Rutgers University acquired its vaguely Ivy League-sounding name in 1825, changing its original name of Queen's College in anticipation of a large bequest from Col. Henry Rutgers, a wealthy former trustee and prominent Revolutionary War veteran. The joke was on the school five years later, when the colonel left his namesake institution a bell and $5,000. � That figure is some $2.3 million less than the university's football program lost last year, and both numbers bespeak the unfortunate way things often turn out for the state university of New Jersey. The Colonel's bequest was the first example of what is known on the New Brunswick campus as the RU Screw: the university—or, more typically, its students—getting shafted thanks to administrators' gullibility, ineptitude or greed. Nowadays, in fact, the one point of agreement among many academic purists and football-starved fans at Rutgers is that the Scarlet Knights' dismal gridiron program could be described as an industrial-sized RU Screw.
Even for a program whose worst months generally are September through November, this off-season was not kind to Rutgers football. In June, Miami and Virginia Tech announced that they will defect to the ACC in 2004, eviscerating the Big East as a football conference and potentially costing the remaining members millions in future shared bowl revenues. Rutgers joined other Big East schools in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Miami and the ACC, as a diaphanous veil of boola-boola slipped to reveal naked moola-moola.
That same month, facing sanctions from the NCAA, Rutgers put itself on athletic probation for two years and stripped itself of 20 scholarships in 10 sports, including four in football, after discovering that between 1997 and 2001, 40 Scarlet Knights athletes in 15 sports had been ineligible or improperly certified. There was no intent to violate NCAA regulations—just rank incompetence by the athletic administration then in place. When asked at a press conference if the university had bent the rules to gain a competitive advantage, Robert Mulcahy, who took over as AD in 1998, replied, "If you saw our record, you wouldn't ask that question."
The record is pathetic. Rutgers's program has gone from college football's first—the Scarlet Knights beat Princeton 6-4 on Nov. 6, 1869, in the sport's inaugural game—to arguably its worst. Consider:
? Rutgers has suffered 19 losses by 40 points or more in the last seven seasons. Those defeats include the expected pummelings by Miami and Notre Dame, but one came against Temple and four against West Virginia, including an 80-7 defeat in 2001.
?The Scarlet Knights have won nine Big East games in the past decade, none since 1999. Their last winning season was 1992.
? Rutgers was 1-11 last year, losing its first two home games to Division I-AA Villanova and I-A newcomer Buffalo by a combined 41 points. "I was with some friends, and the score rolled across the screen and they said, 'You lost to Buffalo,' " says Deron Cherry, Rutgers '81, a six-time NFL Pro Bowl defensive back with the Chiefs who now owns a car dealership and a Budweiser distributorship in Kansas City. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding.' " The Scarlet Knights would go on to finish last in the nation in both total and scoring offense. In two seasons as coach Greg Schiano has three wins, at the expense of Buffalo, Navy and Army.
The program's struggles have riven the university. On one side is a small but vocal group of faculty, students and alumni unhappy not over the team's losses but over the school's fixation with playing big-time, quasi-professional college football. On the other side is a larger group, led by Mulcahy, Schiano and first-year university president Richard L. McCormick (formerly president of the University of Washington), who believe that a state university with 28,000 undergrads ought to be playing in Division I-A and that the program can return to glory.
There were, in fact, some glorious years. In 1976 the Scarlet Knights finished 11-0. Two years later they went 9-3 and made the lone postseason appearance in school history, losing 34-18 to Arizona State in the Garden State Bowl. But soon thereafter—eager to become what then university president Edward J. Bloustein called "bigger time, not big time"—Rutgers began shedding traditional Ivy League opponents like Princeton and Cornell and sprinkling its schedule with a Michigan State here, a Tennessee there.
The program soon fell into decline. "The institution never made a commitment [back then]," says Ron Giaconia, a member of the school's board of governors and chairman of the athletic committee. "You don't go big-time by waving a magic wand and saying this is what you want to be. There was no [top-level football] infrastructure in place until the last few years."