NCF Nation: Greg Schiano

James Gandolfini’s credentials as a Jersey guy had been verified long before he made Tony Soprano one of television’s most memorable characters. Nothing illustrated Gandolfini’s love of his home state of New Jersey more than his passion for football at Rutgers, the state university and his alma mater.

“He was a real fan,” Rutgers senior associate athletic director Jason Baum said of Gandolfini, who died Wednesday in Italy at age 51. “He sat at the top of Section 102 or 103 [at High Point Solutions Stadium]. I thought he would have been down in front. He was in there with the fans at the top of the section.”

[+] EnlargeJames Gandolfini
Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY SportsAlum James Gandolfini was on the sidelines for Rutgers' appearance in the 2005 Insight Bowl.
Former Rutgers All-American fullback Brian Leonard tweeted a photo Wednesday of Gandolfini with his parents on the stadium field. Former Scarlet Knights quarterback Mike Teel has similar memories.

“He used to sit right in front of my family,” Teel said. “I know they interacted with him a bunch. He loved Rutgers and he was just a neat guy. You would have never known, except for seeing him on TV, that he was a superstar.”

Gandolfini graduated from Rutgers with a degree in communications in 1983. The son of blue-collar parents who spoke Italian in the home, Gandolfini at first balked at his mother’s insistence that he go to college. But he immediately fell in love with Rutgers.

“The first night they had a five-keg party,” Gandolfini told James Lipton on “Inside the Actors Studio,” “and I said, ‘What was I fighting about?’”

Gandolfini immediately went to work as a nightclub manager in Manhattan. He began his acting career a few years later and after more than a decade, became an “overnight” success as the star of "The Sopranos," the HBO series about a New Jersey Mafioso that began airing in 1999.

Rutgers quickly capitalized on Gandofini’s celebrity, much to his delight. He agreed to promote the football team in commercials directed by his co-star in "The Sopranos," Michael Imperioli.

According to a news release, Gandolfini filmed a commercial with Greg Schiano, then the head coach. In 2002, Gandolfini filmed a commercial with three of his actual college buddies. In the commercial, the release said, Gandolfini promised his pals that they would have seats close to the action at a Rutgers game. They emerge from the stadium tunnel onto the sideline, much to their delight. However, the friends end up holding the reins of the program’s mascot horse and the costume of his rider.

“Close, real close,” one of them mutters.

"I am sad to hear of the passing of Jim Gandolfini," said Schiano. "He was a great supporter of Rutgers Football long before it was fashionable to be so. His generosity in helping us lent relevance to our football program at a time when it was desperately needed. In addition to his acting acclaim, he will be remembered by all Rutgers people as a compassionate alum and a great New Jerseyian."

The rise of Rutgers football in the middle of the last decade coincided with the peak of worldwide popularity of "The Sopranos." Gandolfini served as honorary captain for Rutgers at the 2005 Insight Bowl and appeared at midfield for the pregame coin toss. After his death, the university released a photo of him at that game, the credential around his neck and the enthusiasm plain on his face.

The next year would be a magical one for the Scarlet Knights, who began the 2006 season 9-0 and rose to No. 7 in the nation. Gandolfini attended two games that season as well as the spring game, a sight that Teel will not soon forget. After the game, the fans lined up to get the players’ autographs.

“I had my head down, signing,” Teel said. “I look up and said, ‘Oh, it’s Tony Soprano.’ It was kind of funny. He waited in line with his son. Everyone knew who he was. He’s standing in line with everyone else. He asked me for an autograph for his son. I wanted to ask him for his.”

Gandolfini became one of the leading members of a small coterie of prominent entertainers who remain devoted to their alma mater’s football team. That includes Will Ferrell and USC, Matthew McConaghey and Texas, Regis Philbin and Notre Dame, and Toby Keith and Oklahoma. "The Sopranos" came and "The Sopranos" went, but Gandolfini and Rutgers football stayed together until the premature end of his life Wednesday.

Hope springs in the Big East

May, 22, 2013
This fall will mark the final college football season that concludes with a BCS title game. The era has had its ups and downs for all, so here we will take a look at the best and worst of the past 15 years in the Big East:

1. BCS bowl performances: For all of the heat that this conference gets, it will likely exit the BCS era with no worse than a .500 record in BCS bowls. The Big East is 8-7 in BCS bowls during the past 15 years, winning its past two (Louisville over Florida in the 2013 Sugar, West Virginia over Clemson in the 2012 Orange.) The ACC, by comparison, has a 3-13 record in BCS bowls.

2. National title game appearances: Miami and Virginia Tech might both be ACC members right now, but the schools had combined for three national title game appearances as members of the Big East. Virginia Tech lost to Florida State in the Sugar Bowl following the 1999 season and Miami fell to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2002 season, while the Hurricanes defeated Nebraska in the Rose Bowl following the 2001 season. The Big Ten has three title game appearances, the ACC has three and the Pac-12 has three only if you count USC's appearances following the 2004 and 2005 seasons, both of which were vacated by the NCAA.

3. Realignment replacements (the first time around): After losing Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC, the Big East was able to scoop up Cincinnati, Louisville and USF from Conference USA as football members (and Marquette and DePaul as non-football members). Cincinnati has won a share of four of the past five league titles and Louisville has won a share of the past two, in addition to appearing in a pair of BCS bowl games.

