SI Vault
Ray Kennedy
September 12, 1977
What used to be one of the outstanding garbage dumps of our time has become a gold mine of a sports center—and more nuggets are on the way. The man who pulled it off is Sonny Werblin
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September 12, 1977

Miracle In The Meadows

What used to be one of the outstanding garbage dumps of our time has become a gold mine of a sports center—and more nuggets are on the way. The man who pulled it off is Sonny Werblin

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The result, says Werblin, is that "the whole state has an inferiority complex. North of Trenton the people look to New York, south of there they look to Philadelphia. They've always felt they have nothing of their own to look to."

Though it is more populous than 43 other states and has the nation's sixth-highest per capita income, New Jersey is an orphan in almost every sense. It never had a major league team. It has no true statewide newspaper. And it is one of only two states ( Delaware is the other) that do not have a commercial TV station.

Says Werblin, " New Jersey is supposed to be a place where mobsters and corrupt politicians live, where you can't get things done without payoffs and strikes. But that's not true now, if it ever was." Even so, Werblin is not ready to discount the underworld adage about the swamp: "You kill 'em in New York and bury 'em in Jersey." "I don't know how true that is," he says, "but I'll tell you, we were a little careful of where we were digging."

The problems Werblin faced in attempting to marshal all the forces necessary to build a sports empire in New Jersey are perhaps best summed up by Ralph Dungan, former chancellor of the state's Department of Higher Education. "No one runs New Jersey," says Dungan. "No one even thinks about it very much. There is no continuing political or social mechanism to coalesce people. There is a lack of unity, a lack of principle. People only camp here. In terms of moral theology, New Jersey has no soul."

But now it has the Meadowlands, throbbing away, and Werblin, for one, feels a strong pulse. New Jersey lives, he says. "Ask anyone and they'll tell you, the Meadowlands is the best thing that's ever happened to this state. It's given East Rutherford more datelines than Washington, D.C. It projects New Jersey as a doer state." Former Governor Cahill, now practicing law in Princeton, N.J., says, "The Meadowlands announces the entrance of New Jersey into the big leagues. It has given the state pride, an identity and, I hope, a winning football team."

That will take more than civic cheer-leading. Meanwhile, the New York press was having a little fun pointing out that, given the deficiencies of the Giants' offense, there are more bodies buried under the new field than on top. Which is a bit more tasteful than the halftime routine performed by the Columbia band during a game with Rutgers in Giants Stadium last season. Playing a funereal air, the band formed an arrow pointing at the 50-yard line and spelled out HOFFA?

Not so coincidentally, Rutgers' emergence as a sports power in the past few years has become another source of state pride. Long burdened with a sub- Ivy League complex and the fact that most people are unaware that Rutgers is more properly titled the State University of New Jersey, the school's athletic program took a sharp turn for the better after a trustee delivered a persuasive speech to the university board. Pointing out that at other large state universities the flow of money from the legislatures as well as alumni rose and fell in direct relationship to the performance of the football and basketball teams, the trustee strongly urged that the Scarlet Knights "go big time."

The board agreed and adopted a resolution to that effect in 1971. Five short years later, after the selfsame trustee helped persuade future All-America Phil Sellers to forsake Notre Dame for Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights' basketball team raced through a 31-2 season, finished fourth in the NCAA playoffs and earned Tom Young Coach of the Year honors. For the current fiscal year the state legislature, notoriously stingy to the university in the past, has boosted Rutgers' funding from $82 million to $89 million and alumni contributions jumped 20%.

The name of the persuasive trustee, of course, is Sonny Werblin. He recalls, "When I went to a Nebraska-Kansas game with Johnny Carson a few years ago, I was surprised to find that there were 23 New Jersey kids on the rosters. Then I discovered that Arizona State couldn't even field a team without New Jersey. So we decided to do something to keep our kids home." During the past five years the proportion of New Jersey athletes at Rutgers has increased from 48% to 78% and the football team's record had gone from 4-7 to a sterling 18-0, the longest major-college winning streak extant. With Scarlet fever mounting, Rutgers dropped Columbia from its schedule in favor of a big-time opening game against Penn State at Giants Stadium.

Earlier, playing the familiar role of double agent, Werblin had called an old business partner, Bear Bryant, and said, "How'd you like to play Rutgers?" Werblin, who is involved in selling a line of checkered hats made famous by the Alabama coach, likes to recount Bryant's reaction in a drawl that is pure South Broadway: "And Bear said to me, 'Sorry, I'm done booked up till 1987.' Then I told him that we could fill 76,500 seats at an average of $12 a ticket. And Bear said, 'Whoa, I just done found two open dates.' " Coming up: Rutgers vs. Alabama at Giants Stadium in 1980.

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