Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 1, 2019

Can The Second Act Be As Good As The First?

It has been nearly eight decades since Thomas Wolfe warned us from beyond the grave that “you can’t go home again.” The 1940 novel, published posthumously as was much of the Wolfe canon, took its title from a conversation he had with another writer, who was probably mindful of Wolfe’s ability as an author of autobiographical fiction. The long years since his death in 1938 have seen Wolfe’s reputation wax and wane, and while many later authors have cited him as an influence, Wolfe is often missing from the syllabi of college courses on great American literature. If that is true at the State University of New Jersey, it would help explain the decision to bring back Greg Schiano, the head coach from 2001 to 2011, for another turn at the helm of Rutgers football. That was the news first reported by Yahoo Sports on Sunday, with a formal vote by the university’s board of governors on an 8-year, $32 million contract scheduled for Tuesday.

It’s easy to understand why Schiano’s initial tenure is remembered fondly by Rutgers’ administrators and fans of its football program. The school that had hosted the very first intercollegiate football game in 1869, a 6-4 win over Princeton, had seen just two winning seasons in seventeen years when Schiano arrived for his first head coach’s job. It took him some time to break that streak, recruiting being a slow process. But once he did, starting in 2005, Schiano led his squad to winning campaigns and bowl appearances in six of his final seven seasons. Along the way he greatly increased the stature of a football program that had been little more than an afterthought in the Big East, itself hardly a power conference when it came to football.

That in turn gave Rutgers some options when the Big East restructured and became a basketball-only conference shortly after Schiano moved on to a disastrous and short-lived stay at the NFL level as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Along with the University of Maryland, Rutgers joined the Big 10 in 2014 as part of the broad conference restructuring sweeping though college football at the time. The two schools were enticed by the hefty payouts from the Big 10’s television contract and multiple major bowl appearances, while the conference saw dollar signs in gaining a foothold in the New York and Washington media markets.

On the field however, the Scarlet Knights soon learned the difference between being the proverbial big fish in the tiny Big East pond, and swimming with the sharks. Rutgers managed to hold its own in 2014, winning three conference games and finishing with an overall winning record thanks to a soft nonconference schedule. But in the five seasons combined since the Scarlet Knights have bettered that conference win total by exactly one, posting a 4-41 mark against Big 10 opponents while two official head coaches and one interim placeholder in the position have all come and gone.

But while school athletic director Pat Hobbs teased the Schiano hiring on Sunday with a statement that “the next great chapter for Rutgers Football is about to begin,” the task is monumental and there’s no guarantee that Schiano is up to the challenge. There is doubtless some recruiting cachet in being a member of one of college football’s premier conferences, but the real allure for a promising high school player is the reputation of the specific program, a lesson already learned the hard way by Kyle Flood, Chris Ash, and Nunzio Campanile – Schiano’s successors on the sideline at SHI Stadium in Piscataway.

Also, the focus on the successful second half of his first stay at Rutgers conveniently ignores Schiano’s overall coaching record. Counting his entire record with the Scarlet Knights including bowl appearances, and his two lost seasons in Tampa Bay, Schiano’s record as a head coach is a middling 84-89. He also hasn’t been a head coach at either the college or professional level since being dismissed by the Buccaneers in December 2013. Schiano’s resume since then includes two seasons coaching a high school team and three as an assistant at Ohio State.

He’s also seen two jobs vanish, fairly or unfairly. Three decades ago, Schiano began his career as the defensive backs coach at Penn State. There he was a protégé of Jerry Sandusky, who is now serving 30 to 60 years for rampant sexual abuse of young boys. What Schiano knew and when he knew it has been the subject of debate, which was enough for the University of Tennessee to withdraw its 2017 head coaching offer in the face of fierce vocal opposition and for Schiano to decide on his own to resign as the New England Patriots defensive coordinator earlier this year, before his hiring was even officially announced.

The issue is likely to be raised again in the coming days, though the guess here is that the happy memories of Schiano’s first stay in Piscataway will mute any local criticism. Come next fall, Greg Schiano should be on the sideline when the Scarlet Knights begin a new football season, and perhaps in time the grand prediction of athletic director Hobbs will prove prescient. But both Rutgers and college football have moved on from the last time Schiano was a head coach. Somehow it seems more likely that the end of this story will be the restoration of Thomas Wolfe to the required reading list at Rutgers.

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