[+] EnlargeGreg Schiano
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsGreg Schiano scooped up the accolades by leading Rutgers to an 11-2 mark in 2006.
4. Coaches: Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer won five different coach-of-the-year awards (Bear Bryant, Eddie Robinson, AP, Walter Camp and Maxwell) in 1999. Miami's Larry Coker won the Bryant award in 2001. Rutgers' Greg Schiano won five different coach-of-the-year awards (Liberty Mutual, Robinson, Home Depot, Walter Camp and Maxwell) in 2006. Cincinnati's Brian Kelly won the Home Depot award in 2009, giving the conference 12 coach of the year awards from four different coaches during the BCS era.

5. Bowl record: Matchups can often get more and more uneven as we look at the landscape of bowl games, but the Big East has certainly taken care of business when it comes to the postseason, going 46-29 in bowl games since the 1998 season.

1. Realignment losses (the next time around): This almost goes without saying, as no conference has suffered from realignment more than the Big East. Gone or soon-to-be gone are Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech, Pitt, Syracuse, West Virginia, Rutgers and Louisville in football. (TCU, Boise State and San Diego State all left before playing a down as football-only members.) Notre Dame and the Catholic 7 (DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's and Villanova) all left in other sports.

2. Status/money: As a result of realignment, the Big East no longer has a guaranteed tie-in to an elite bowl game. And it is not sharing in the same revenue split from the future playoff as the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. Simply put, there will be one less major conference starting in the 2014 season, as the Big East simply is not in the same place that it was as recently as two years ago.

3. BCS bowl appearances: The Big East's 15 BCS-bowl appearances are the lowest among any AQ school, as the conference has never received more than one bid in a year. The ACC received two following the 2011 season, with conference champion Clemson going to the Orange Bowl (and getting crushed by Big East champion West Virginia) and Virginia Tech going to the Sugar Bowl (and losing in overtime to Michigan).

4. QBs in draft: Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater may change things with another strong performance in 2013, and there have been other notable performances in recent years (WVU's Pat White, for one), but outside of Virginia Tech's Michael Vick (No. 1 overall, 2001) and Syracuse's Donovan McNabb (No. 2, 1999), the Big East has not had a quarterback drafted in the first round in the BCS era.

5. Conflicting interests: The divide between basketball and football schools played a large part in the split-up of the Big East. So, too, did the trust and double-speak. Look no further than departing member Pitt and its chancellor, Mark Nordenberg, who led a five-school contingent that sued Boston College in 2003 following the Eagles' departure for the ACC, saying at the time: "This is a case that involves broken commitments, secret dealings, breaches of fiduciary responsibility, the misappropriations of conference opportunities and predatory attempts to eliminate competition."
Rutgers has made more headlines for its offensive coordinator changes over the last several seasons. But there have been plenty of adjustments on the defensive side of the ball as well.

Perhaps folks did not notice so much because that group has been playing at a high level.

For the fourth straight season, somebody new will be calling the defensive plays. In 2011, coach Greg Schiano did it while Bob Fraser retained the defensive coordinator position. After Schiano left for Tampa Bay, his protege, Robb Smith, took over as coordinator and play caller in 2012.

With Smith off to join Schiano, Dave Cohen takes over those duties.

Fortunately, the players' adjustment level has been minimal. There has been no real scheme shift to speak of, no wholesale changes to the playbook, no different way of doing business. Cohen served as an assistant on staff last season, so he is well versed in the Rutgers way of doing business on defense.

Stay aggressive.

"When we went from Coach Schiano to Coach Smith, they had the same philosophy because they worked with each other for so long, so not many things changed," linebacker Kevin Snyder said in a recent phone interview. "When Coach Cohen came, he took on the same philosophy that Coach Smith instilled in our defense. He has continued to preach the same thing. There is some continuity in what we’re doing. We’re not just bringing in brand new people and starting over. It’s a continuing process on our defense with the same thing."

Cohen has served as a defensive coordinator at Western Michigan, Delaware and Fordham so he knows what it takes to get the job done. About the only thing expected to change is players seeing him now as the guy in charge.

"They’re seeing a different side to coach Cohen, but I worked with him for three years in that role so I knew exactly what we were going to get and how that was going to look on the field when we promoted him. There is always a little bit of an adjustment period when the voices change, but again with the system being intact, that will go a long way in helping," head coach Kyle Flood said.

Still, Cohen has plenty of work to do this spring, as the Scarlet Knights go about trying to replace so many key players on defense. There is no question he is going to be in the spotlight this season because the defense has been the backbone of this program over the last several years.
Head coach Kyle Flood and new offensive coordinator Ron Prince have a shared vision for Rutgers' offense this coming season, another pro-style attack that they believe can look a lot of different ways when executed properly.

"My hope and my vision going forward, and I think is one of the things that Ron will really be able to bring to the table for us, is the ability to use all the personnel groups, the ability always to get the ball in the hands of the better playmakers in your offense," Flood said Tuesday during an introductory teleconference. "And I think you'll see more of that as we go forward."

