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Stuck in a winning rut


Old Queens was built in 1809, the oldest building on the campus of the nation's eighth-oldest college, Rutgers. In the cupola atop Old Queens hangs a bell that tolls only on rare occasions. Last March, when the Rutgers basketball team completed an undefeated season, the bell rang 26 times, once for each victory. On Thanksgiving night it rang again when the Rutgers football team capped its perfect season, 11-0, with a hard-fought 17-9 win over Colgate, which came into the game with a gaudy record of its own (8-1). In the process the Scarlet Knights extended the nation's longest major-college winning streak to 18.

And so Rutgers winds up undefeated, untied and, to its sorrow, uninvited to any of the established bowls. (The team voted to reject overtures from the Independence Bowl in Baton Rouge, La., where its opponent would have been McNeese State.) How good are the Scarlet Knights? The team's detractors point to the undemanding schedule, which included four Division II opponents, but Rutgers beat Louisville 34-0, while Pitt defeated the Cardinals 27-6 and Alabama beat them 24-3. Nonetheless, it seems a shame that the Tangerine Bowl, for instance, did not choose to pair Rutgers with Oklahoma State. That's what bowl games are supposed to be all about, presenting intriguing matchups. Could Rutgers compete with a good Big Eight team? We'll never know.

Lack of recognition is a popular refrain these days on the Rutgers football team. Unfortunately, the problem starts close to home. Football has never generated much excitement on campus. Attendance at games in Rutgers Stadium (capacity 23,000) in this best of all years averaged about 15,000, and fewer than 5,000 of those were students. "Basketball is still No. 1 around here," says John Alexander, Rutgers' All-America defensive tackle. "I see friends on the campus and they ask me, 'Did you win this weekend?' "

That question is becoming rhetorical. The Scarlet Knights' success does not result from fortuitous bounces but from a determined, long-range effort to upgrade the football program. That effort got its impetus from Dr. Edward J. Bloustein, who became Rutgers' 17th president in 1971. Previous administrations had viewed success on playing fields as a corollary of academic decline. In fact, when Rutgers went undefeated in 1961 the administration turned its nose up at the suggestion of a bowl bid. Bloustein charted a new course.

Rutgers had always awarded most of its athletic scholarships solely on the basis of financial need, but the new administration gave the green light to full grants-in-aid. Bloustein appointed a new athletic director, Fred Gruninger; a new basketball coach, Tom Young; and a new football coach, Frank Burns. Together, they made a tour of the state to promote the little-known fact that Rutgers is The State University of New Jersey. In their opinion, Rutgers had an identity crisis that crippled recruiting.

Curiously, that crisis derives from the bell in Old Queens. Its donor was a Colonel Henry Rutgers, and because of his gift—and a modest sum of money—the university renamed itself, from Queen's College, in his honor in 1825. For a long time the school didn't hasten to remind anybody that it was also the state university. "A lot of people here didn't seem to enjoy that association," admits a school official.

The result of this attitude was disastrous. While Ohio boys were growing up with dreams of playing for Woody Hayes and the Ohio State Buckeyes, no one ever heard of a New Jersey athlete aspiring to Rutgers. New Jersey had been a fertile recruiting ground—but for out-of-state schools. Not so many years ago Rutgers could have recruited Franco Harris, Ed Marinaro and Lydell Mitchell to run with the ball, Joe Theismann to throw it and Drew Pearson to catch it—without going more than 50 miles from the New Brunswick campus. Clearly the school was not promoting itself effectively in its own backyard.

In the attempt to portray itself as the Ohio State of the East, Rutgers University has become Rutgers—The State University of New Jersey. The school's logo—the helmeted, plumed head of a knight—has been enhanced by superimposing it on the outline of the state. The schedule has been upgraded. In 1979, for instance, The State University of New Jersey hopes to open with Penn State. This new approach has borne fruit. Twenty of the 22 starters on this year's team are New Jersey products. "It was much easier for us to recruit a New Jersey kid this year than last," says Burns, "and it was easier last year than the year before. The whole state is more receptive to us now. We are building state pride."

The brightest stars in the galaxy of New Jerseyites are the two senior defensive linemen, Nate Toran and Alexander. They led a defense that paralyzed opponents for three consecutive years. In 1974 Rutgers ranked eighth in the nation in defense and recorded two shutouts. Last year the Knights had two more shutouts while ranking fourth. This year they topped the nation in defense, allowed fewer than eight points a game and shut out four opponents.

To spite a high school counselor, Toran majors in biology. "She said I didn't have the background and enough knowledge to take on biology," he says. "She didn't say I ought to major in basket weaving, but she implied it. That hurt my pride." He is pleased to point out that he will graduate with his class this spring, but admits that he can't get too mad at the counselor. "She knew me pretty well then," he says. "In high school I was really only interested in having fun, messing around with the ladies and playing football."

Toran is far more outgoing than his friend and former roommate, Alexander, and consequently has received more attention in the press. Nevertheless, Burns insists, "Nate's definitely a bona fide All-America, not a press-clip wonder. He's the most enthusiastic player I have ever come in contact with." Alexander doesn't begrudge Toran the extra coverage. "I'm getting enough publicity that the pro scouts are looking at me," he says quietly, "and that's what counts." At 6'2" and 250 pounds, Alexander is a quarter of an inch taller, 25 pounds heavier and a step faster than Toran, and the pro scouts are indeed giving him a longer look.

Offensively the Scarlet Knights were less awesome. Last year they lost their starting quarterback, Bert Kosup, for the season with a torn shoulder muscle. Rutgers stumbled through its first four games, including losses to Princeton and Lehigh. Then Burns, who was known as "Flinging Frank" when he quarterbacked the Scarlet Knights in the '40s, turned the job over to sophomore Jeff Rebholz, who led the team to wins in its last seven games. In the process Rutgers set a school record for total yardage.

This season Rebholz and Kosup battled evenly for the quarterback job until the week before the first game. On the eve of Rutgers' opener, Rebholz suffered a fractured cheekbone, not on the playing field but on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, N.J., where he was mugged by three youths. He was sidelined for the Scarlet Knights' first three games. Kosup took full advantage. He denied Rebholz a second chance through the simple expedient of establishing his own winning streak, which now, of course, stands at 11.

The Scarlet Knights' biggest concern this year was whether they could replace All-East Fullback Curt Edwards, who averaged 105 yards a game last season. Rutgers was unimpressive offensively in its opening two games. Then Burns inserted a 175-pound sophomore, Glen Kehler, a backup at one of the halfback spots, at fullback. Kehler responded with three straight 100-yard games and Rutgers started clamoring for national attention. It finally came when the Scarlet Knights were ranked in both major polls. Next year they may get a bowl, too.