State of Rutgers extends to Florida
Expanding recruiting efforts in Florida helped turn around the Rutgers program
Rutgers has put up billboards in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties
In addition to Florida, Rutgers is finally getting some of the top players in N.J.
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- Traveling northbound on Interstate 95 past mile marker 20, a driver can turn his head to the right and see high rises towering over sun-soaked beaches. If he turns his head to the left, he'll see a billboard advertising the football program at New Jersey's flagship state university. It's no accident. Hollywood, a suburb sandwiched between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, sits near the southern tip of the State of Rutgers.
The State of Rutgers is a topographer's nightmare and a football coach's dream. According to Scarlet Knights recruiting coordinator Joe Susan, it comprises anywhere within about three hours' driving distance (without traffic) of the school's New Brunswick, N.J., campus (New Jersey, the city of New York, Long Island, eastern New York, Massachusetts, eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and the Washington D.C. metro area) and Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties in Florida.
Unlike other staffs, who will scour the nation for talent if they can't draw enough players close to home, Rutgers coaches rarely stray from that geographic footprint. Recruiting those areas almost exclusively, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano and his staff have secured the players who turned a program that didn't break .500 in any season between 1993 and 2004 into one that has gone 34-17 the past four seasons and won three-consecutive bowl games.
Susan, who arrived with Schiano prior to the 2001 season, said the staff's first goal was to lock down talent-rich New Jersey. For years, schools such as Boston College, Notre Dame and Syracuse had raided the Garden State. Coaches from even farther flung schools also came in and found a fertile recruiting ground west of the Hudson River.
"For the longest time in Jersey, it was easy pickings for everybody that came in," Susan said. "We changed the atmosphere. But until we get them all, we haven't changed it enough."
That may take a while. A look at Rivals.com's top 30 for the state in the class of 2009 shows plenty of players committed to Notre Dame and Penn State. Still, Schiano built the program to this point using mostly local players. The staff found quarterback Mike Teel in 2004 at Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey. They found receiver Tiquan Underwood at Notre Dame in Lawrenceville. They found cornerback Joe Porter in 2003 at Frankin High in Somerset. Schiano and company also crossed nearby state lines, plucking fullback Brian Leonard from Governeur, N.Y., in 2002 and tailback Ray Rice from New Rochelle, N.Y., in 2005.
Then, to supplement those players, Rutgers coaches returned to Schiano's old stomping grounds in the nation's most talent-rich state. SI's study of recruiting data from 2004-08 showed that Florida produced not only the most BCS-conference signees (981), but also the most per capita. Few parts of Florida produce more players than Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Schiano patrolled that area as Miami's defensive coordinator from 1999-2000, and the term "State of Rutgers" is a nod to the State of Miami, the phrase former Hurricanes coach Howard Schnellenberger coined to describe the three south Florida counties that provided the 'Canes with most of the players who built a dynasty that lasted almost 20 years.
To tap the area, Rutgers bought billboards. The school also bought time on statewide television channel Sun Sports for Schiano's coach's show. The staff hosted camps in south Florida until the NCAA banned the practice. Two years ago, Schiano asked for time to address reporters at the Florida Sportswriters' Association Media Days, an event featuring the head coach of every Florida-based college football program. That request was denied, but the saturation has helped the Scarlet Knights in the Sunshine State.
Current Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Eric Foster came to Rutgers as a lightly recruited linebacker from Homestead, Fla., in 2003 and grew into an All-America. Though Foster was more than 1,200 miles from home, he didn't have to look far for someone with a similar background. His recruiting class included five other players from Dade County. Susan said the early south Floridians who succeeded at Rutgers have helped keep the pipeline moving. "They have a positive experience," Susan said, "and they become your best recruiters."
One such ace recruiter is sophomore linebacker Antonio Lowery from Christopher Columbus High in Miami. Lowery helped recruit 335-pound younger brother Antwan, who committed to Rutgers in spite of interest from plenty of what Susan calls "nationally sexy" programs. The younger Lowery said he felt comfortable at Rutgers, in part because of the presence of so many fellow Floridians.
The class Rutgers expects to sign next month features players from every corner of the State of Rutgers. There's Lowery from Miami, defensive back Logan Ryan from Voorhees, N.J., tailback De'Antwan Williams from Woodbridge, Va., and quarterback Tom Savage from Springfield, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb. Neither Rand nor McNally would be thrilled, but Schiano will be.