[+] EnlargeRon Prince
Phil Sears/USA TODAY SportsFor the past three seasons, Ron Prince has been an assistant offensive line coach for the NFL's Jaguars and Colts.
Prince, who spent the last three seasons in the NFL working with the offensive lines of the Jaguars and Colts, will be the Scarlet Knights' fourth different offensive coordinator in the past four years. But he doesn't foresee potential problems with getting on the same page as his new players.

"I wasn't a part of any of those other systems or personality changes," said Prince, who was Kansas State's head coach from 2006-08. "All I can do is try to build the best player-coach relationship that I can, and that's all I've ever done. Change is a function of our game -- players have opportunities sometimes to move on to the pro game before maybe anticipated, coaches make some changes and move around. Each team and each year the personality of the team is going to be unique and different, and so we just want to do our part to help this upcoming year and develop this team the very best we can."

Rutgers struggled last year offensively, ranking 104th nationally under coordinator Dave Brock, who moved on to become the head coach at Delaware. Flood said replacing both coordinators this year was rather easy compared to piecing most of the staff together last year when Greg Schiano jumped to the Buccaneers.

With spring practice kicking off March 26, Prince said there is no set date for having the playbook mastered, so long as all are on the same page come Aug. 29 at Fresno State.

"The way it goes now in college football, one of the most important things we'll do is integrate the talent that will come in in the fall into our training camp going forward into the first game," Prince said. "All of this is a process moving towards that, so I don't think that the looming spring date is the final date really, but the final date, the most important date is when we kick off opening week. Everything will be toward making that successful if at all possible, so that's where our mindset is. A lot of this is a process that we'll go through.

"I don't think with the veteran coaches that we have and the returning talent that we have, I don't think that we'll have a hard time trying to get everybody on the same page. Just a matter of making sure we have people in the right places and can appropriately take advantage of their skill set."

Want a head coach? Look to Miami

January, 14, 2013
The Miami football teams of the early 2000s churned out NFL prospects left and right, producing 20 first-round picks between 2001-04.

Do you know what else Miami produced in the early part of that decade? Head coaches. The Miami coaching staffs of 2000 and 2001 -- staffs that had a huge role in the recruitment and development of those pro prospects -- have produced both NFL and college head coaches.

Not just one or two, either.

With the Cleveland Browns' recent hire of Rob Chudzinski, the 1999-2000 staff under Butch Davis produced six head coaches -- three of them now in the NFL.
  • Rob Chudzinski, tight ends coach. Interestingly enough, his former boss (Davis) left Miami after the 2000 season to coach Cleveland.
  • Greg Schiano, defensive coordinator. Left for Rutgers after 2000 season and now Tampa Bay Bucs head coach.
  • Larry Coker, offensive coordinator. Succeeded Davis after the 2000 season, now head coach at UT-San Antonio.
  • Chuck Pagano, defensive backs. Now coaching Indianapolis Colts, and became an inspiration for his battle with leukemia.
  • Curtis Johnson, receivers coach. Entering his second year as Tulane head coach.
  • Mario Cristobal, graduate assistant. Spent six years as FIU head coach before rejoining Miami staff last week.

As for the 2001 staff, which helped Miami win the national championship and produced arguably the greatest team in college football history:
  • Mark Stoops, defensive backs. Replaced Pagano and is now head coach at Kentucky.
  • Randy Shannon, defensive coordinator. Succeeded Coker and served as Miami coach from 2007-10.
  • Chudzinski and Johnson. Both remained on staff.

Lots of folks mention the Nick Saban coaching tree, but when you look at the staff Davis assembled, the group he had around him in the late 1990s and 2000 is pretty impressive.

We can sit here and debate Davis and his abilities as a head coach, and go back and forth on his role in what went down at North Carolina. But it's hard to ignore the fact he has a pretty good eye for talent -- both among players and coaches.
What did we learn in the Big East in Week 9?

[+] EnlargeGary Nova
AP Photo/Rich SchultzQuarterback Gary Nova and Rutgers had a rough day against Kent State on Saturday.
1. Then there was one. Louisville is now the only unbeaten team left in the Big East after No. 15 Rutgers lost to Kent State 35-23 on Homecoming. Although the Cardinals needed overtime to pull out their win over Cincinnati on Friday night, they are the best remaining team in a league that had three unbeaten and ranked teams going into last weekend. Rutgers, with a history of dropping games to overmatched teams, did so again in stunning fashion. The Scarlet Knights had seven turnovers -- a school-record six interceptions from quarterback Gary Nova. It was the most turnovers by Rutgers since committing eight at West Virginia in 2001. Coach Kyle Flood said afterward he never considered pulling Nova, which is a stark difference from predecessor Greg Schiano, who used to pull quarterbacks at the first sign of trouble. Flood reasoned that Rutgers still had chances to win late despite the mistakes. Although Rutgers came from behind last week to beat the Owls, the Scarlet Knights were never really in this game and appeared out of sorts all day.

