be a Rutgers football fan. A team whose fans take great pride in being a clean program saw a spat of embarrassing arrests. That was after the Scarlet Knights' quarterback and star wideout earned suspensions in their season opener. Then, head coach Kyle Flood became embroiled in a sloppy and embarrassing email scandal, which led to a three-game suspension. Add all of that, plus the reputation of Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann and a football team that faces a steep climb just to make a bowl, and it's easy to take the glass half empty perspective. Heck, it's easy to take the "glass is actually empty, broken, and also on fire" perspective.
But the mood among tailgating Rutgers fans before Saturday's showdown with top-ranked Ohio State wasn't one of gloom, or existential panic. There was concern, yes, and even anger, but not the nihilistic apathy of a truly hopeless program.
After all, Rutgers fans enjoyed a 25-point comeback just the week before, and a bowl trip isn't impossible. For all of the jokes at its expense, and for all the struggles against the best teams in the conference last season, Rutgers football hasn't been close to the worst in the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights did beat Michigan and Maryland in 2014 en route to an eight-win year and a bowl victory. They have made bowl games four years in a row, and nine of the past ten, making this stretch easily the most successful in school history (a history fans will be happy to remind you goes back a looooong way).
Saturday, with a sold-out crowd of over 53,000 to host the defending national champs, any Scarlet Knights fan could appreciate just how far they've come. There have been some rough headlines, sure, but things aren't that bad. This program has come a long way.
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Urban Meyer would compliment that crowd in his post-game press conference, remarking twice about how loud the stadium was. It didn't last. The Buckeyes demolished the Scarlet Knights 49-7, sending those 53,000 fans scurrying towards the exits by early in the third quarter. A tiny segment of the student section stayed behind, enthusiastically bursting into the "I believe that we will win" chant right as Rutgers scored its only touchdown with just seconds remaining in the game.
Before the blowout, there were a lot of tailgating fans at High Point Solutions Stadium. Some, knowing that thousands of Buckeye fans would be joining them, decided to turn their tailgating rigs into educational outposts about New Jersey property taxes and IQ scores.
What Rutgers fans would like you, yes you, to know about Rutgers: pic.twitter.com/pbRyCSRtxQ— Matt Brown (@MattSBN) October 24, 2015
Rutgers fans made one for NJ too. Get excited about, uh, high property taxes and Johnson and Johnson! pic.twitter.com/qWZqkDqmwd— Matt Brown (@MattSBN) October 24, 2015
The tailgate scene was complete with a graveyard featuring the greatest wins, and almost wins, in Rutgers history.
Others passed the time by playing with giant, Rutgers branded Jenga blocks...
...or by playing Washers, a game similar to Cornhole with metal washers and PVC pipe instead of beanbags.
But everywhere, fans talked about where this program was going, and what it needed to do. And there wasn't a consensus.
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Kyle Flood, the maligned head coach, still has his defenders among the Scarlet Knight faithful. After all, not one person that I spoke to had anything negative to say about Flood personally, and several recounted specific instances of Flood's kindness and humanity, like when he visited a fan's sick daughter in the hospital and signed autographs. Compared to often prickly former coach Greg Schiano, just about everybody could agree that Flood is a good dude, and it doesn't feel right to disparage a good dude. The athletic director, well, maybe that's a different story, but not Flood.
But one can be a good dude and make mistakes, and even Flood's supporters would agree that he's recently made a few. Rutgers fans take pride in the commitment to academics and running a clean program, and deviations from that, even somewhat minor ones, get additional scrutiny.
That's to say nothing of his decisions on the field, his recruiting ability, or even his demeanor. More than one fan criticized the more staid persona of Flood.
"When was the last time Flood was truly passionate on the field? He's not a screamer or a jumper. He holds a clipboard," one lamented.
But even if Rutgers decides to go in a different direction, fans recognized what a tricky position the new coach will be in.
"Look where we are, we're in the biggest media market in the country," one fan said. "There's a gazillion professional sports teams here, and you have to win to stand out. Look how many freaking Mets hats there are right now. Two years ago, you couldn't pay somebody to wear a Mets hat around here, but now, look!
"If you win, people will come, and recruits will come, too. It's getting those first big wins that's the hard part."
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If Kyle Flood was fired, who should the school go after? Former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano was a controversial suggestion, with some fans more than ready to welcome back the former head coach, especially those who perceived the program as insufficiently disciplined. Others felt burned by his departure and micromanaging style.
Two fans near a huge tailgating rig were convinced that Rutgers needed to grab a coach with established professional football credentials, to woo over skeptical parents.
"Rutgers needs to make a run a Brian Schottenheimer," one said. "He's got ties to the Jets, he's had great offenses, and now he's a college guy at Georgia. I bet we could get him."
Two tailgates over, another group was just as adamant that the Knights need a young, spread-focused coach who can sling the ball around. Rhett Lashlee, Tom Herman and Matt Rhule were all brought up. One fan had an especially outside-the-box suggestion.
"No, see, Rutgers really needs to go after a winner. They need to hire that Pittsburgh coach."
"Mike Tomlin?" I asked. "That might be a little ambitious for Rutgers, don't you think?"
"Nah, not that one, the guy before."
"Wait, Bill Cowher? C'mon."
"No no no, not him either. The one with the mustache."
"Wait, are you suggesting Rutgers hire Dave Wannstedt?"
The fan, a 30-something man named Greg Zimberg, burst out laughing. "That's the guy! Yeah! Rutgers should hire him."
When I asked why, he laughed again. "I f***ing love Dave Wannstedt. I don't know why."
And why not? Uncertain times may call for unorthodox solutions. Amid a season of scandal, suspension and injury, the 2015 campaign has the ingredients of a season to forget. But it's easy for fans to see an even brighter future on the banks, thanks to an underrated stadium, fertile recruiting grounds, and yes, that New York Market. Despite the internet jokes, there are fans here, lots of them, and they can be loud. Already, Rutgers may have a better in-game environment than Purdue, or other Big Ten schools. And with the right leadership, maybe the Scarlet Knights can climb even higher.
But figuring that out is the hard part. If anything though, if GameDay comes to town, at least Rutgers can feel confident that they've got the sign making business figured out.
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