This week I wanted to add a post about college football recruiting. I wanted to do it because my undergraduate alma mater, Rutgers University, has made the sports news pages for the wrong reasons. These incidents will be devastating for a college football program that had shown promise and gained respect during its first season as a member of the Big Ten.
Educated Quest readers from New Jersey might also be following the escapades of the Rutgers football team since the week before the season started. Since then seven players have been either suspended or dismissed from the team while two former players have been arrested as well.
The majority of these crimes relate to “home invasions,” planned thefts in houses surrounding campus. The more serious are the alleged allegations that Leonte Carroo, the team’s best wide receiver, and probably its best player, slammed a woman to concrete ground following a loss to Washington State.
The head coach, Kyle Flood, has been suspended for three games for violating school policies regarding the interactions between the football coach and a professor that involved a player’s grade in a class. Flood, who began his working life as a high school math teacher, also helped the player with grammatical suggestions on a paper. While that in itself was not a cause for alarm it adds to the list of incidents that left me concerned about a football team that I have supported by purchasing season tickets for the past decade.
I have heard Kyle Flood speak many times and listened to him on television as well. I had found him to be a model of civility and quite approachable, considering the stature that a head football coach holds at a Big Ten university, whether the team is a traditional conference power or not. Flood’s predecessor, Greg Schiano, is credited with rebuilding the program over the 12 years that he was head coach. Flood, while not the athletic department’s first choice to replace Schiano, had been the offensive line coach as well as assistant head coach of the team.
Fans looked at Flood’s hiring with optimism and skepticism. Flood is well-liked among high school coaches. He had been a successful recruiter for Schiano’s teams. He also coached two offensive linemen, Jeremy Zuttah and Anthony Davis, who were drafted high by NFL teams. Those who were optimistic about Flood’s hiring saw a continuation of Schiano’s successes. From watching practices and games, I’d say that was true, good and bad. Schiano’s teams were noted for aggressive play as well as inconsistency. Both traits continued under Flood.
On the good side, Schiano embraced the concept of the team as family and required his players to become engaged in community service. That also continued under Flood. So did the team’s strong Academic Performance Rating, at one time the best for a state university.
The skeptics, however, noted Flood’s inexperience as a head coach. That came out in many games over the past four years, the most recent being last week’s loss to Washington State.
I do not see Kyle Flood continuing as head football coach at Rutgers after this season, unless this team pulls out a winning record, including the games that he will not be coaching. Coaches are paid not only to win football games, but also to keep their players focused on academics in some way. In many cases Rutgers recruited football players who earned their degrees and went on to good careers after football. One, Brian Leonard, won the NCAA’s Draddy Award, also known in college football as the “Academic Heisman.” While Leonard, later a second-round draft choice and eight-year NFL veteran, did not have the pro career that many at Rutgers had hoped, he is admired among the Rutgers fan base. But Brian Leonard has not carried a football for Rutgers in nine years. It was up to Flood and the current players to carry on from his example. From the recent media coverage it would be easy to believe that too many have not.
If Flood is fired as coach, his staff dismissed, and players he recruited leave, the Rutgers football program will be set back several years. The goodwill that Schiano, then later Flood, had brought to the program will be gone. A new coach and staff will start from ground zero to build a team in their philosophy.
These recent incidents led me to think a great deal about college football recruiting. How will Rutgers compete in the Big Ten to get the players it needs to win, and will not be a burden, let alone a major embarrassment, to the university? Will the opportunity to play in the Big Ten be enough for the best high school players in the region that Schiano and Flood called the “State of Rutgers” be enough to attract them? My hunch: probably not. Illinois and Purdue have competed in the Big Ten since its inception in 1896. Neither has won the Rose Bowl, historically the major game for the conference, since 1966.
I’ve never advised a football player at this level though counselors who work with athletes tell them to choose a school for fit, not just the football team. This is good advice, though it presumes that the football player is as serious about academics as he is about playing football. But there is more football to the decision. A player has to be comfortable with the coaching staff, the play-calling and his future teammates. Then there is the opportunity to play for a national championship as well as the opportunity to go pro.
Curious I did a little digging. I wanted to know which program(s) have produced the most players on NFL rosters as well as the most of all time. The answer to the first question: the University of Southern California, aka USC (unless you live in South Carolina). The answer to the second: Notre Dame, though USC is next.
Rutgers? Not bad. There are 20 former Scarlet Knights in the NFL today. Before Schiano became the head coach there was only one, Shaun O’ Hara, who earned a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants. In terms of producing NFL-ready college football players, Schiano made tremendous progress. Of the players on his 2006 team that went 11-2, I am aware of 29 who got at least a tryout in the NFL. Seven are still active, including Devin McCourty, one of only three players selected to the Pro Bowl as a safety and a cornerback. The other two? Rod Woodson and Ronnie Lott. If Devin gets to play in a third Super Bowl, he might join those men in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But if Kyle Flood is fired, the history is history. It will be called the Schiano Era. The next era will begin.
If I had a football player and his parents sitting across from me. I would first ask the question: Do you believe that you can make it to the NFL? If the player says “yes”, without hesitation, I would ask if any of the leading programs I listed had contacted him and offered a scholarship. It is not uncommon for college football programs to make offers following a student’s junior season; even freshmen have received offers.
If his answer was ‘no,’ then I would ask if their opponents, including Rutgers, had.
If the answer to that question is ‘yes’, then our discussion would be about fit and academics. But I would also want to know about the coaching situation. If the coach is new, is there a high level of confidence and optimism? If not, and the team has gone through losing seasons, will the coach be around for the whole time that the player is in school?
Unless academics took a high priority–one school clearly offers better opportunities than the others–I would tell the player to avoid a losing program. Losing carries frustrations, which can be taken off the field, and losing coaches can lose their jobs. Winning programs have more stable coaching situations. Successful players view their coaches as father figures. Kyle Flood was viewed that way, at least when players spoke of him to the media. I have to believe, from seeing him take the field arm-in-arm with his players for the first two games, that he is still viewed that way. But the Scarlet Knights who will be leading the charge next season have every reason to wonder if he will be around. So do the freshmen Knights who would be on campus starting this summer.
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