2. Stop scheduling the MAC. The Big East lost four games to the MAC this season, and two of them cost teams undefeated seasons (Cincinnati, Rutgers). Let us not forget that Temple joined the Big East from the MAC last season and was unable to even compete with the Scarlet Knights in the second half last week. The win for Kent State was probably the biggest in school history -- it was the program's first victory over a ranked team. The Flashes had gone 0-22 in games against Top 25 teams before Saturday. Ball State and Western Michigan also pulled upsets earlier this year. And by the way, the MAC has 16 nonconference wins to set a new league record.

3. Louisville doesn't make things easy. There is a reason folks in Louisville are starting to call 'em the Cardiac Cards. Louisville does not like to make things easy on itself. For the second straight game -- and third time in four games -- the Cardinals needed a fourth-quarter comeback to win. For the fourth straight game, they had to overcome a second-half deficit. Coach Charlie Strong praised his group for its resiliency, but the truth is it has been quite a while since Louisville has put together a complete game. In addition to all these recent comebacks, they trailed FIU in the first half and needed to withstand a ridiculous fourth-quarter comeback from North Carolina. Still, the path is pretty clear to being undefeated in the regular-season finale against Rutgers. Of course, we all thought the path was clear for Rutgers to go 9-0 before playing Cincinnati in a few weeks.

4. Good Pitt is back! The Panthers thoroughly dominated Temple 47-17, as Tino Sunseri threw for more than 300 yards, Ray Graham ran for more than 100 yards and Devin Street had a career-high 140 yards receiving. So that should tell you that everything worked well on offense. The 47 points were the most Pitt scored in a home game against an FBS opponent since Oct. 2, 1999, when it defeated Temple 55-24 in Pitt Stadium. Pitt notched its first Big East win this season, and players also earned the right to get their names back on their jerseys.

5. Syracuse is getting hot. Don't look now, but the Orange are in the thick of the Big East race with a 3-1 league record, joining Rutgers and Louisville as the only teams with winning conference marks. Syracuse did not play its best game against USF, but it found a way to win in the closing seconds, 37-36. B.J. Daniels has given this team fits for his entire career, and it was no different Saturday night. But the Orange were able to make enough plays on the porous USF secondary to win for the third time in the past four games. Remember, this team was 2-4 after a demoralizing loss to Rutgers and now stands at .500 with Big East games remaining against Cincinnati and Louisville and Temple.

USF-Rutgers pregame notes

September, 13, 2012
TAMPA, Fla. -- It probably has not been lost on many that Rutgers plays its first Big East game of the season in the stadium where its former coach just won his first NFL game.

Greg Schiano may not be the head coach at Rutgers anymore, but his presence will still be felt Thursday night. He built this team and this defense and helped transform linebacker Khaseem Greene from a good safety to a linebacker stud.

When Schiano bolted for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January, the timing was terrible. But his players seemed to understand he had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to coach in the NFL. If they had any hard feelings about his departure, they never said anything.

Mainly, they all seemed thrilled with new head coach Kyle Flood, a lifelong assistant who has his first head-coaching opportunity.

Make no mistake: All eyes will be on Flood because of the importance of this game. Rutgers has gone 5-2 all-time against South Florida, all under Schiano. A win makes Flood the fourth coach in school history to start 3-0. The last was John Bateman in 1960.

Headed into this game, Rutgers has not played consistently enough on offense, and penalties are a huge concern. The Scarlet Knights are one of the most penalized teams in the nation, with 20 for 164 yards in two games. After committing 11 last week against Howard, Flood said, "We're certainly going to address it. No doubt."

Rutgers cannot afford to be undisciplined tonight, not with an early lead in the Big East on the line.

One other factor that could play into this game: The Scarlet Knights may be the fresher team after playing Howard at home Saturday. USF went down to the wire against Nevada and then had a long trip home with some sore and tired players.

And for those wondering, Schiano will be at the game.

Big East preseason predictions

August, 27, 2012
It's that time of the year again. The first games are less than a week away (and just days away, in UConn's case), so with that, I will now subject myself to endless embarrassment by forecasting how a few things will unfold in the conference this season.

1. Kyle Flood will be a hit in his first year at Rutgers. Flood has been at the school for eight years now, has kept a strong recruiting class together and will be coaching a team with arguably one of the best defenses in the country. Greg Schiano breathed life into Rutgers football like no other, but Flood may just have a chance to do in Year 1 what his predecessor never could: win a Big East title.

2. Pitt will surprise many under Paul Chryst. While on the subject of first-year head coaches … unlike esteemed colleague Kirk Herbstreit (and several others), I don't think the Panthers will win the Big East, though they may come close. Chryst likes to run the football, has great depth in the backfield -- led by possibly the best running back in the country -- and his pro-style offense makes for an easier adjustment for the players, particularly with a senior quarterback in Tino Sunseri, who has had seemingly anything and everything thrown his way so far.

3. QB play will be at its finest. Ryan Nassib, Sunseri and B.J. Daniels are seniors who have already faced a lot. Gary Nova will get a chance to be the guy at Rutgers. And, of course, there's Teddy Bridgewater, who burst onto the scene last season as a freshman. The Big East doesn't lack for talent at the position this season.

4. Daniels will finish strong. Speaking of quarterbacks … is Daniels the conference's best quarterback right now? Maybe, but this season he could erase any doubt. The four-year starter is on the cusp of several school and conference records, is more comfortable under this regime and returns all of his offensive weapons.

