When Khaseem Greene was growing up in the northern New Jersey city of Elizabeth, the local FBS program wasn’t exactly at the forefront of peoples’ minds, and understandably so. Rutgers was a non-factor, both in the Big East Conference and the local sports scene. In the early 2000s, the Scarlet Knights were simply put, awful.
From 1995-2004, the Knights endured 10 straight losing seasons, and Greene knew all about it.
“I had two cousins who played for Rutgers back in those days,” said Greene, a standout linebacker for this year’s Rutgers squad, which will face Virginia Tech on Dec. 28 in Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando.
“They used to come to our middle school and hand out tickets and stuff like that. It’s taken a big-time leap to where it is now.”
Undoubtedly. Virginia Tech and Rutgers shared the same conference home from 1992-2004, before Tech left for the ACC. Rutgers will spend one more season in the disintegrating conference before leaving for the Big Ten.
Most Tech fans will remember the Scarlet Knights as a benign punching bag, a respite on the schedule. The Hokies won 11 straight against the Knights after losing the first matchup between the teams as Big East rivals. The last nine victories were by no fewer than 16 points, and some came with embarrassing margins, like the back-to-back years where Tech won 49-0 and 50-0.
The lack of success made it difficult for the local talent in Jersey to take the Scarlet Knights seriously.
“I’m not gonna lie, when I was younger, Rutgers, we really didn’t talk about it much,” said quarterback Gary Nova, who is from Elmwood Park and played at Don Bosco Prep, one of the nation’s top high-school programs. “Obviously, we talked schools like Miami, those big schools that were successful at that time.”
What Rutgers needed was a Jersey guy to come in and reclaim the Garden State from the FBS programs that raided it for talent on a continual basis. Virginia Tech, Penn State, Ohio State, Maryland, Syracuse … they all plucked the best Jersey talent out from underneath Rutgers’ noses. When Greg Schiano left his job as Miami’s defensive coordinator in 2000 to return home to try to resurrect the moribund Rutgers program, he made sure to sell Rutgers as New Jersey’s state program, his goal simple:
Keep the best in-state talent close to home.
Schiano grew up in Wyckoff in northern New Jersey and played college ball at Bucknell in Pennsylvania.
The rebuild wasn’t easy. Schiano’s predecessor, Terry Shea, won 12 games in five seasons before being relieved, and Schiano went 2-9 and 1-11 in his first two years. But as the roster began to fill with in-state talent, the Knights’ fortunes changed. In 2003, Rutgers went 5-7. In 2005, the Knights went 7-5 to break the 10-year string of losing seasons. The next year, riding legs of running back Ray Rice — not a Jersey kid, but a player from nearby New Rochelle, N.Y., in the New York City metro area — Rutgers won 11 games and beat Kansas State in the Texas Bowl to begin a five-game bowl winning streak.
Schiano left after last season to take over as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but longtime assistant Kyle Flood took over, trying to maintain the tradition Schiano had built. Rutgers won its first seven games this season, including a road victory against SEC member Arkansas, and was quietly sneaking up the national polls until a stunning loss to Kent State at home. Still, the Scarlet Knights had an opportunity to reach a BCS bowl game for the first time, hosting Louisville in the season’s final week.
A three-point loss ended those dreams, but Rutgers still earned a share of the Big East title, another program first that was unimaginable when the Knights were a conference laughing stock in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“We’ve been able to do some things that have never been done here before,” Greene said. “It’s just all a credit to the guys who came before us, the players who wore the uniforms before us, the coaches who coached the team before us. Everybody played a role in getting this program to where it is now and ultimately where it’s going to be in the future.”
Fifty New Jersey players dot the Rutgers roster this season, and it’s clear that the Knights have been a preferred option for Garden State players who want to stay close to home. And it’s not just role players. Greene is the two-time Big East defensive player of the year and a sure-fire pick in next April’s NFL Draft. Nova has a chance to be a three-year starter at quarterback.
None of it would have happened if it wasn’t for a Jersey guy coming in and reclaiming Rutgers’ recruiting territory.
“It’s very special being a Jersey guy and doing something that’s never been done at this school, winning a Big East championship,” Nova said. “I think coach Flood did a great job stepping in for coach Schiano and kind of being his own guy. Not trying to change everything, pretty much putting the team in the hands of the seniors and letting them lead us throughout the season. I think he did a great job hiring a great staff that really cares about us. So it was really a good year. Obviously we didn’t finish the way we wanted to, but it was a great year.”
Follow Virginia Tech beat writer Chris Lang on Twitter: @ChrisLangLNA