Unwavering in his commitment, Savage stands by Rutgers
Quarterback Tom Savage (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) committed to Rutgers last May
He remains loyal to Greg Schiano and the Scarlet Knights despite a 1-3 start
Coaches from other colleges continue to send mail and contact the QB
SPRINGFIELD, Pa. -- On the first day of hunting season in December 2002, Tom Savage, all of 12, lifted his 7mm-08 Remington rifle, aimed it at an 8-Point Buck, and pulled the trigger. "He won our biggest buck contest," Savage's father, Tom, says of his son's hunting debut. "The head still hangs over the bar in our log cabin."
Six years removed from the kill in East Fork, Pa., Savage, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior who plays quarterback at Cardinal O'Hara, is unloading on defenses with his weapon of choice: his right arm. "Whether it was throwing rocks or footballs at the deck chairs on the lawn," his father, a construction worker, says, "the cannon was always there."
That's why coaches from elite Division I-A colleges have trekked to O'Hara the last two years as they pursued Savage. By day and night, they called, snail-mailed and e-mailed to gauge his interest. LSU, Miami, Florida, Michigan, Georgia and others offered scholarships. Receptive to their courtships, Savage repaid a few visits. Prior to his junior year, he flew south with family to Athens, Ga. Though personable, the flirtations of southern belles and Bulldogs fans chanting his name rang hollow to Savage. On his visit to Coral Gables, he blew away coaches with his 32-inch vertical jump, but a hurricane dampened his stay at the University of Miami. It was in Piscataway, N.J., just 60 miles north of his hometown that he felt at home. Soon after giving Rutgers coach Greg Schiano his verbal commitment last May, Savage purchased a black flag with a scarlet 'R' sewn into it. From the southeast corner of the family's red-brick house, the flag whips in the wind as a signal to recruiters that the hunt is over. "It kind of marks the territory," says Savage, who will play in January's U.S. Army All-American game.
That Savage chose Rutgers lifted eyebrows. Here was the underclassman MVP of Florida's Friday Night Lights and most outstanding performer from last January's U.S. Army All-American combine in San Antonio, committing to a yet-unproven program. Drawn to the momentum the school had gained under Schiano with its look-at-us Thursday night win over third-ranked Louisville in 2006, Savage envisioned himself in the same spotlight. "I watched that game to see Brian Brohm," Savage says. "By the end, I thought Rutgers was not a bad little school."
In the big picture, Schiano's staff targeted Savage as Mike Teel's replacement. When other schools sent one coach to watch Savage, Rutgers assigned two; when rivals upped to double teaming, Rutgers sent four. Last October, Savage attended the South Florida game at Rutgers and visited with Schiano for 15 minutes in his office beforehand. Once in the stands, Savage followed a graduate assistant who seated him near the 50-yard line. Before the Scarlet Knights pulled off the upset of the second-ranked Bulls, there was Schiano, marrying his eyes to Savage's and winking at him. "He's good with the little things," Savage says. "He's not promising anything either."
Tom's older brother Bryan witnessed how promises can be broken. A BCS conference recruit, he committed to Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin five years ago. As Savage's father tells it, Alvarez, who was pulling double duty as athletic director and football coach in 2003, shook his hand and kissed his wife, Linda, on the cheek, and said he would not be leaving the sidelines for the athletic director's office. By 2005, Alvarez left football for the A.D.'s office full-time. Soon after, Savage transferred out of Madison, fading to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas before playing at Hofstra last season. "I have no regrets," says Bryan, a Hofstra senior who saw his college career come to an end last month with a Level 3 herniated disc in his back. "I told Tom to go with his heart."
Adds the younger brother, "I've learned a lot just watching what Bryan went through."
The family has not blinked since choosing Rutgers. A newspaper report saying that the coach's contract contains a clause allowing him to leave without financial penalty if the stadium expansion, which will add 14,000 seats, is not finished by the 2009 season, does not faze them. (Rutgers A.D. Robert Mulcahy has since denied the deal exists.) They are similarly unaffected by suggestions that Schiano, who spent seven seasons in Happy Valley as a graduate assistant and assistant coach, would consider the Penn State job if and when Joe Paterno retires. Savage's father, who hunts with six Penn State season ticket holders, dismisses such talk as speculative. Having turned down the Miami and Michigan head coaching positions in successive winters, Schiano has collected his best class of commitments to date. "I'm going there based on what this recruiting class can do" says Gerald Hodges, a four-star safety from Paulsboro, N.J., who committed to Rutgers last summer. "Nothing else concerns us."
The recruiting gains have not masked the on-field losses, though. Last month, during another Thursday night game, Schiano's team was routed by unranked North Carolina, 44-12, dropping their record to 10-9 since the 2006 Louisville win. Already uneasy following a season-opening home loss to Fresno State, fans booed the middling Scarlet Knights before halftime and departed early in the third quarter. Savage, who attended the opener, says he's unfazed by the jeers. Last spring, he played golf for the first time with his grandfather at the Avalon Golf Club in Cape May Court House, N.J. After hitting a shot onto another fairway, Savage, devoid of Rutgers gear, alerted the players on the hole that he was coming through. As he approached his ball, one told the 18-year-old that he "better not throw the ball at Rutgers the way he hit that one."
Less than 24 hours after the boos cascaded down from all over Rutgers Stadium during the North Carolina debacle, Schiano drove south through stormy weather to Savage's game at The Haverford (Pa.) School. On a night when Savage did little throwing, Schiano stood by a fence in the end zone wearing a scarlet-red rain coat. Only a few fans away from the coach, Savage's father understood the coach's reticence as the NCAA bars coaches from talking with recruits or their parents at games. "I wanted to say hang in there," the senior Savage says. "I'm sure he heard that a bunch already, too."
Unwavering in their commitment, the Savages say Schiano, whose team is 1-3 going into Saturday's game at West Virginia, need not worry. Though a Tennessee assistant congratulated the quarterback on his commitment, he also gave him his card and told him to keep the Volunteers in mind if anything happens. Likewise, Hodges, who committed to Rutgers over Tennessee and Penn State, says coaches from both schools still contact him. "I guess they have to maintain relationships," the younger Savage says.
Still blowing in the autumn wind outside the Savage house, the Rutgers 'R' is prominent on their leafy suburban street. Over the side entrance is a blue, white and yellow flag for Hofstra. The Wisconsin one is long gone. For some recruiters, the black flag means hunting season is prematurely over. For others, even the committed players are fair game, especially this time of year when the colors start to change. "I'm committed to the program," Savage says. "Not a stadium plan or a coach."