5. The Big East will pick up some marquee nonconference wins. That Nov. 17 USF at Miami tilt certainly comes to mind. As does Temple's Sept. 22 game at Penn State. And can Rutgers go into big, bad SEC territory that same day and escape Fayetteville with a win? Other opportunities are scattered across the schedules, but these three jump out as close ones to watch.

6. Kevin Newsome will switch positions. The Penn State quarterback transfer is way behind after arriving on campus just this month, and starter Chris Coyer has two more years. Temple's best option may be to spread the 6-foot-2, 231-pounder out wide and take advantage of his athletic ability while the Owls have him for two years.

7. The conference will finish the season with multiple ranked teams. Yup, you heard that right. Louisville enters as a preseason top-25 team, and Rutgers and USF both bring back more than enough talent to crack the rankings if they take care of business this season. It's hard to imagine more than one of them falling.

8. Cincinnati will keep rising under Butch Jones. A conference title may be a bit much to ask given all that the Bearcats lost, but a strong front seven and favorable schedule present Jones with an opportunity to get eight or nine wins out of this year's squad.

9. Syracuse will struggle to make a bowl. Frankly, most teams with the Orange's schedule would. On the cusp of bowling last year before a season-ending five-game losing streak kept them home, the Orange face USC, Missouri and two Big Ten teams, in addition to conference trips to Rutgers, USF and Cincinnati.

10. No one will leave the conference. And for my boldest prediction yet, I will go out on a limb and say that, aside from the Pitt and Syracuse jumps at the end of the year, the Big East will go untouched. Of course, not even member schools saw those two flips coming, so it's really guesswork at this point.
It is well documented that coaches leave the Big East -- in less than graceful ways.

But I contend that nobody left their program more in the lurch than Todd Graham at Pitt.

What he did was cold and callous, resigning after he was not given permission to interview at Arizona State last December. Refusing to open the door when Pitt officials came knocking. Sending out a goodbye text to his players, the very ones he sold on honor, loyalty, trust and commitment. Now, this does not make him different than many other head coaches, who say one thing today and are gone tomorrow.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallTodd Graham's departure forced Pitt to find its fourth head coach in a two-year span.
What makes his situation different are the circumstances surrounding his departure. Yes, Greg Schiano left Rutgers in the lurch for the Tampa Bay Bucs, less than a week before signing day. But he had been at Rutgers for 11 seasons and built a successful program on his own. Maybe you overlook some of the more unsavory details about the way he left because you can appreciate what he did while in New Jersey.

Graham? He stuck around for one miserable 6-6 season. He did nothing but hurt Pitt. Because his one-year tenure left the Panthers looking for their fourth head coach in a two-year span. No other program has had to deal with that type of coaching turnover. Most importantly, no player has had to deal with that type of coaching turnover.

If college football is supposed to be about the student-athlete experience, then I cannot imagine anybody at Pitt can say they have had an unbelievable time when you consider the drama.

Dave Wannstedt recruited this group of seniors. Then he got fired after delivering a share of the Big East title. New coach Mike Haywood came along from Miami (Ohio). He was then fired after less than three weeks on the job after an arrest on domestic violence charges. In came Graham, who arrived selling high-octane football in a blue-collar Pennsylvania town. Was he all about the Pitt student-athletes?

Not if you consider billboards around the city with his face on it. Not when you consider the way he criticized his players for failing to pick up his prized system. Not when you consider the way he treated quarterback Tino Sunseri. It was always about Graham, which is why he ultimately left. The job was a mistake, he says now. His kids did not like Pittsburgh, he says now. Yet during the season, his wife proudly posted photos of herself and her kids in Pitt jerseys before games and practices.

He failed Pitt, and he failed his players, who came out on Twitter to blast him publicly for the way he left. Not one player ripped into Schiano. That shows you the big difference between the two.

Now, the Panthers players have to start over again. Sunseri has to learn his third offensive system in three years. Who can blame him for being slow to pick it up this spring? Changing playbooks once in four years is hard enough. Doing it three times in three years is almost too much to ask. Credit the Pitt players for not complaining about the lot they have been given.

They are happier to have new coach Paul Chryst, a man who at least seems to want to put roots down in Pittsburgh. He is going back to the way Pitt likes to play offense, another positive step. If hindsight is 20/20, Pitt should have just hired Chryst instead of Haywood when it had the chance. Instead, the Panthers went through an unnecessary and overly straining rigmarole.

Pitt is hoping all that is in the past. It cannot afford to have another coach leave it in the lurch yet again.

Coaches you love to hate

May, 22, 2012
Time for a little game. Think of the most vilified college football coaches today.

Your list probably looks something like this:

Bobby Petrino.
Rich Rodriguez.
Todd Graham.
Randy Edsall.

[+] EnlargeConnecticut Huskies head coach Randy Edsall
Kim Klement/US PresswireRandy Edsall is just one of many former Big East coaches who left the league.
You know what they all have in common. They all were Big East coaches at one point in time. Really great Big East coaches, to boot. But alas, great coaches never stick around for long in this league, a common lament among Big East fans. Perhaps the bigger question is -- what has made the Big East a breeding ground for villainous coaches?

