Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Rutgers eager for its B1G step up
By Brian Bennett
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Kyle Flood held his first team meeting with the 2014 Rutgers football players. Flood spent time explaining the program's move to the Big Ten, including the division the Scarlet Knights would play in (the East) and where the league championship game is held (Indianapolis).
"I wanted them to know up front exactly how it was all laid out," Flood told ESPN.com.
A detailed road map should come in handy, because Rutgers is about to enter some uncharted territory.
Kyle Flood is making sure Rutgers is prepared as possible for its move into the Big Ten.
Unlike fellow recent Big Ten expansion teams Maryland and Nebraska, the Scarlet Knights will join what is considered a football-centric power league for the first time. The Terrapins and Huskers also boasted some history of conference titles -- much more so, obviously, for the latter -- while Rutgers never won an outright championship in either the Big East or American Athletic conferences.
It's not like big-time football is a foreign concept in Piscataway, N.J. The Scarlet Knights competed against Miami and Virginia Tech in the old Big East, as well as some very good West Virginia, Syracuse and Louisville teams. But Flood said the "week-in and week-out physicality" of the Big Ten may require some adjustments by his team, and that's one reason he and his coaching staff focused on loading up on linemen on both sides of the ball during the most recent recruiting period. Their end game was more about depth than pure beef.
"If you go out with the goal of getting bigger, you can get less athletic," he said. "What we’ve tried to do is accumulate more, so that we have more available to us throughout the season, but without sacrificing the athletic ability we need to play with in our system."
The question is now how well that system will fare in the Big Ten.
Rutgers hosted the first college football game against Princeton in 1869 but was largely irrelevant in modern times until Greg Schiano resurrected the program in the early 2000s. Flood served as Schiano's offensive line coach from 2005 until Schiano left for the NFL after the 2011 season, and the team's philosophies -- aggressive defense and a low-risk, pro-style offense -- haven't changed much. The Scarlet Knights never got over the hump to claim the Big East BCS bid, and other than the magical 11-win season of 2006, they were never really much a national factor.
Still, consistency has been a hallmark, as the team has gone to seven bowl games in the past nine seasons.
"We have shown to be a team that can compete with anyone," first-year athletic director Julie Hermann told ESPN.com. "We expect to be a bowl team. We have been a consistent winning program over the last decade and look forward to playing on the national stage of the Big Ten."
The school needs to upgrade its overall athletic facilities in order to reach Big Ten standards, but the football infrastructure -- including the 52,454-seat High Point Solutions Stadium -- is on pretty solid footing. There are also some lingering concerns about Rutgers' monetary muscle; Flood's $851,000 salary will be the lowest in the Big Ten and is not far above some assistants' pay in the league. But the Scarlet Knights did just hire former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen to call offensive plays and will make him one of the league's best-compensated coordinators at $500,000 per season.
Hermann said Flood's salary pool for assistants is around $2.5 million, which would compare favorably to the rest of the Big Ten. The influx of Big Ten revenue, which will eventually dwarf what Rutgers was making in the Big East and the AAC, should prove a major help.
"We will need to invest in our program to get top coaches like Ralph Friedgen and to retain key personnel," Hermann said.
No one can question Rutgers' emotional investment in the Big Ten move. The school and its fan base had dreamed about a Big Ten invitation for years, and the financial windfall and stability the league offered provided the perfect lifeboat out of the sinking AAC. The Scarlet Knights saw a significant season-ticket increase immediately after the Big Ten announcement in November 2012 and should see another bump this year with Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin coming to the banks of the Old Raritan. Big Ten senior associate commissioner Mark Rudner said the Oct. 4 game against Michigan "has probably generated as much interest as any game in the preseason."
Lou Nordone can't wait for that game, or for the inaugural Big Ten opener against Penn State on Sept. 13. Nordone serves on the executive committee of the Rutgers Touchdown Club and says he has handled the team's official game balls on the sidelines for 129 straight Scarlet Knights home games. Nordone suffered through some lean years with the program and envisions the Big Ten meaning big things.
"It's great not only for Rutgers but for New Jersey and the surrounding areas," he said. "It's going to put Rutgers on the map nationally, instead of just locally."
Rutgers just has to make sure it can navigate some uncharted football territory.