Can A Football Coach Reboot His Team and a Campus Culture?
When I was a junior in high school I regularly watched college football. I liked the pace of the game and the atmosphere around it. Two players from our high school team went on to play at the University of Michigan, one of my target schools at the time. I rooted for Michigan until I started graduate school at Big Ten rival Illinois. While I got a fine education at Illinois, I also experienced what it was like to go to a school that was a Big Ten champion.
I’m sure that Bo Schembechler, Michigan’s head football coach, was treated like a god on campus. Even though he never won a national championship, Bo was just as revered than his peers who did. I’ve read three books by John U. Bacon about Michigan football, and each talks about Bo. Bacon also co-authored a book with Bo, but I have not read it yet. Go to Amazon and you’ll many other books written by or about Bo Schembechler. I have to imagine that life was good at Michigan when Bo won, and the campus went in mourning when he lost. That happened more than Michigan fans would likely admit. Even though he won or shared 13 Big Ten titles, Bo won only five of the 12 bowl games he coached.
Illinois had a different culture around a winning team. The community backed the Illini during my last semester of grad school. So did the students, and the stadium was full during a Rose Bowl season. But Mike White, the head football coach at the time, was nowhere near as visible as Bo. During my last semester on campus I walked on the field after Illinois beat Michigan in our house. I thought that I would never see a win like that again. But I don’t remember long lines to buy tickets before the season, or the head coach thanking the fans for their support. Football made the football fans happy for a 10-2 season. But the Fighting Illini lost every bowl game that White coached. They have not won the Rose Bowl since 1964, and have not played in the game since 2008. Illinois has played in 18 bowl games since 1946, winning eight, the last win coming in 2011.
I have been back on the Illinois campus several times since I finished my masters degree. While I’m sure that Illinois’ students would like to see their football team succeed, it does not have the hold over them that it does over their peers at Michigan. Ask a serious Michigan fan who has followed their team for a long time, and I’m sure that a conversation will not go without some mention of Bo.
Illini are happy to see their team succeed, even if success means a 6-6 regular season capped by a win in a minor bowl game. Wolverine fans expect no less than a Big Ten title after a win over Ohio State. That has not happened since 2011. But the Michigan community will sell out the Big House for every home game, hoping for better things. Illinois’ attendance plummets when they have a losing team. Bo coached at Michigan from 1969 through 1989 while Illinois hired and fired five head football coaches, including Gary Moeller, one of Bo’s top assistants at Michigan. The Fighting Illini beat Bo only once, and tied him once. Two of his top assistants, Lloyd Carr and Moeller, carried on his legacy and continued to win for another 18 years. Jim Harbaugh, the current head football coach, was Bo’s starting quarterback for three seasons.
Winning drives support for the team, but so does the coach, if he gets out into the community and sticks around for a while. Bo stuck around for 21 years. He was the athletic director at the end of his coaching career, and shortly after, then he became the President of the Detroit Tigers. Bo’s name was tied to many charitable causes, including cardiovascular research. Michigan’s athletic offices are named for him. Visit Illinois and you’ll find nothing named for anyone who has coached football since 1941. The field at Memorial Stadium is named for Bob Zuppke, who won or shared seven Big Ten championships and claimed four National Championships over 29 years. But his last great season, when he won both, came in 1927. That’s a record to be quite proud of. But thousands more remember and revere Bo Schembechler.
Yesterday, Rutgers, my undergraduate alma mater, announced that Greg Schiano would be returning as head football coach. He coached the Scarlet Knights during some of their most successful seasons from 2001 through 2011. In 2006, his best season, they went 11-2 and were ranked as high as seventh in the nation. They started 9-0 then came from behind to beat third-ranked Louisville with a field goal in the closing seconds. More than 1,000 students set up tents in a makeshift “Schianoville’ to get tickets the night before the game. Coach Schiano showed up and handed out pizza pies. More than 5,000 students showed up when the ticket office opened the next morning. Temporary stands were set up behind the South end zone to let more students into the game.If you had been at that game you would believe that the Rutgers community was excited to back a winner.
But aside from the 11-2 season, when Rutgers could have actually gone 12-1, the other winning seasons went like this: Win one game you’re expected to lose; lose one game you’re expected to win, and every other game happens as expected. That’s a recipe for going 7-5 or 8-4 instead of 11-1 every season. But Rutgers fans were happy. Schiano’s teams also won five of six bowl games, and played Arizona State tough in the one they lost. Rutgers averaged over 41,000 fans per home game during the 11-2 season. Attendance got better and better, reaching a peak of nearly 51,000 per game in the first Big Ten season. It dropped to 39,000 in 2018 after a 1-11 season.
Its fair to state that Schiano’s successes helped Rutgers gain admission to the Big Ten. His impact on the team went beyond his tenure. Kyle Flood, his successor, had been the associate head coach. He went 23-16 over the next three seasons with Schiano’s last recruits, before going 4-8 at the end. Chris Ash, Flood’s successor, could not win with Flood’s recruits or his own. Five games into his fourth season, he was fired. Now, its up to Schiano to reboot the program a second time and bring the fans back into the games.
Greg Schiano was no Bo Schembechler as a coach while he coached at Rutgers. He won at that level only once. But Schiano had similar support from former players and important donors as he was coming to terms on a contract to bring him back. A YouTube went up quickly to celebrate his return.
To his credit Schiano was candid with the fans whenever I heard him speak at The Touchdown Club or alumni events. Schiano’s players graduated, which is quite important to the Rutgers community. Schiano’s Academic Progress Rate (APR) broke 990 during his best seasons from 2005 through 2008, reaching 997 in 2006, according to the NCAA. A 1000 score was perfect, rarely reached by a D-1 football team. Two of his former assistants, Mario Christobal (Oregon) and PJ Fleck (Minnesota), became successful head coaches at the D-1 level. Most important to a football prospect, Schiano prepared many Rutgers players to play in the NFL.
I don’t think of Rutgers in the same breath as Michigan when it comes to sports and a campus culture. Rutgers has neither the traditions nor the wins over decades of major conference play. It has a winning tradition in women’s basketball over 43 years. But the sport does not draw anywhere close to a football team, even a lousy one.
Greg Schiano is the closest thing that Rutgers has to Bo Schembechler in its football history. He even turned down the opportunity to coach at Michigan and work in Bo’s building while Rutgers was winning. The Rutgers community that loves football wants Greg Schiano to reach Bo’s level as a coach and a man. He might get there within the next eight years. Time will tell.