Consider the recent history.

Exhibit A. Petrino got his first head coaching job at Louisville, and did one heck of a job, going 41-9 in four seasons. But the Cardinals were never just right, were they? I mean, how could they be when you 1) Try to negotiate a deal to become head coach at Auburn behind your boss' back. 2) Interview at Florida, Mississippi AND LSU the following year, while pledging love and loyalty to Louisville in between. 3) Forget loyalty and interview with the Oakland Raiders after Year 3 in Louisville. 4) Finally end the misery and leave for the Atlanta Falcons after a 12-1 season and an Orange Bowl berth.

That Atlanta dream job was not quite right either, so he left with good-bye statements taped to his players' lockers before the season even ended and headed for Arkansas. You all know how well his stint ended there.

Maybe all these aforementioned Big East coaches just hate good-byes.

Edsall left for Maryland after UConn lost the Fiesta Bowl to Oklahoma in January 2011 and never told his players word one about his plans. In fact, he did not even take the team charter home with the team. What may even be worse than that -- he made Jordan Todman get up in front of the team to explain why he was leaving early for the NFL draft. Edsall just finished a 2-10 season at Maryland in which he took a beating and lost 24 transfers. He is working hard to right the ship -- but you can bet some folks in Storrs are thinking, "Karma!"

Meanwhile at Pitt, Graham also had a tough time with good-byes at the end of last season. He told his players he was leaving via text message and hightailed it for Arizona State after a 6-6 season in which he had his players buying into an "high-octane" and "high-energy" offense. This, of course, came after he pretty much begged for the Pitt job after the Mike Haywood fiasco. But his shenanigans started at Rice, where he also had a one-year stint before leaving for Tulsa. columnist Mark Schlabach dubbed Graham the new president of the Liar's Club after his Pitt exit.

Rich Rod? Well, he is persona non grata in two states, West Virginia and Michigan. Who can forget the drama after he left the Mountaineers for the Wolverines in 2007, a few short months after signing a new contract and pledging his commitment to his school? West Virginia sued Rodriguez in the wake of his departure, and Michigan turned out to be an absolute disaster. It sure ain't easy being hated in as many spots as these guys.

There are others who left in less-than-ideal ways. How about Brian Kelly at Cincinnati, waiting until the end of his team banquet to announce his departure for Notre Dame? This was hours AFTER players began hearing news reports that they had lost their coach. Most recently, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano left for Tampa Bay less than a week before signing day, not even telling his loyal assistants, who were out on the road recruiting without any idea about what was happening.

His departure was tame compared to the rest. As for the others, I think they would make an excellent subject for a new television series.

"College Football Coaches Behaving Badly."
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Any time former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano was asked about his embattled offensive line, he always had a stock answer prepared.

Rutgers did not decline overnight, he would say. And Rutgers would not emerge from the decline overnight, either.

Schiano used to point to several recruiting lapses following the 2007 season -- first-round pick Anthony Davis was the lone bright spot. The season after Davis' departure was the low point, as Rutgers gave up 65 sacks in 2010 and had one of the worst lines in the nation. There was a change in scheme that contributed to the slide. Plus, Rutgers always seemed to move its players all over the line.

A move back to the preferred pro-style offense last season helped the Scarlet Knights improve, though they still struggled in the run game. Schiano continued to maintain there was a long way to go, even with the development of freshman All-American Kaleb Johnson.

[+] Enlarge Taj Alexander
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesOL Taj Alexander, a converted defensive lineman, won the Mark Mills Second Effort Award, given to the most improved offensive player.
Through all of this, we rarely heard from the man in charge of coaching the offensive line. The man who is now head coach at Rutgers, Kyle Flood. Schiano did not make his assistants available to the media; hence, there never was much of an opportunity to hear what Flood had to say about the struggles.

So when I visited campus last month, I asked Flood for his perspective on the decline of the offensive line, considering this was the position he had coached since 2005.

"I think that happens in programs," Flood said. "Recruiting is much more of an art than it is a science. Offensive line is the position probably where the recruiting part of it is projected more than other positions, and the game is significantly different up front. What makes you effective as a high school offensive lineman doesn't always make you effective in college. But with that being said, what we do have is some really good, young offensive linemen in our program right now. A guy like Kaleb Johnson, a guy like Betim Bujari.

"We’ve also had some success with guys who have moved over from defense. One of the things that maybe kept us from being what we wanted to be was Desmond Wynn not being healthy. Desmond Wynn was healthy finally for an entire season last year. When you lose a player like that, it’s a significant loss. But I don’t think we’re the only one who’s gone through that situation where you recruit a kid and it doesn’t work out. But when you have that, and then you have an injury situation it makes it harder for sure."

Taj Alexander, a defensive tackle who switched to offensive line last season, won the most improved offensive player award this spring. He played both guard and tackle. What really hurt Rutgers was losing time with players because of injury: Johnson missed all of spring, Bujari was out for most of it with an ankle injury, and center Matt McBride missed a few practices with an injury as well.

There really is no set offensive line headed into the offseason. Guys like Dallas Hendrikson and R.J. Dill are going to be counted on to step up. And Rutgers did just sign one of its best offensive line classes in recent history as well.

"What I’m excited about is how many young offensive linemen we have," Flood said. "The key is where do they fit and we have to leave them there and let them grow. Any time you move a guy it stunts his progress a little bit.

"I’ll know more about the line in August. Right now it’s hard to gauge. To me, the biggest factor in all that is who is going to be our starting center? Is it going to be Dallas, McBride, Betim? That one is still up in the air. I’ve got a good feeling for what I think Betim can do in there. Now we have to see how everybody else does and go from there."

Whatever bond the two might have had changed right then and there on the Meadowlands turf on a cool October day in 2010.

Eric LeGrand lay there motionless. Greg Schiano stood above him, praying.

Schiano has spoken at length about how that day changed him as a man and as a coach. How it changed his relationship with LeGrand, paralyzed from the neck down after he made a tackle against Army that day. In that one devastating moment, football meant less than humanity, brotherhood, family. All the little things Schiano spoke about every day at Rutgers meant living them out in more ways than he, LeGrand and every single player on the roster could have ever imagined.

So what Schiano, who is now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coach, did Wednesday morning seemed incredibly fitting, in his symbolic signing of LeGrand as a Tampa Bay Buccaneers free agent. Downright amazing, really, given the cynical times we live in today. More than ever, sports is about business. We hear it all the time. Schiano made a business decision when he left Rutgers for Tampa Bay with time ticking down to national signing day.

The future four-team playoff will be terrific for business. Branding stadiums is about business. Increasingly, bottom lines are all that matters. Fans are having a harder time finding good intentions without raising their eyebrows and wondering if there is something else going on behind the scenes.

But then a story like this comes along, and we are reminded of what we love about sports. The brotherhood, determination, hard work, perseverance, love, joy. Dreams coming true.

"Coach Schiano is like a father figure," LeGrand said on a conference call. "Going into Rutgers as a little boy and coming out a man. When you're faced with adversity, he's not going to say you back down at all. You deal with whatever it is. In life, you can't control what cards you're dealt. That's what's helped me through my whole situation. Sometimes it's hard, but I think about all the stuff I was taught at Rutgers. You fight through it. Tough times don't last. Only tough people do."

One of the biggest regrets Schiano had about moving on to Tampa Bay was leaving LeGrand behind. The two have grown incredibly close. Schiano has helped with the Believe Fund that was set up to help LeGrand. He helped get LeGrand into the radio and television booth for games to begin a sports broadcasting career. Schiano had LeGrand lead the team onto the field before the West Virginia game last year, the one-year anniversary of the injury.

Schiano also has lobbied for the elimination of kickoffs, the play that ended up changing LeGrand's life.

It is incredibly easy to see Schiano has been his biggest champion. So it is easy to see why Schiano and the Bucs decided to sign LeGrand, announcing the move on May 2 in honor of the No. 52 LeGrand wore at Rutgers. Tampa Bay has shipped a No. 52 jersey up to New Jersey for LeGrand along with a helmet.

For his part, LeGrand had no idea Schiano was going to do this. The two still talk about once a week, but Schiano never mentioned he had planned on signing him. Schiano called his mother Monday and told her his plan. She got off the phone with Schiano and merely told her son, "Coach is going to call you tomorrow. Make sure you are by your phone."

The phone rang Tuesday afternoon. LeGrand picked it up and got the news. His response: "Are you serious?"

"He said, 'It's the least we can do,'" LeGrand recalled. "[I said] 'I don't know what to say to you right now. Coach, this is amazing.' This is something I always dreamed about. Dreams do come true if you really believe. He did this out of the kindness of his heart, and he wanted to do it. I had no idea this was going to happen."

"I really appreciate it. Just shows the man he is."

Tampa Bay has done something pretty amazing.

The Bucs announced today they have signed defensive tackle Eric LeGrand, the former Rutgers player paralyzed during a game in 2010. Tampa Bay, of course is now coached by his former coach, Greg Schiano.

“Leading up to the draft, I couldn’t help but think that this should’ve been Eric’s draft class,” Schiano said in a statement. “This small gesture is the least we could do to recognize his character, spirit, and perseverance. The way Eric lives his life epitomizes what we are looking for in Buccaneer Men.”

Despite being told that he would be a quadriplegic, LeGrand persevered. Five weeks after the injury, he resumed breathing on his own. Later, he even became able to stand upright with the help of a metal frame. LeGrand is planning to graduate next fall with a degree in labor studies. He has been featured on several Rutgers television and radio broadcasts as well.
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- The story of how Kyle Flood ended up at Rutgers has nothing to do with deep personal connections, or networking, or a long-standing relationship with former coach Greg Schiano.

It has everything to do with persistence, perseverance and a relentless determination to go after what you want -- the atypical way of doing business these days.

So let us go back to 2005, when the job to coach the offensive line at Rutgers opened up. Flood was at Delaware, but he always wanted to coach at Rutgers, having grown up in Queens, New York. It was as close to returning home as he could get.

So he sent his resume to Schiano.

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
AP Photo/Mel EvansOffensive line depth should be a positive for Rutgers coach Kyle Flood in 2012.
"I don't know that Greg was looking for me," Flood recalled recently. "I had no relationship with him or anybody on that staff . It was a situation where I did everything I could to see if I could get my resume on his desk. The one on the top of the pile must have fallen off the desk, and he called me."

Flood had recruited the area for years, so he had long-standing relationships with high school coaches in the area. Could that have helped? "I may have had one or two or 300 people call him on my behalf," Flood joked.

Now here we are, seven short years later, and Flood is the new face of the Rutgers program. That doggedness should not be lost on anybody who is wondering how the Scarlet Knights will fare now that the chief architect of the Rutgers revival is off to Tampa Bay.

Flood has been preparing for this job since he arrived, believing that one day his opportunity would come. It just so happened that day arrived in January amid a pressing need to get a hire in place to save a recruiting class and steady the ship. Flood sold athletic director Tim Pernetti the same way he sold Schiano all those years ago.

He was the right man for the job. The only man for the job. He had the recruiting ties, the Northeast roots. His parents still live in the same home he grew up in, and his father has already been a fixture during spring practice. His mother is a huge football fan, and checks the Internet and message boards daily to track what everybody is saying about Rutgers and Flood.

There is no question he wanted this job, and wanted it badly. But the big question is how do you prepare for your first head coaching job when you have spent your entire career as an assistant?

"Bill Walsh said, 'You’re never ready for your first head coaching job," Flood said. "Well if Bill Walsh felt like that -- he is one of the great football minds of all time -- certainly if I have a moment of angst, I’m not the only head football coach to have one. What I go to bed every night feeling good about is, we have good people in this program. The assistant coaches I’ve been able to bring here are good family men, they’re good football coaches. On defense, we have three assistants who have been coordinators, two on the Division I level. On offense, three of the coaches have been Division I BCS offensive coordinators. We have the football minds here.

"If you trust the people you hire, that allows you to feel really good when you come to the office. You have to hire people who can do their job."

In that way, Flood and Schiano may be different. Flood has delegated much more to his assistants, particularly at practice. He does not yell the way Schiano did. But if there are going to be difference between them, there are not going to be many. Particularly when you consider the two worked together for so long.

Flood took diligent notes as he watched Schiano. He has got file folders filled with those notes, referring to them nearly every day.

"I tried to stay very close to Greg," Flood said. "I would ask him questions in private a lot of times: 'Hey, tell me why you did this or tell me where you think this is going,' and I got some great feedback. I just kept files and notes on things. Everything from the organization to spring practice and training camp to here’s what you need to talk to these players about."

He did the same at stops in Delaware and Hofstra, giving him plenty of information to work with as he continues to settle in to the job. From a player perspective, there has not been much of a transition. The offensive, defensive and special teams schemes have remained the same.

"The biggest thing we appreciate is he didn't change," quarterback Gary Nova said. "He's been the same guy. We really love him, and we're looking forward to him taking us to where we want to go."

Developing those relationships with players is one of the biggest reasons Flood got into coaching. Right out of college, his dream job was to be a high school teacher. So he did that, teaching algebra and algebra II at his old high school. He eventually took a part-time coaching job at C.W. Post on Long Island, juggling his teaching responsibilities during the day before heading to practice in the afternoon.

"As a young person, you get curious," he said. "I was 26, and I wondered, 'Can I do this? Can I advance in this profession?'"

He had an opportunity to take a job as an assistant at Hofstra. Now here he is, all those years later.

Flood advanced in this profession all right. All the way to the top.

NCAA decides to change kickoff rules

February, 27, 2012
If Greg Schiano had stuck around at Rutgers, no doubt he would be applauding the latest NCAA rule change to kickoffs -- even though it doesn't go as far as his own proposal.

The NCAA playing rules oversight panel approved a significant change to kickoffs last week -- they will move from the 30 to the 35 yard-line in an attempt to keep players safer. In addition, a touchback on a kickoff means the ball will be placed on the 25 yard-line, instead of the 20. In addition, players on the kicking team will only be allowed a running start of 5 yards.

The desired result is for more touchbacks. The reason? It is believed that kickoffs cause the most injuries throughout the course of a game. Last summer, Schiano proposed eliminating kickoffs all together after watching one of his own players, Eric LeGrand, suffer a serious neck injury on a kickoff during a game against Army in 2010. LeGrand is paralyzed from the waist down.

At the time, Schiano made headlines when he first told Steve Politi of the Newark Star-Ledger that he felt all kickoffs should be replaced with a punting situation. “I don’t think we’d lose that much,” Schiano said, “and we’d gain a bunch for the welfare of the players.”

The NFL moved its kickoffs up to the 35 yard-line for the 2011 season in an effort to lessen injuries. Schiano told Politi, "I think we’re wrong in college football. We should at the least do what the NFL is doing -- at the least. For us not to follow the league with the most research on anything? I don’t think we’re being as responsible as we should be. They wanted the fan excitement. But at what cost?"

After Schiano made his comments, Georgia coach Mark Richt stated that he, too, would be in favor of eliminating kickoffs. Richt also saw one of his players break his neck on a kickoff in 2003.

That idea proved to be radical for many. But if these rule changes work as intended, kickoffs might very well go the way of leather helmets and $5 tickets.